Sunday, October 09, 2011

Rest In Peace; Al Davis

So my plans for Saturday Night (Sunday Morning) didn't involve a post. But things changed when I woke up and checked out the general footballing news.

At first I couldn't believe it. The news was so out of the blue that I assumed it was some sort of double meaning headline, maybe suggesting that the man had been pushed out of the ownership or something and had 'died a little inside' or some other cliche phrase. I'm afraid not though. The headline was exactly what it said on the tin;

"Al Davis has died."

At 82 years old Al Davis, the owner and managing general partner of the Oakland Raiders, had passed away. One of the key figures in shaping the NFL of today had been lost. Across the country, and I like to think the world, many people paused for a moment to spare a though for Al and his surviving family.

For although many people, myself included, have been very critical of Al's decision making in the last few years, mostly with regard to player personnel and coaching, the legacy he leaves behind and how he impacted the game is undeniable, and worth recapping, if only briefly.

Al Davis, like most pro coaches of those days, started his career in college, filling various roles as a position coach, Head Coach and recruiter at a number of different universities. Then in 1960 he got his big break into the professional leagues, recruited onto Sid Gillmans staff at San Diego. He spent a few years there as the offensive ends coach, before finally coming into contact with the Raiders for the first time when he was recruited as their Head Coach and general manager in 1963 at the age of 33, which at the time made him the youngest man to hold said positions.

Davis would go on to win the AFL coach of the year award in his first season, as he installed his version of Gillmans high power, vertical passing offense. His first stint with the Raiders would last three years, in which the team did moderately well on field, while off it he began to forge the identity of the Raiders that would last until this day.

But in April 1966 he had other matters to attend to, as he was elected commissioner of the AFL. At first things were fine. The AFL and the NFL may have been involved in bidding wars for college prospects, but at least they had agreed not to poach each others players who were under contract. That came to an end when the New York Giants signed kicker Pete Gogolak from the Bills. The war had started and Al Davis got stuck right in, helping to bring a swathe of big names from the NFL to the AFL.

Behind his back though, a deal was being brokered. NFL owners, worried about the long term damage to their league, approached various AFL owners with talks of a merger between the two organisations. In June a deal was announced that would eventually see the two rival leagues come together, with the AFL disappearing and the NFL taking the center stage.

Davis, embittered at the penalty payments that the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders would have to pay to the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers respectively, as well as his belief that the AFL had capitulated when it could have gone on to be the superior league, stepped down in disgust. He had been commissioner of the AFL for just four months.

With plenty of time on his hands again, Davis bought a share of the Raiders and set in motion the events that would lead to his hall of fame selection. Named as the director of football operations, Davis oversaw a Raiders team that would go first to Super Bowl II where they lost to the Vince Lombardi lead Green Bay Packers, then won another two division titles, though in both cases were knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual Super Bowl champions.

In 1969 another name well known to modern readers was brought into the organisation, when Davis hired John Madden to be the Raiders head coach. The Raiders became part of the new AFC Western division when the AFL and NFL finally merged, and Madden and Davis began building a future Super Bowl winning team. Controversy was still close at hand though, as it always seemed to be with Davis.

In 1972, Wayne Valley, one of the three Raiders owners (with Davis and Ed McGah being the others), went to Munich, Germany, to see the 1972 Summer Olympiad. He returned to find that Davis and McGah had signed a new and legally binding partnership agreement that significantly expanded the amount of control that Davis possessed over the team. This was really the true start of Al's effective control over almost every day to day operation.

Under this tenure, the Raiders went on to appear in another four Super Bowl's, winning three. In 1982 the Raiders moved to Los Angeles. In 1992 Davis was inducted into the Pro Football hall of fame by his old head coach, John Madden. In 1995 the Raiders returned to Oakland after having failed to secure the modern stadium that Davis so desired.

But it's not just the success on the field that will mark out Al Davis in footballing history. Off the field, Davis will be remembered for hiring the first Hispanic coach in NFL history, Tom Flores. He'll be remembered for hiring the first black head coach, Art Shell, way back in 1989 - almost 15 years before the much lauded Rooney ruling came into effect. And he'll be remembered for hiring Amy Trask as the Raiders chief executive officer, a rarity in a sport dominated by the male half of the species.

And yeah, he'll also be remembered for moves like trading his head coach Jon Gruden to the Buccaneers, for the famous over head projector press conference after firing Lane Kiffen, and for drafting JaMarcus Russell. For now though we should put the bad things to one side and acknowledge the good, safely knowing that when people look back in the future, the good that Al Davis did for football will out weigh the bad.

Rest In Peace; Al Davis.

No comments: