On this day in 2011, Allen “Al” Davis died at the age of 82.
He is best remembered as the principal owner of the Oakland Raiders but the history of American professional football cannot be discussed without his name being a part of it. Davis was the only person in history to have been a scout, assistant coach, head coach, general manager, league commissioner, and team owner.
With his ducktail, tendency to dress in all black, and dark sunglasses, Davis embodied the spirit of his team in a way no other NFL owner did before or since. His mantra was a simple one: “Just win, baby”.
Davis was shrewd. He finagled his way onto the coaching staff at Adelphi University despite not having a lick of coaching experience. He turned the Adelphi gig into the head coach position of a U.S. Army team based at Fort Belvoir, Va. Davis broke into professional football as a scout for the then-Baltimore Colts. He returned to the collegiate ranks as an assistant coach at the Citadel and USC.
Davis joined the American Football League’s Los Angeles Chargers as an assistant coach under Sid Gillman. Gillman’s staff included future Raiders nemesis Chuck Noll. Davis’ eye for talent came in handy when he convinced Gillman to sign a wide receiver from Arkansas named Lance Alworth.
Davis became the AFL’s youngest coach when he took over the Raiders in 1963. His imprint on the team was immediate. Although the methods he used to acquire players is still debated to this day, the results on the field could not be denied. The Raiders went from 1-13 in 1962 to 10-4 in 1963, earning him AFL Coach of the Year honors.
The NFL successfully warded off competition from other professional football leagues before. However, they gradually began to see the AFL as a legitimate threat. Davis was named AFL commissioner in 1966 and was prepared to go to war with the NFL. He believed the AFL had a superior product with its emphasis on the vertical passing game and could eventually supplant the NFL for both players and fans.
A secret meeting between the NFL and AFL ended with an agreement to merge the two leagues just two months into Davis’ tenure as commissioner. Perhaps what stuck in Davis’ craw the most was that the merger agreement stipulated that the AFL commissioner would subservient to the NFL commissioner (Pete Rozelle). Davis angrily resigned returned to the Raiders.
Davis became a minority owner and quickly assembled a formidable team. The Raiders defeated the Houston Oilers in the 1967 AFL Championship Game before losing to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II. Over the final two years of the AFL’s existence, the Raiders lost the AFL Championship Game to eventual Super Bowl champions—the New York Jets (Super Bowl III) and Kansas City Chiefs (Super Bowl IV).
In 1969, the Raiders named their 33-year-old linebackers coach, John Madden, head coach. Three years later, Davis used that trademark shrewdness to revise the partnership agreement to make him the managing general partner with almost complete control over the day-to-day operations of the team.
The Raiders became one of the most successful franchises in professional sports under Davis. Between 1967 and 1985, they won 13 division championships and made 15 postseason appearances. They also won the 1967 AFL Championship as well as Super Bowls XI, XV, and XVIII.
Davis was a visionary in matters of civil rights. He refused to let his team in play in any cities where Black players had to stay in separate hotels from their Caucasian counterparts. He was the first NFL owner to hire an African-American head coach (Art Shell) and the second to hire a Latino head coach (Tom Flores). He was also the first owner to hire a woman as chief executive officer (Amy Trask).
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Davis was loved fiercely by his players. He was chosen by a record nine Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees (Alworth, Madden, Shell, Jim Otto, George Blanda, Willie Brown, Gene Upshaw, Fred Biletnikoff, Ted Hendricks) to present them at the induction ceremony. Davis himself was inducted in 1992, presented by Madden.
Of course, not everything with Al Davis was bright and positive. He had a long-standing beef with Pete Rozelle which was named the No. 1 feud in NFL history on the NFL Network’s list of Top 10 Feuds.
Marcus Allen, the MVP of Super Bowl XVIII, once said Davis “told me he was going to get me” because of a contract dispute. Allen was benched for two seasons and played the final five years of his Hall of Fame career with the division rival Chiefs.
He dealt away Jon Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for draft picks after the 2001 season. Gruden coached the Bucs to a blowout win over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. Despite the crushing loss, the Raiders are one of five teams to play a Super Bowl in four different decades along with the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, New York Giants, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Davis’ “Just win, baby” mantra was mocked when the Raiders selected JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Russell was named by FoxSports.com as “the biggest flop in NFL history”, going 7-18 in 25 career starts.
Davis filed multiple lawsuits against the NFL. He was blocked by an injunction in 1980 when he attempted to move the Raiders to Los Angeles. He filed a successful antitrust suit against the NFL and moved his team to L.A. in 1982. When the United States Football League filed an antitrust suit against the NFL in 1986, Davis was the only NFL owner who sided with the USFL and not named as a defendant.
John Madden, known for his wordy commentary, used very few words to describe Davis’ impact and contributions to professional football.
“You don’t replace a guy like that. No way. No damn way,” Madden said. “You look at the things he’s done that no one ever did before, being a scout, assistant coach, head coach, general manager, commissioner and owner.”
The day after Davis’ death, the Raiders played the Houston Texans. On the final play of the game, Raiders free safety Michael Huff intercepted Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in the end zone to preserve a 25-20 win. The Raiders had only 10 players on the field for that final play. Hue Jackson, Raiders head coach at the time, said Davis “had his hand on that ball”.
Huff summed up the feelings of Raiders Nation after the game, a feeling that hasn’t left in the seven years since Al Davis departed this life.
“We know he’s looking down on us right now,” Huff said. “This win is for him. I appreciate everything he’s done for this organization. He’s never gone in our eyes. We’ll never let him go. He’s with us.”
The history of professional football cannot be written without mentioning Allen Davis. No other owner in NFL history is as beloved by his players and fans and hated by detractors and critics. He didn’t always make the right move or say the right thing but Al Davis was a maverick, a fighter. He drew a line in the sand and dared anyone to cross it…and heaven help anyone who got in his way.
– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL, the New York Giants, and the NBA. Please like and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.