Natalie Saar: Remembering Al Davis, The Visionary

“Just Win Baby” These are the iconic words of Mr. Al Davis that will forever be immortalized in NFL, and sporting history. While people in their 20’s and 30’s only remember Davis for the rocky seasons the Raiders have had and his refusal to completely give over his title of “coach,” there was a lot more to the man behind the chained spectacles and satin track suits. He is the reason the pirate and shield logo have become such a sign of bucking authority and doing what is best for the team.

Davis was born in Massachusetts, but attended school in Brooklyn, NY, which gave him the indistinguishable drawl we all know. At the age of 24, after graduating from Syracuse University, he was named assistant coach of the Baltimore Colts, making him one of the youngest asst. coaches in NFL history. In 1960, Davis left the Colts and became the head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the AFL. He then left that franchise to become general manager and part owner of the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders started as a 9-23 team, but once Davis took over, they flourished to 23-16-3.

The AFL operated in direct competition with the NFL. Davis was the coach of the first Chargers team and made a splash with their start-up league. That year, the AFL teams were able to sign nearly half of the NFL’s draft choices. There was an unwritten rule that neither league would go after each other’s established players but the NFL drew first blood by signing Pete Gogolak who was placekicker for Buffalo. After that, Davis vigorously pursued NFL players like John Brodie and Roman Gabriel. In 1966, Davis was named AFL commissioner, but still retained ownership of the Oakland Raiders. This began the merging of the two leagues.

The NFL and AFL shared a draft and began playing “Super Bowls” in 1966. By 1970 the leagues had fully merged. During this time, Davis helped established the league as we know it today, and gave the players a voice in collective bargaining. He helped his team win Super Bowls in 1976, 1980 and 1983 under his mantra of “Commitment to Excellence.”

While his legacy was tainted with legal spats between him and the cities of Los Angeles, Oakland and the NFL, as he moved his franchise around, he was a visionary who helped blaze trails. He hired the first black coach in the NFL in 1988, Art Shell. Tom Flores had a great career as a quarterback for the Raiders, but when Davis hired him as assistant coach under John Madden, he helped the team win the 1976 Super Bowl. After John Madden left the team, Flores was made the first Latino head coach in the NFL and brought the Raiders their next two Super Bowl rings. Davis also made Amy Trask the CEO of his organization, and the first woman in the league to hold this position. This was a man who was truly colorblind as long as you were the right person for the job.

Davis, in 1992, at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony

Legendary coaches like John Madden, Mike Shanahan, and Jon Gruden can all thank Al Davis for giving them their start in the NFL. Some argue it is because he wanted to mold them, but others say it was because he liked their style, and possibly because they reminded him of a “young Al.”

Davis was also a man who gave players second chances when no one else would. Take former QB, Jim Plunkett. He was let go by several teams due to injuries, but Al took a chance on him and he was eventually awarded Super Bowl MVP. Plunkett  said of Davis, “He unlocked the best in me.” Lyle Alzado, Ted Hendricks, John Matuszak, Rich Gannon, Warren Sapp, and current budding star Jarvis Moss areamong some of the others Davis brought onto his renegade Raiders team.

After spending years drafting to create a team of “Al Davis guys,” the biggest, fastest and strongest, he’s finally done it. Darren McFadden leads the league in rushing yards this season and the Raiders front four are some of the most feared in the league. Players, coaches and fans around the league mourn the loss of a man who shaped the face of the NFL we have today.

A story from Bill Romanowski says it best:

When we lost the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I would see him in the off season and I’d put my arm around him, walking down the hall, and he didn’t like to be touched. I’d say, “How ya doin’ today Mr. Davis?” He said, “How do you think I’m doing? We lost the Super Bowl.” Guess what, I would see him the next week and I’d walk up to him, I’d say “How ya doin’ Mr. Davis?” He’d say, “How do you think I’m doing? We lost the Super Bowl.” And I’d see him the next week, “How do you think I’m doing? We lost the Super Bowl.” And that’s how maniacal he was about winning.

Al Davis is succeeded by his wife Carol and his son Mark.