If Al Davis had not been a man made of flesh and blood, he certainly would have been a character written into a Shakespearian play. A child growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn New York during the Great Depression, Davis had a burning desire to succeed. He would rise to the pinnacle of his profession only to have his empire crumble over the last decade of his life.
Was Al Davis a pioneer, an innovator of the game of football, a civil rights activist, or, was he a singular man with an unquenchable hunger for personal success and glory? Could it be that both statements are true?
Al Davis was a ruthless man when it came to success. His desire to win was unmatched in the field of sport, and, in the business. A man with limited athletic ability he chose for his life's profession the field of professional sport. Football, to be exact, a sport in which Davis had little to almost no personal experience, having never played the sport on any varsity level.
Davis was a hustler who understood that talking yourself a situation is one thing, but, being able to deliver once given the opportunity is something completely different. Davis talked his way into being the head football coach of the freshman football team at Adelphi University in 1951. Over the years Davis rose through the ranks, with stops at The Citadel, The University of Southern California, and then on to the Los Angeles Chargers of the upstart American Football League. Each step along the way would bring Al Davis closer to his ultimate goal, to take control of his own organization.
Head Coach And General Manager
This opportunity began to take root when Davis became the Head Football Coach and General Manger of the Oakland Raiders in 1963. In his youth Davis dreamed of owning and operating his own organization. He gained his inspiration from two of the most successful sports organizations of the 20th century. He wanted to build a football team that had the power and strength of the New York Yankees, but, also had the speed and daring of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Davis felt that if he could build a team with this kind of speed and power, on a level that no one had ever seen before, it would be a foundation that could catapult him to greatness. He would get a chance to build his team, his way, in Oakland California.
In 1963 Al Davis turned the worst team in the AFL into winners by posting a 10-4 record. This turnaround garnered Davis Coach of the Year honors, but, for a man like Al Davis it was only one piece in a much larger puzzle. Al Davis' ultimate goal was to have control and ownership of his own organization. After spending 1966 as the commissioner of the AFL Davis returned to Oakland in time to lead the now successful franchise to the AFL Championship. Although the Raiders would lose to the Vince Lombardi lead Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II 33-14. Al Davis' empire was beginning to take shape.
In 1972 the street hustler in Al Davis returned. While Wayne Valley took some time off to go to the Summer Olympics Al Davis drew up an agreement that would make him (Al Davis), the sole Managing General Partner of the Oakland Raiders. Giving him complete control of the football and business operations of the organization. Since Davis was one of three managing general partners at the time, he only had to convince one other partner, Ed McGah, to sign off on the agreement.
Once the agreement was in place Al Davis would take complete control of the Oakland Raiders and from that point forward, Davis would be able to run the Raiders organization his way, without having to answer to anyone.
Putting aside his abrasive personality, and, his guerilla warfare style tactics, ultimately Al Davis was proven right. The Oakland Raiders became one of the most successful sports franchises in the history of sport, winning 15 divisional championships, 3 Super Bowl Championships, and appearing in a total of 5 Super Bowls.
End Of An Empire
Like all Shakespearian characters though, pride cometh before the fall. At the height of Davis' empire he understood his players and coaches, and, they understood him. The Raider teams of the 60's and 70's held themselves accountable, and, even though the Raider way was not what the establishment considered correct, when it was time to work, no one worked harder than the Oakland Raiders. It was the Al Davis way. Do what you like, but, when the whistle blows on Sunday afternoon you better be ready to win. Coaches like John Madden and Tom Flores also knew their role. Prepare the team to win. With this being said it was also clear that no matter what happens, no one would be allowed out shine Al Davis. If it were not for John Madden's career as a color commentator he would not be in the Pro Football Hall Of Fame today. Even though Madden won 100 games in 10 years as a Head Coach in the NFL most of the credit for the Raiders success went Al Davis. Tom Flores who won 2 Super Bowls as the Head Coach of the Silver and Black is still waiting for his call from Canton Ohio. Other coach with 2 Lombardi Trophies to their credit are considered to be legends of the game, Tom Flores has sadly, for many, has become an afterthought.
Over the last nine years of Al Davis' life and career the Raiders were, and still are, one of the worst teams in the NFL. Many people have said that the game passed Al Davis by. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Raiders were what Al Davis lived for. No one knew their business better then Al Davis. What passed Al Davis by was society.
Davis grew up during the great depression. If you wanted to survive you had better be willing to fight for it. There were no hand outs. The only right you had was the pursuit of happiness. Nothing was not promised to you. You had to go out and earn everything you got. Employment was, and is, a privilege. There was no such thing as being entitled. You did not get a paycheck or a trophy for just showing up.
Over the years there has been a shift in our society. Many young people today in their teens and twenties seem to believe that someone owes them something. This is what Al Davis could not understand. If Al Davis gave you a contract he expected your very best no matter what. Win or lose each player was expected to put everything on the line. Players who showed up just to collect a paycheck did not exist in Al Davis' world. So, when the structure of the locker room broke down after the 2002 season, and, the players had no interest in holding each other accountable. Al Davis' empire came crashing down around him.
Al Davis had become an old man, with old fashion ideas. The world had changed. The drive, determination, and single mind focus that propelled Al Davis to the greatness that he craved would not allow him to change. Even if it meant the destruction of the thing that he held most dear, his team.
Reggie McKenzie now sits in the chair that Al Davis once occupied. McKenzie earned his bones in the front office of the Green Bay Packers. McKenzie is a former Raiders player, and, he understands what it meant to be a Raider back in the day. He also knows that those days are gone. No one will be able to replicate what Al Davis accomplished. Davis did it the only way he knew how. He did it the Raider way.
Today, a players ability and production have to be balanced with what is in his heart. You can have all of the ability in the world, but, if a fire does not burn from within, all of the measurables in the world will not matter.
Through his drive, determination, and guile, Al Davis built an empire, but, like all Shakespearian characters, in the end he was a flawed human being just like the rest of us.
Will the Raiders ever return to era of, Just Win Baby?
I don't know.
From where Al Davis sits today, does he care about the success of the franchise he once dominated?
If I ever bump into him I might ask, but, I will probably be much more concerned with other things by that time.
On July 4th of this year Al Davis would have celebrated his 85th birthday.