Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who died at his home on Saturday morning at 82, was never beloved outside of Raider nation. A fellow owner once called him a “lying creep.” He was the George Steinbrenner of football owners: bullying, arrogant – “Just win, baby!” – and during his later years, a subpar talent evaluator. But his innovative football mind, and aggressive executive approach that led the Raiders to three Super Bowl wins, shaped the NFL as we know it. Thanks to Al Davis, the NFL is better. And much more badass.
Davis grew up a Brooklyn tough guy, straight out of central casting, with slicked back-hair and a thick accent (“the Raid-uhs”). He got his first coaching job, at Adelphi College in New York, when he was 21. A decade later, in 1960, Davis joined the offensive staff of Sid Gillman, coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, of the upstart American Football League. Gillman pioneered what became known as the “vertical” passing game – a mix of power running, and deep throws downfield. Sports Illustrated called Davis a “super-duper recruiter” responsible for attracting top talent to the Chargers.
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Davis imported the vertical passing philosophy to the Raiders, who hired him as coach and general manager in 1963, when he was just 33. Before Davis arrived on the East Bay, the Raiders had won just three of their prior 28 games. In his first year, Davis led the Raiders to a 10-4 record, and he was named AFL Coach of the Year.
In 1966, Davis was named commissioner of the AFL. From his position, he started the first of many fights with the NFL establishment. Instead of seeking peace with the NFL, Davis tried to sign some of its top players. He lasted only a few months as commissioner. But his aggression sped up merger talks, since the NFL now realized that its younger rival was a serious competitor. Following the 1966 season, the NFL and AFL champions played the first Super Bowl. By 1970, the leagues had joined forces, giving birth to the modern-day NFL, the most popular pro sports league in the country, a national obsession.
After the AFL, Davis returned to the Raiders as an owner and general manager. In the 1970s, the Raiders mirrored the maverick image of their owner. Davis, hired as a head coach as such a young age, loved tapping energetic, if inexperienced, leaders. In 1969, he gave the Raider job to a linebackers coach named John Madden, who was 32. In their iconic silver and black uniforms, and the eye-patched pirate logo pasted on their helmets, the Raiders won a Super Bowl title in 1977, with bushy-haired quarterback, Kenny “The Snake” Stabler, leading the offense, and a hard-hitting defense featuring players like “Dr. Death,” defensive back Skip Thomas, and “The Assassin,” safety Jack Tatum. ‘I don’t want to be the most respected team in the league,” Davis once said. “I want to be the most feared.”
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The Oakland Raiders won another Super Bowl in 1981. Davis filed an anti-trust suit against the NFL in order to move the Raiders to the more lucrative Los Angeles market, and a federal court ruled in his favor. The 1982 season marked the debut of the Los Angeles Raiders. The ’83 Raiders won the franchise’s third Super Bowl, and later in the decade, influential west coast rappers embraced the team’s swagger and black uniforms. Al Davis and hip-hop were unlikely bedfellows. But Davis knew that his team’s association with nascent music movement, a cross-cultural hit among younger audiences, could only enhance the Raider brand.
Over the years, Davis filed various lawsuits against the NFL as he tried to acquire better stadiums or other business deals for the Raiders. Since Davis moved the team back to Oakland in 1995, the Raiders have mostly struggled, and Davis’ legacy has suffered. From 2003 through 2009, no Raiders team lost fewer than 11 games. In 2008, Davis held a rambling press conference attempting to explain how his recently fired coach, Lane Kiffin, undermined him. Davis seemed faded, and hopelessly out of touch.
Love him or loathe him, Al Davis’ impact was undeniable. Before Oakland’s last Super Bowl appearance, in 2003, Lomas Brown, a lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was asked about Davis (The Bucs beat the Raiders, 48-21). “Al Davis? C’mon, man,” Brown told the New York Post. “Al? He’s the man. He’s like the Godfather of the NFL…You know what? I want his autograph…He’s a legend, man.”