Raiders’ Al Davis (1929-2011) legacy revisited

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis died at the age of 82 on October 8, 2011 it was announced by the team. The football legend won three Super Bowls with his team that he owned for more than 40 years. He is shown in file photo in 2004 in Oakland, California. UPI/Terry Schmitt

Even though Raiders owner Al Davis had been slowed by various ailments in recent years, his death at age 82 on Saturday still came as a shock to the football world. Davis was at last Sunday’s Raiders game vs. New England, and news of his passing traveled quickly through the sports world.

No matter what you thought about Davis the owner, no one in the history of the National Football League was more identified with his team than Davis. Davis was the Raiders, and vice versa. Raider Nation was built on his rebel ways, and his battles with the NFL were legendary. Along the way, there were three Super Bowl titles and the Black Hole.

The Raiders honored his memory with a black helmet patch in the shape of the iconic Oakland logo with a simple “AL” on it. More importantly, the club followed his maxim of “Just Win, Baby” by holding off Houston for an emotional 25-20 road victory.

Here is a look at what some others had to say about Davis and his impact on the game of pro football, from the good, the bad and the historic.

First, the Raiders issued a statement on his passing:

The Oakland Raiders are deeply saddened by the passing of Al Davis. Al Davis was unique – a maverick, a giant among giants, a true legend among legends, the brightest star among stars, a hero, a mentor, a friend. Al Davis was the only person in professional football history to have been a scout, assistant coach, head coach, general manager, commissioner and owner. He was an innovator, a pioneer with a deep love and passion for the game of football. His contributions to the game are innumerable and his legacy will endure forever through generations of players, coaches, administrators and fans. Al Davis was a champion of diversity who maintained the courage of his convictions. His passion for the game we all love is best exemplified by his famous phrase, “COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE.” The fire that burns brightest in the Raider organization, “THE WILL TO WIN,” will continue to blaze through the legacy of the great Al Davis.

Monte Poole, in a MercuryNews.com column, described Davis this way:

The franchise mindset descended from the top down. It came from Al, who always seemed to know the fine print better than anyone in the room or, for that matter, anyone in either the AFL or the NFL. He was fiercely independent, swinging his knowledge like a hammer, never hesitating to walk alone, thus cultivating the maverick image he embraced.

Never was there a more iconic and enduring symbol of a business. Not Oprah Winfrey, not Steve Jobs. Not George Halas or Bill Walsh or Bob Knight. Not even Davis’ good friend, George Steinbrenner.

For Al not only represented his team but also dressed the part. He wore his suits and sweatsuits like a shield, never deviating from black or white and silver — the colors of his team. It was a matter of mutual identity, Al and the Raiders, the Raiders and Al.

The current NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, issued a statement Saturday on Davis:

Al Davis’s passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary. He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level. The respect he commanded was evident in the way that people listened carefully every time he spoke. He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the NFL.

Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, who battled Davis in the courts over the years on behalf of the NFL, said:

Al is irreplaceable and his death leaves a huge void.

The Raiders and the League have lost an exceptional innovator and leader in the game—who contributed greatly to pro football’s development as America’s No. 1 sport. And the League has lost a sharp, effective voice in player and Players Association relations.

We had our times of strong disagreement and tough conflict. We had our times of agreement and collaboration on critical matters, and his support was always important.

Without Al, the League will be less diverse, less interesting, and less able to understand competing points of view.

Former Raiders front-office executive Michael Lombardi, who worked in Oakland and is now an analyst for NFL Network, said of his former boss:

He was extremely devoted to the Oakland Raiders. That was his life. Each morning when he got up, it was all about the Oakland Raiders, it was all about winning. It was all about how he could make his team better. I’ve never met a man with more devoted towards his profession than Al Davis. It was the driving force that everything he wanted to do was have success with his football team and find some way to do it. His will and his understanding of the game is in a lot of people and certainly he educated me about football, but other people he reached throughout the league. Some worked for the Raiders and some didn’t.

Peter King, in SI.com, saw Davis this way with a story about his knowledge of all sports:

On a Friday night in April 2004, the night before the NFL Draft, Davis was giving me a tour of his offices at the Raiders’ facility in Oakland. In his inner sanctum, there were four large TVs on the wall, in a diamond configuration. He said he watched games in his office quite often. “Basketball, women’s basketball, baseball,” he said. “All the sports.”

“Women’s basketball?”” I said, surprised. And I decided to test him: “OK, what team took Diana Taurasi with the first pick of the WNBA Draft?”

Disdainfully, he said: “Oh, come on. That’s easy. Phoenix.”

Al Davis wanted you to know he paid attention to everything in the world and knew something about everything — and knew much more than you knew about football.

When current Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was approved by the league’s owners in 2000, he sought out Davis for advice and counsel, but got a surprising response, as relayed by Yahoo! Sports’ Jason Cole:

Al is this magnetic personality, just so brilliant in everything about football and I immediately thought to myself, I want to really pick his brain, try to learn from him,” Bisciotti said. “So I introduce myself and say, ‘Al, I would really love to come out to California and sit down with you sometime, just talk about football.’ I told him I had some meetings out in California, so I’d like to come over and see him. I really didn’t have any meetings out there, but I figured it was a good excuse.

I remember it so distinctly because we were standing in this hall just outside the meeting room. Down at the far end was all the media, and we were just stopped there for a second. Al looked at me, smiled and said, ‘No, kid, you don’t want to be associated with me.’

Of course, Bisciotti didn’t become a billionaire without persistence.

I said, ‘No, Al, I really mean it.’ He just looked at me, put his hand on my arm to make the point even stronger and said, ‘No, I really mean it.’ Then he just walked down the hall and disappeared into this group of reporters. I just stood there with my mouth open thinking, ‘What just happened here?’ It took me awhile, but I realized, in his own way, Al was protecting me. At the time, he was doing something to cause trouble in the league, suing the league, causing some controversy. He was telling me, ‘You don’t want to be associated with me from the start.’

Nancy Gay, who writes for FOXSports.com and who covered the Raiders for the San Francisco Chronicle from 2001-09 wrote about the opportunities he gave in historic ways:

Davis was a quiet innovator. Today, as the organization mourns his loss, the Oakland Raiders are in the capable hands of CEO Amy Trask, the only female chief executive in the NFL. Davis hired her in 1997 for this role. All he cared about was that she was talented, smart and that she loved the Raiders.

In 1989, Davis made Art Shell the NFL’s first black head coach of the modern era. One decade earlier, after Madden’s retirement, Davis promoted Flores, making him the first Hispanic to be a starting NFL quarterback and a head coach.

Davis did this and he didn’t care what we thought. He thought it was right.

Sunday night, NBC’s Bob Costas had this to say at halftime of the Packers-Falcons Sunday Night Football game:

Over the last 24 hours, even those too young to recall the enormous accomplishments and aura of Al Davis’ Raiders of an earlier era have been made aware of Davis’s unique place in the game’s history: coach, GM, commissioner, owner, perpetual litigant and general pain in the assets to the league he constantly challenged and frequently sued — sometimes with good reason, sometimes out of a reflexive combativeness that seemed to know no bounds.

Al Davis was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from Syracuse yet somehow spoke with a vaguely southern drawl, part of what you might call an unusual personal style. He was a progressive, who broke ground with the hiring of Hispanic and African-American coaches, and a high-ranking female executive. But he was also petty, allowing personal vendettas to undercut, and then drive away significant figures like Marcus Allen and Mike Shanahan, while his once great franchise slipped into disarray.

For better and for worse and everything in between, Al Davis was an American original. He deserves to be long remembered, not because he was a model, but because he mattered.

He was a rebel, a renegade, a Raider … and we will not see his like again.

We close with this video of head coach Hue Jackson’s emotional postgame speech to the Raiders after their victory over the Texans (Raiders.com video via YouTube user BTheMag):

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