By Gordon Forbes, USA TODAY
Longtime Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis has died at the age of 82, according to the team. The Hall of Famer died at his home in Oakland, the team said. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed. The self-described "maverick" was one of the NFL's most enigmatic personalities. As an owner, he feuded with commissioners, coaches, and cities on his way to three Super Bowl titles. Those who grew close to him often referred to him as 'Coach Davis' — a tribute to his stint as head coach in the early years of the franchise and to his wealth of football expertise.
The Hall of Famer died at his home in Oakland, the team said. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed. The self-described "maverick" was one of the NFL's most enigmatic personalities. As an owner, he feuded with commissioners, coaches, and cities on his way to three Super Bowl titles. Those who grew close to him often referred to him as 'Coach Davis' — a tribute to his stint as head coach in the early years of the franchise and to his wealth of football expertise. Aside from the three championships, Davis' biggest victory came in 1982 when a six-person jury sided with the Oakland Raiders in their antitrust suit against the NFL. The verdict, upheld when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, allowed the Raiders to move to Los Angeles without approval by the NFL owners.
Away from the courts, Davis coached, talked, dreamed and lived the game of football. At various points in his life, he was a freelance scout; a college coach at 21; head coach of the Raiders at 33; commissioner of the American Football League at 36; and Raiders' majority owner at 47.
"He was a football guy," said former Raiders defensive back George Atkinson. "He was an innovator. Look at his rise in the world of football. That alone will tell you how entrenched he was in the sport. He did everything in football from the bottom all the way to the top."
When the merger talk between the two warring leagues began in the spring of 1966, Davis found himself on the outside. The negotiators for the historic deal were Tex Schramm of Dallas and Lamar Hunt of Kansas City, who met in a series of secret meetings at Love Field, a Dallas airport.
Yet, Davis played a significant role during his 3½-month term as the AFL's renegade commissioner. Davis replaced Joe Foss and began hustling NFL quarterbacks, putting pressure on the established NFL. At a press conference in New York to announce his new job, Davis added the words "dynamic" and "young genius" to the press release. Later, Davis would suggest that three NFL teams move to the AFL side. Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore took Davis' advice (and $3 million each), breaking an impasse.
"Al Davis' passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Saturday. "He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level. The respect he commanded was evident in the way that people listened carefully every time he spoke. He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the NFL."
The only aspect of his life that Davis placed above football was his marriage. When Carol, his wife, suffered a heart attack and fell into a coma in 1979, Davis virtually abandoned the Raiders to remain near his wife in an Oakland hospital. Davis slept in a storage room, never leaving the hospital until Carol made an amazing recovery.
"Just Win, Baby." That was Davis's personal motto. Its origin is unknown but it's unlikely that Davis coined the phrase, since he rarely used the word, "baby," in his speech. Yet, Davis never discouraged the slogan. Indeed, he and the Oakland Raiders lived by it, on the field and in the courts.
Davis and the Raiders were unlike any other team in pro football. Davis was not only the owner, but the general manager and, unofficially, the head of the team's personnel department. No Raider practice was quite complete unless Davis, prowling the sideline, made a few coaching points about execution or timing.
"He loved being around the players," said James Lofton, former Raiders wide receiver and NFL Hall of Famer. "The highlight of the day for him was when he came out to watch practice. He always stood up for his players. And his players always rallied around him."
And Davis knew exactly what kind of players he wanted. He cherished a strong-armed quarterback, defenders with the speed to play man-to-man defense, and wide receivers with the ability to stretch the field. The Raiders stayed true to Davis' football philosophy throughout his tenure with the team, consistently drafting the fastest college prospects.
During the Raiders' big years, from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, Davis kept signing players who were considered troublemakers, or marginal talent, by
other clubs. Thus Davis and the Raiders developed a mystique that remained until the mid-90s. That was when the NFL owners agreed to a free agency/salary cap system that took away Davis' method of finding and signing outlaw players.
One of Davis' pickups, quarterback Jim Plunkett, led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins in four years. Among the other castoffs who gave the Raiders the distinct look of a free-agent team before free agency arrived in 1993: John Matuszak, Lyle Alzado, Ted Hendricks, Todd Christensen, Darryl Lamonica and Ben Davidson.
"It's a sad day for us," Lamonica said. "When you think of Al Davis, that commitment to excellence was him. The pride and poise was more than just words. That was our way of life for the Raiders as we played under him."
In 1969, Davis made linebackers coach John Madden the youngest head coach in football at the age of 32. Over the next 10 seasons, Madden went on to become one of the winningest coaches in league history. Madden owns the best regular-season winning percentage among coaches with 100 wins, going 112-39-7 from 1969-1978. He earned the franchise's first Vince Lombardi Trophy, winning Super Bowl XI following the 1976 season. Madden would go on to the Hall of Fame with Davis as his presenter.
When reached by USA TODAY, Madden was emotionally devastated and said it was too hard at this time to give his reflection on the passing of a legendary mentor he has the utmost regard for.
"Not right now," Madden said, pausing. "I'm not ready for that."
Madden would retire in 1978 and Davis hired former Raiders quarterback Tom Flores to succeed him. Flores, the first hispanic head coach in the NFL, went on to win Super Bowl XV following the 1980 season. A year later, Davis took the Raiders to Los Angeles following a lengthy court battle.
"It is ludicrous to think that the NFL is a single entity when in reality we are 28 different entities who compete viciously in every conceivable way,"
said Davis after his victory in the courts. "We won because the NFL knowingly violated anti-trust laws, losing unanimously on bad faith and unfair dealings."
Over the years the Raiders went to court against the league more than a half-dozen times. Before the Raiders' move to the glitter of Los Angeles became official, the Raiders and the Los Angeles Coliseum sued the league, claiming its constitution was illegal. Specifically, the Raiders challenged the
rule that a team needed the approval of the 28 owners before it could move. The case went to two trials. The first was declared a mistrial. The testimony covered 88 days. The final verdict, which took only 5½ hours to come down, thrilled Davis and attorney Joe Alioto but angered Oakland fans. Although Davis sued the league, his victory was seen as a personal triumph over Commissioner Pete Rozelle, with whom he often feuded.
"I never really respected him, really," Davis once said of Rozelle. "I've seen him flirt with the truth too often. But that's not important. I beat him, or we beat im, when it came to good faith and fair dealing. The Raiders opened their first season in the aging Coliseum in 1982. But 13 years later, after disappointing ticket sales and a heated disagreement with the Coliseum over luxury boxes, Davis moved the Raiders back to Oakland. The Rams moved, too, signing a sweetheart deal with St. Louis that left the sprawling Los Angeles market without pro football. Davis' moves opened the gates for what was termed "franchise free agency." The owners were helpless to block the Baltimore Colts from moving to Indianapolis; the Houston Oilers from moving to Nashville, Tenn., and the Cleveland Browns from moving to Baltimore.After their victory in Super Bowl XVIII (a 38-9
drubbing of the Washington Redskins) the Raiders went 18 years before finally making it to Super Bowl XXXVII. They were routed by Tampa Bay, 48-21. The defeat was especially painful for Davis, who lost to Jon Gruden, the coach he fired the year before. Over those 18 years, the Raiders failed to make the playoffs 10 times; lost two AFC titles games (to Buffalo, 51-3 and Baltimore, 16-3), and were knockedout of the postseason in the first round three times.
The next decade would see the franchise shuffle through a number of head coaches, none of whom could muster a winning season. In 2006, Davis re-hired
former Raider great Art Shell, whom Davis promoted in 1989 as the first black head coach in the NFL's modern era. "The important thing for this guy is to have great success on the football field as a head coach," said Davis. "… If this is an storic occasion, it's only meaningful if he has great success."
Shell would resign after a 2-14 finish. Ten years earlier, Davis made Amy Trask the first female CEO in the NFL.
"If anyone would make a bold move, it's Davis," said Shell's former Raiders teammate, the late Gene Upshaw, former head of the NFL Players Association. Over the next four seasons Davis' teams finished with losing records until an 8-8 season in 2010, Tom Cable's second full season as head coach after replacing Lane Kiffin, whom Davis fired in the midst of a very public dispute. At the center of the spectacle was Davis' decision to draft JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, who is known as one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history.
"It's always easy to go back and be critical of draft (choices)," said Lofton. "He never made any excuses. He would bite the bullet."
Davis would fire Cable next, promoting Hue Jackson to head coach. Jackson, who is 2-2 in his first season as coach, referred to the owner as "Coach Davis" in his final days.As the Raiders declined, so did Davis' health. He suffered what he vaguely termed as "a leg injury" That forced him to use a walker and to miss some of the significant testing sessions for prospects in the NFL draft and over the last few years, several games.