Al Davis leaves a massive legacyAl Davis leaves a massive legacy
By Steve Corkran, Contra Costa Times October 9, 2011
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis gestures during a news conference in this February 4, 2009 file photo.
Photograph by: Files, Reuters
Whether those watching loved him or hated him, Raiders owner Al Davis was always must-see TV. There was no gray area in the emotions that he evoked, especially with those whose lives he touched.
"When you hear Al Davis’ name mentioned, people want to take sides," former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw said. "Right or wrong, good or bad, if you look at the history of the league and you look at how the league has changed, when you look at who the personalities that are involved in that change, you’re going to find Al Davis."
Few have ever been as reviled and revered as Davis, who died Saturday at age 82. But the polarizing Davis kept his gaze on the football field.
"I don’t know what my legacy is," Davis once said. "That’s not for me to say. You’ll have to ask others about that. I care more about winning than my legacy."
Davis leaves a massive legacy. Which explains the outpouring of praise and recognition from coaches, general managers and players in the days and months before his death.
Davis entered pro football in 1960 with the then-Los Angeles Chargers of the old American Football League. He joined the Raiders in 1963 and served as a coach and then managing general partner until his passing, except for a brief stint as AFL commissioner.
Davis was many things to many people, but he never wavered in his belief that he was only a small part of something much bigger.
Former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese recently recalled one of his first NFL meetings, when Davis made a lasting impact on him.
"Al got up three or four times during the meeting, and I was impressed because the first thing out of his mouth always was, ’Keep in mind, gentlemen, this is the finest sport in the history of sports and it is our duty to keep it that way. Football takes precedence over everything.’"
"The whole time, it was like, ’Here we are, caretakers of this entity and make sure we don’t do anything to mess it up.’ "He is very strong in his belief and how he thinks things should get done, and it is hard to argue with success."
Davis is credited with playing a key role in forcing a merger between the upstart AFL and the established NFL in 1966, when he served as AFL commissioner.
"I guess they (AFL owners) thought I’d be a catalyst," Davis once said. "It was a situation that called for some constant pressure to be put on the other side."
Davis holds the distinction of being the first to draft an African-American quarterback (Eldridge Dickey), the second to hire a Latino coach (Tom Flores), the first to hire an African-American head coach in the modern era (Art Shell), and the first from one of the four major professional sports to hire a woman as a chief executive (Amy Trask).
"The Raiders have never been interested in a man’s color, only his ability," Davis said.
Former Raiders safety George Atkinson, who spent most of his adult life around Davis, as a player, commentator and consultant, thinks Davis’ lasting influence will be his legacy.
"He’s kept that same underlying foundation and respect from the owners that they go to him for advice," Atkinson said. "His legacy will be that he helped form the NFL by forging a merger with the old AFL, which caused this whole thing to become a billion-dollar industry. He’s responsible for that."
Former Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett, who led the team to two Super Bowl victories after his career was revived by Davis in the 1980s, called Davis "one of the top football people who ever lived."
Plunkett added: "He was involved in all aspects of the game, a scout, an assistant coach, a head coach, commissioner of the old AFL, then managing general partner of the Raiders eventually, and he produced some fantastic teams over the years.
"I know we’ve struggled, the Raiders have struggled, the last eight years or so, but before that, every time he stepped on the field against the Raiders you knew you were in a battle."
Davis helped broker the previous labor deal between the owners and the players union in 2006.
Davis didn’t shy away from taking credit for the power he wielded, but that wasn’t a driving force in his grand scheme. He treated such things as his duty, people say, his obligation to the game that had given him so much over the years.
Davis was even influential in the realm of early sports marketing, as several of his catchphrases became part of the sporting lexicon — "Just Win, Baby!," "Commitment to Excellence" and "Pride and Poise." Under Davis, the Raiders became a popular global brand.
He routinely signed players that other teams wouldn’t touch, and he wasn’t afraid to buck convention, as evidenced by his selection of punter Ray Guy and kicker Sebastian Janikowski in the first round of the draft.
"(Former NFL coach) Sid Gillman once said about me when I was working for him in San Diego: ’He thinks he’s the smartest guy in the world; he isn’t, but he will be,’" Davis said. "I thought I was."
In time, everyone was interested in what Davis had to say, regardless if they agreed or not. It wasn’t uncommon for Davis to go off on a tangent about war, politics or the state of the country.
He enjoyed the give and take, as well as the opportunity to display his breadth of knowledge.
"He was fascinating to listen to," former Raiders safety Albert Lewis said. "I didn’t always agree with what he said, but you enjoyed hearing his stories and appreciated where he was coming from because of his rich sense of history."
Few owners presided over more victories than Davis. His teams won more than 400 games, won three Super Bowl titles and captivated fans around the world with the Raiders’ take-no-prisoners style of play and eye-catching silver-and-black uniforms.
’Hall of Famer’
Onetime Raiders senior assistant Bruce Allen learned the nuances of the game from his father, the late George Allen. He honed his skills at the foot of Davis during a tenure that ended after the 2002 season.
Allen is adept at talking around a subject. Yet, he doesn’t mince words when it comes to Davis.
"Dramatic. He’s a Hall of Famer, and an elite Hall of Famer. He’ll be remembered for his commitment to the game," Allen said. "He’s done so much; it’s about five or six decades worth of work, so you can’t just look at a few snapshots. His win-loss record is phenomenal, and he’s in the Hall of Fame."
Former Packers and Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren grew up in the West Coast offense made famous by former 49ers coach and general manager Bill Walsh ≠ — a system that flies in the face of Davis’ beloved vertical attack. But that didn’t prevent Holmgren from gleaning all he could from Davis.
"We have had talks," Holmgren said, "and I’ve taken some things to heart. It’s made me a better coach. ... As a young head coach, he always had time for me. I’ve got a lot of respect for him."
Davis’ time as a towering figure in the NFL has made football a better game, too, Holmgren said.
"If you ask anybody, he’s had a tremendous influence on the game," Holmgren said. "He was part of the merger of the leagues. He was one of the people that helped (Edward) DeBartolo to buy the 49ers, and that was his rival across the bay. He is a brilliant football man, and that’s acknowledged."
Opposing players and teams despised the Raiders. Those who worked for Davis soon learned about the value of loyalty. Once a Raider, always a Raider, Davis believed.
So it was that Davis routinely paid the medical bills for former players, without seeking any publicity. He gave jobs to former players who remained loyal to the organization and needed a break. He even paid for the funeral of Kansas City Chiefs rival Derrick Thomas.
"He gave his whole life to football," former Raiders coach John Madden said. "Not only to the Raiders but to the NFL. He did a lot of things for people and for players and for coaches. The good that he does is going to really come up some day."
Sparred with Rozelle
Not everyone fell under Davis’ good graces. He had a long-running feud with former star running back Marcus Allen, sparred with former commissioner Pete Rozelle and often accused the league of having it in for the Raiders.
Davis engaged in numerous lawsuits during his lengthy run, including ones against the NFL, the small Los Angeles suburb of Irwindale and the city of Oakland.
Through it all, sworn enemies such as longtime NFL coach Mike Shanahan are quick to admit that Davis had a profound effect upon them.
"Well, there is always a respect level," said Shanahan, who was fired by Davis four games into the 1989 season. "Al gave me an opportunity, even though it didn’t work out. I have learned a lot from him. There is a respect level for what he has accomplished and done."
In the end, Davis clung to the philosophies he learned under the likes of Gillman decades earlier. As a result, critics accused Davis of letting the game pass him by. Such criticism never bothered Davis.
"My idea is to win," Davis said. "Very few organizations have a tradition and an identity that the Raiders have. "¶ Image is not always substance, but the history of man is that a return to time-woven traditions and methods of doing things is best for the community in the long run. Usually, what worked will work."
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