Al Davis just wanted to win, baby.
Davis spent five decades in professional football. Behind Lamar Hunt, he was the most important figure in the history of the American Football League. As an assistant coach for the San Diego Chargers, he drafted and signed Lance Alworth, who went on the become one of the brightest stars ever to play in the AFL. Davis rescued a struggling Oakland Raiders organization and built it into one of pro football’s top franchises between 1967 and 1985, winning 13 divisional championship, the 1967 AFL title, and three Super Bowls. As Commissioner of the AFL in 1966, he oversaw the biggest merger in pro sports history. Like Red Auerbach in Boston or Ernie Banks and the Cubs, Al Davis is synonymous with the Oakland Raiders. Charming, cantankerous and compassionate, he preached “to be a Raid-uh was to be a Raid-uh for life” in an odd, Brooklynese-and-southern-accent.
The polar opposite of a “company man,” Davis was a rebel. The team’s silver and black colors and pirate logo symbolized his attitude toward authority. Wearing slicked-back hair forming a 1950s ducktail, Davis was a caricature. The antithesis of an NFL owner, he roamed the sidelines sporting satin running suits –one black, one white – and was adorned in silver jewelry. He embodied the swashbuckling, take-no-prisoners attitude of his teams, which were assembled largely with castoffs and misfits nobody else wanted. Displaying a commitment to excellence, the Raiders won three Super Bowls in eight seasons. Oakland was part of two of the greatest rivalries in pro football history. They battled the Kansas City Chiefs for AFL superiority in the 1960s and faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in five straight epic playoff showdowns in the 1970s.
Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, on the Fourth of July in 1929, Allen Davis moved to Brooklyn with his brother, Jerry, and their parents in 1934. He was raised in the same neighborhood as singer Barbara Streisand and attended Erasmus High School. Davis studied at Wittenberg College in Ohio before transferring to Syracuse University – alma mater of Daily Dose aficionado Dick Stockton – where he rode the bench for the junior varsity football team before graduating in 1950 with a degree in English. Davis got his first coaching job at Adelphi College, where he was named line coach. After two years in the Army, he served as Weeb Eubanks’ player personnel manager with the 1954 Baltimore Colts. Davis spent two seasons as line coach and recruiting coordinator at The Citadel before moving to USC, where he was part of the Trojans’ staff from 1957-1959.
In 1960, Sid Gillman hired Davis to assist with the Los Angeles Chargers in the newly formed American Football League. After winning two division titles in three years with the Chargers, he joined the Oakland Raiders – also one of the AFL’s charter franchises – as head coach and general manager.
The Oakland Raiders were 9-33 in the three seasons prior to the arrival of Al Davis. The financially-strapped club had nearly bolted for New Orleans following their second year of operation and played home games on a high school field adjacent to the Nimitz Freeway. Just 33, Davis was the youngest head coach/general manager in the league, yet already had 14 years’ coaching experience. Sports Illustrated called him a “young coaching genius” and Scholastic Coaching magazine dubbed him the “most innovative mind in the country.” In his first year in Oakland, the Raiders thundered to a 10-4 record, and Davis was named 1963 Coach of the Year.
While the AFL and NFL engaged in a bidding war for college talent – the upstart league signed half the players from the 1960 college draft – the two leagues had an unwritten truce not to go after each other’s established stars. Al Davis broke that truce, attempting to sign NFL quarterbacks Roman Gabriel and John Brodie. Looking to reduce escalating salaries as the two leagues competed for talent, the NFL sought to merge with its younger rival. Davis [along with New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin, who had Shea Stadium and the young star Joe Namath] opposed the merger and wanted the AFL to go it alone. Following the resignation of Commissioner Joe Foss, Davis was selected by AFL owners to run their league.
The 36-year-old Davis became Commissioner of the AFL in April 1966. Two months later, it was announced that the upstart league had merged with its more established rival. Davis, who believed he had been hired to win the war with the NFL, was livid, as the secretive merger talks were held behind his back. He quit and returned to Oakland as managing general partner of the Raiders. It marked the beginning of a bitterness Davis harbored toward the NFL for the next 45 years.
The consummate non-conformist, Davis wanted to move the Raiders to Los Angeles after the city of Oakland refused to expand the team’s home at the Oakland Coliseum. The plans were blocked by the NFL, so Davis filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the league. He won, and his franchise became the L.A. Raiders in 1982. The following season, they won the Super Bowl. Oakland agreed to expand the Coliseum and the Raiders returned to their rightful home in 1995. After failing to deliver the sellouts they promised to win back the Raiders, Davis sued the city of Oakland. At the same time, he had a lawsuit pending in Southern California seeking the Raiders’ NFL rights to the L.A. market.
Al Davis, who became principle owner of the Raiders in 2005, was active in civil rights, refusing to allow the Raiders to play in any city where black and white players had to stay in separate hotels. He was a pioneer in providing opportunities to minorities. In the AFL, Davis drafted African-American players from traditionally black colleges while NFL rosters were mostly filled with white players. Davis was the first to hire a Hispanic-American head coach [Tom Flores], an African-American head coach [Art Shell] and selected Amy Trask as CEO of the Raiders, the first and only woman ever to run an NFL team.
As Davis aged, his teams declined. In the 26 seasons between 1986 and 2011, the Raiders made the playoffs only six times. Following the 2002 Super Bowl, which they lost to the Tampa Bay Bucs, the Silver and Black declined rapidly. At one point the Raiders had five head coaches in six years, and Davis’ firing of Lane Kiffen in 2008 was a fiasco. In October 2011, Mr. Davis died of heart failure at his home in Oakland. He was 82. At the time of his passing, Davis’ beloved Oakland Raiders were one of the worst teams in football.
Named the Bay Area’s most significant sports figure of the 20th century [beating out Joe Montana, Bill Russell, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays], Al Davis presented nine inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame during his career. Mr. Davis was himself enshrined in Canton in August 1992. His presenter was John Madden. Fourteen years later, Davis returned the favor, presenting his former coach at his Hall of Fame induction in 2006. In May 1991, Davis became the first recipient of the Retired Players Award, given by the NFL Players Association for “contributions to the men who played the game.” Al Davis spent 49 seasons serving as coach, general manager, managing general partner and owner of the Oakland Raiders. He missed only three games over the course of those nearly five decades.