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Good guys wear black
Just do it, baby
By Mike Puma
Special to ESPN.com
"It's praising myself, but I've done more than anyone else by all the things I've done. Yeah, I've lived my dream, but I thought I would live my dream. But you've got to go get it. You've got to fight for it, and you've got to dominate," says Al Davis on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Al Davis, the Raiders controversial owner who has three Super Bowl rings and has antagonized his fellow NFL owners with lawsuits, will be profiled on Wednesday, October 19 at 4 p.m. ET.
Al Davis wasn't the first colorful owner in professional sports, but he's one of the few who became the personification of his franchise. Al Davis is the Oakland Raiders and the Oakland Raiders are Al Davis.
The Raiders' bully image of the 1970s and 1980s are attributed directly to Davis, who has often said he'd rather be feared than respected. Slogans such as "Just Win, Baby," "Pride and Poise," and "Commitment to Excellence" are Raider/Davis trademarks. "Don't be afraid of failure," said Davis, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992. "Don't worry about mistakes. Just win."
And the Raiders have: They have won three Super Bowls and 15 division titles in Davis' managerial reign, which began in 1966 after he had coached the team for three seasons (23-16-3) in the American Football League.
"I don't think the idea is to be totally human," Davis said. "I don't want to look like the other owners. It's establishment. I've always been closer to the players."
Davis' team hasn't always been called the Oakland Raiders. After suing the NFL for attempting to block the franchise's relocation, the maverick owner moved the Raiders to Los Angeles for 13 years. That set a precedent for the Colts, Cardinals and Rams to do their own relocating. In 1995, Davis moved his team back to Oakland.
Although he became successful on the business side of football, Davis didn't lose touch with game strategy and talent evaluation. He has boasted that he can watch somebody for 10 seconds and tell if he's a player.
"If horse racing were Al's business, he would love those yearling auctions where they walk each horse out for everybody to see them," former Raiders coach John Madden wrote in his autobiography. "Al would pick more stakes winners than anybody else. Al might even find a way to talk to the horse."
The younger of Louis and Rose Davis' two sons, Al was born on July 4, 1929, in Brockton, Mass. The family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where Al's father became a prosperous clothing manufacturer. Both parents were strict disciplinarians. "If you came home from a game and had lost or played badly, there was just no room for it," older brother Jerry said. "Second place was nowhere."
At Erasmus Hall High School, Davis was a reserve on the basketball team. After one semester at Wittenberg College in Ohio, he transferred to Syracuse, where he waited on tables in the cafeteria. In athletics, he was cut from the varsity football team and ended up playing jayvee football and basketball.
Davis became a regular at Syracuse's varsity football practices, taking notes on every detail until the head coach discovered him and ordered him removed.
After graduating with a degree in English in 1950, Davis sought a football coaching position at Adelphi College in New York. Told by the head coach that there wasn't an opening, Davis took his case to the school president and emerged with an assistant's job. He parlayed that into the head-coaching job at Ft. Belvoir, Va., while serving in the Army. Davis then spent a year as a scout for the Baltimore Colts before returning to college football, as an assistant at The Citadel and then Southern California. In 1960, the Los Angeles Chargers hired him to work under offensive mastermind Sid Gillman as an offensive ends coach.
"Al thinks he's the smartest guy in football," Gillman said. "He isn't. But he is going to be."
Hired as head coach and general manager of the three-year-old Oakland Raiders in 1963, he took a team that had finished 1-13 the previous year to the second-best record in the eight-team AFL at 10-4. It was the biggest one-year turnaround in pro football history and the Associated Press named him Coach of the Year. After going 5-7-2 in 1964, the Raiders rebounded to 8-5-1 the next season.
In April 1966, Davis signed a four-year contract to become AFL commissioner. He moved swiftly to force a merger with the established NFL by reaching contract agreements with many of the league's starting quarterbacks.
Davis returned to the Raiders later that year as general managing partner after buying 10 percent of the team for $18,500. In the 1967 season, the Raiders won the AFL championship before falling to the Green Bay Packers 33-14 in Super Bowl II.
One of Davis' first big moves came after the following season, when he hired 32-year-old Madden as his head coach. Davis became the organization's czar in 1975 after winning a court battle with co-owner Wayne Valley, who had challenged a contract Davis had signed with another co-owner that ceded Davis total authority.
In the 1976 campaign, the Raiders won their seventh division title in eight years, capping their 13-1 regular season with a 32-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. In 1979, Madden retired and Davis hired Tom Flores as his replacement.
Davis had family issues on his mind later that year, when his wife, Carol, suffered a heart attack and sunk into a coma. Although she was given little chance of surviving, Davis stayed for weeks by her bedside. Carol recovered.
Davis failed in his efforts to get luxury suites added to Oakland-Alameda Coliseum in 1980 and, despite 12 straight seasons of sellouts, announced plans to move the team to Los Angeles. This started a chain of litigation: Oakland sued Davis, who in turn sued the NFL for blocking the move.
On the field, the Raiders went 11-5 behind quarterback Jim Plunkett and made the playoffs as a wild-card team. They beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 in Super Bowl XV, with Davis receiving the trophy from his foe in court, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
After one more season in Oakland, Davis won his court case, which included $35 million in damages (he settled for $18 million), and moved the team to Los Angeles. The Raiders wasted little time bringing a championship to Southern California, beating the Washington Redskins 38-9 in Super Bowl XVIII in 1984.
Davis further alienated his colleagues two years later by testifying on behalf of the USFL in that league's antitrust suit against the NFL. His testimony didn't help; the league folded.
In 1987, Davis helped create a national phenomenon when he used a seventh-round draft choice to select running back Bo Jackson, who had spurned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the year before after they made him the first choice in the draft. At the time, Jackson was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals. Davis persuaded Jackson to play for the Raiders by allowing him to continue in baseball.
Flores' nine-year reign ended with a 5-10 season in 1987 and Davis named Mike Shanahan head coach. Ever the control freak, Davis allowed Shanahan to select only three of his 12 assistants. Shanahan lasted 20 games before Davis replaced him with Art Shell, who broke a head-coaching color barrier that had existed in the NFL since the 1920s.
Upset with the lack of progress in proposed renovations to the LA Coliseum, Davis began negotiating for a return to Oakland in 1990, but eventually signed a four-year lease extension to remain in Los Angeles.
In 1995, Davis brought the Raiders back to northern California after receiving assurances improvements would be made to Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. He gained the approval of NFL owners by one vote, avoiding another court case.
But the team that returned hardly reminded fans of the perennial championship contender that left. The Raiders had five straight non-winning seasons before winning three consecutive AFC West titles from 2000-2002.
Now into his fifth decade with the Raiders, Davis remains as active as ever in running the team. "It's tunnel vision, a tunnel life," he said. "I'm not really a part of society."
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