ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Tom Flores laughed an uneasy laugh after he was named a first-time finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame a few weeks ago.
Sure, he was ecstatic and honored to be so close to that elusive gold jacket and bronze bust reserved for the game's immortals. But the former Raiders coach was also cautious.
"I'm in the room," Flores said with joy from his Palm Desert home, before his tone turned serious. "We'll see what they think of me in the room."
Yes, it's called getting "in the room," a sequestered place in the host Super Bowl city (Atlanta this year) where the 48-person Hall selection committee meets for as long as nine-plus hours on the day before the Super Bowl to discuss the merits of the finalists and elects a class. The body has already whittled the list from 103 modern era nominees to 25 semifinalist candidates to the 15 modern era finalists by mail vote.
Only five of the 15 finalists can be selected. It takes an 80 percent "yes" vote to get down to 10, and then a simple "yes-or-no" vote reduces it to the class of five. Flores is one of two finalist coaches, along with the late Don Coryell, and it is hard to see the board electing them both.
What about this for a five-man class of modern era figures -- Flores and Coryell with first-year candidates in tight end Tony Gonzalez, safety Ed Reed and cornerback Champ Bailey to go with senior committee finalist Johnny Robinson and contributor finalists Pat Bowlen and Gil Brandt?
Who would argue with that? Who could? Because surely the likes of receiver Isaac Bruce, offensive tackle Tony Boselli and guard Alan Faneca will have their day in Canton soon. And Flores has been waiting, and waiting some more.
The committee is supposed to solely consider Flores' coaching achievements, but he was, after all, the first minority coach to win a Super Bowl, and he did it twice with the Raiders in Super Bowls XV and XVIII. His 8-3 record in the postseason is a better winning percentage than his 83-53 regular-season mark with the Raiders over nine seasons. Flores has four Super Bowl rings overall, his first as a backup quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV and his second as John Madden's receivers coach for the Raiders at Super Bowl XI. Flores also called down from the booth for the famed "Ghost to the Post" play on Christmas Eve of 1977 during a playoff win at the Baltimore Colts.
Flores' record against coaches already enshrined is actually better than his overall winning percentage: .594 to .539.
He was 6-1 against Don Shula, the game's winningest coach; 3-1 vs. Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls; 2-1 against both Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells; 1-0 against Bud Grant (and, actually, two of Flores' rings have come with Grant's Minnesota Vikings on the other sideline); and 1-1 vs. Tom Landry. And while Flores was a pedestrian 3-5 against Marv Levy, consider Flores' four titles to Levy's four Super Bowl losses, and Flores was just 1-3 against Joe Gibbs, but that one win was huge, the 38-9 blowout of Gibbs' defending Washington champs in the Super Bowl on Jan. 22, 1984. It's still the last Raiders title and the only time a Los Angeles team has claimed a Lombardi Trophy (are you paying attention, Rams fans?).
For those of you doing math at home, Flores is 19-13 against coaches already in the Hall of Fame. By comparison, Coryell had a .500 winning percentage against coaches enshrined at 28-28.
Then, there's this -- Flores owned Coryell in their head-to-head meetings, going 12-5 against the architect of Air Coryell, including winning the 1980 AFC title game in San Diego.
Are we talking about being a winner, or being a trailblazer? Can you tell the history of a purported inclusive NFL without mentioning Flores?
The question for the selectors, then, is not, "Should Flores be in the Hall of Fame?" The question is, "Why isn't he already in?"
Many saw the Hall as righting a wrong too late with the election of former Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler three years ago ... six months after he died and could not enjoy the accolades. Per Hall regulations, the family was not entitled to a ring or gold jacket since Stabler was deceased upon election.
Flores turns 82 on March 21.
"When you go through his complete résumé, I don't see how you can keep Tom out," said Raiders owner Mark Davis, a recent appointee to the NFL owners Hall of Fame committee.
"He was an original AFL quarterback, an original Raider who helped develop and perpetuate the vertical game as a player. Then, as a coach, he coached Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch -- one's a Hall of Famer and the other should be. And as head coach, he took two totally different teams to the Super Bowl, and won them. Look at his complete résumé, and the results can't be denied."
There's a reason Flores, the first man to win a ring as a player, assistant and head coach, was known as the "Ice Man" during his career.
"Tom was such a calming influence on a very colorful, emotional team," Raiders Hall of Famer Howie Long told ESPN.com a few years back
"People are always giving guys credit for their X's and O's," Hall of Famer Marcus Allen told NFL Network. "But being a head coach is just much more than that; it's managing people. The thing that really created closeness was that he trusted us. 'I taught you all you need to know, now go out there and play.'"
From 1980 through 1985, which included the distraction of the move from Oakland to Los Angeles, Flores' Raiders went a combined 69-31 (.690), including the playoffs.
Flores almost won a fifth ring in 2002, as a Raiders radio announcer, but Jon Gruden and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers had other plans in their 48-21 blowout win at Super Bowl XXXVII.
Back in Oakland, Gruden has different feelings now.
"I'm rooting for Tom Flores," Gruden said last week at the Senior Bowl. "I hope Flores gets in. He's a great coach, great player, one of the great people of all time."
Flores retired from coaching following the 1987 strike season and in 1989 became the NFL's first minority general manager when the Seattle Seahawks hired him as president and GM. He returned to the sideline in 1992 but was fired after going a combined 14-34 in those three seasons.
And maybe that lasting image is what selectors hold against him, even if it is a small part of his candidacy, a résumé that includes so many broken barriers and, yes, winning.
"It's quite a thrill to get this far," said Flores, who will be in an Atlanta hotel room, hoping for a congratulatory knock on the door from Hall president David Baker. "We'll see what happens. It's certainly encouraging and exciting to think about it. But I don't know how to feel about it because I've never gotten this far before."
It's time for that next step.