It was a tough weekend in the Bay Area. After the passing of Steve Jobs brought forth grief and praise sufficient to fatigue even those practiced in sorrow, Saturday began with the notice of the passing of Al Davis. Just as Jobs remade the tech world, creating value and wealth for many others, Al Davis did the same in football, not just on the field, but more significantly in the business.
The accounts out so far are glowing, but none that I have seen yet note the actual deeds that made Davis the genius and adversary of so many who had to deal with him. It is easy enough to call him unique because he is the only person in the NFL Hall of Fame to perform all the various duties and jobs that he did. It is another to note the actual actions, ideas and tactical approach that produced the results.
For instance as scout and assistant coach, he was among the first, in those early days of the AFL, to court a college senior and sign them in the first minutes they were eligible to do so. Most notably, Davis had a contract and pen ready for Lance Alworth on the field of the Sugar Bowl when game ended. While still in his Arkansas uniform, Alworth was a professional football player. Davis, known for his loyalty, also inspired it in others. When Alworth, who only played for Davis a year when Davis was the receivers coach in San Diego, was inducted into the Hall of Fame after a stellar career in San Diego and Dallas, it was Davis he asked to introduce him in Canton. Davis introduced more inductees than anyone else so far.
As a coach, Davis was adaptable to his situation, taking the marginally talented Raiders to a 10-4 season his first year, mainly through strategic use of stretching the field, ball control and risk taking defense. His player selection on both sides of the ball in response to his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses continually drove his peers in coaching crazy. His attention to detail, and cultivation of an elaborate information gathering network convinced his foes that he had spies everywhere. In one famous account a Charger head coach was seen screaming in a drain pipe, as if Davis had microphones there.
As a manager, his deft handling of talent, troubled and often outcast, extended if not saved many players careers, often creating triumphs such as Jim Plunkett’s two Super Bowl rings. His coaching and management hires made trends and established notable firsts in race and gender progress in the league. His personal intervention in multiple situations to aid in the health care of others revealed a charitable nature never visible on the field or in a contact negotiation.
Also somewhat neglected was the signature accomplishment of his career, and the foundation of what is now the most dominant and successful sporting enterprise of the last sixty years, the National Football League. The NFL official history starts decades before, but the 800 lb gorilla that is today’s NFL was Davis’s vision and the result of his personal dedication, convictions, and actions over many years. Starting with his time as AFL commissioner, Davis waged a widespread and often personal battle with Pete Rozelle and the owners of the then NFL. Stealing their stars, snatching college stars from under goal posts, and creating or invading the markets before the NFL had thought of them, Davis forced the discussions that led to the merger, even though he originally opposed it. He was sure he could beat those guys.
The result made all of them much richer than they had any possibility of without him. And his work on the various committees, much secretly and behind the scenes continued to make the league more attractive to television and sponsors, continued to add value to their franchises and the league they compose.
I know all this because as the son of a San Diego sports writer, I met Al Davis when I was 7 years old, along with the rest of the then staff of the Chargers, many of which went on to great things themselves. Later, when I was a student at Berkeley, Davis helped me get a job in the business of one of the minority owners of the team, and I had occasional jobs in the press box on game days while I was there. I never spoke with him, nor did I have any inside knowledge or personal contact. I knew to follow his career because after that first meeting, my father had said “that’s one of the sharpest people you could ever meet”. And my father had met a lot a successful people in a variety of fields beyond sports.
In today’s obits you will see it mentioned that his teams won three Super Bowls, and that he fought the NFL over his moving the Raiders to Los Angeles. The story is far richer and deeper. For the last of those championships occurred after the Raiders had moved. The NFL had sued Davis, and over the course of two years the fight was public and bitter, as well as expensive. Davis prevailed in the end, and when his team won the 83 title, in the ceremony after the Super Bowl, there was Pete Rozelle, a man of polish, education, and fine suits, who had fought with all the resources available to him to prevent the merger, and then stop the Raider’s move, presenting the trophy to Al Davis, the man in sweats who had bedeviled him for nearly twenty years.
I have no idea what Al Davis felt was the most satisfying moment of his life. But my favorite memory of him will always be the smile he had on his face that day, and how both men looked each other in the eye. It was the most dramatic trophy presentation I have ever witnessed.
Davis and his team have not faired so well since, although they have been in the Super Bowl in this century. His travails with contracts and coaches (five in six years at one point) as well as the tendency of young pundits to make fun of him as a doddering old fool owner, have obscured the critical contributions he made to the towering institution the NFL has become and is likely to remain well into the future. Everything that Robert Kraft is credited with in the recent negotiation to avoid labor strife, substantial as it was, is but a stripe on the flag that Al Davis stitched together.
It is much easier to imagine a young Steve Jobs out in the world today, dreaming up the next cool tech gadgets, than to see any of today’s sports figures emerging as the next great visionary of their game and its enterprise. There isn’t going to be a ‘next’ Al Davis. The man made his time, and the times he was in, far more than it could have been without him. Whatever is next for the NFL and the Raiders, it can’t be anything as outrageous and extraordinary as those explosive years when a bold young man from New York changed the game and its business. An era is truly over.