By Leonard Shapiro
The Sunday after his death, they had a moment of silence in honor of Al Davis in stadiums all around the National Football League. There is some irony in that, if only because Davis rarely stayed silent on any issue involving a league he once loathed, but eventually grew to love.
The late owner of the Oakland Raiders, who died a week ago last Saturday at the age of 82, was a one-of-a-kind force of nature, the only man in history who ever had a football career that included jobs as personnel assistant, assistant coach, head coach, general manager, league commissioner, team owner and managing partner.
He even had a tie to the Washington area. In 1952 and 1953, while serving in the Army at Fort Belvoir after he graduated from Syracuse University, he coached a military team that once defeated the University of Maryland in a game-like scrimmage. At the time, Maryland was the reigning national champion.
Still, there has been a bit of revisionist history in many of the tributes penned and spoken since his death. While the man with the bizarre BrooklynSouthern accent was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word, the last two decades of his reign were marked by lots of losing, occasional erratic behavior and some of the worst head coaching hires in the history of the franchise.
Since the 1994 season, the Raiders have had nine different head coaches, with only one of them, Jon Gruden (40-28) having a winning record. Lane Kiffin (5-15), was released after only four games in 2008, and in 1989, he also fired Mike Shanahan after four games and an 8-12 mark.
Ironically, his last hire, elevating assistant Hue Jackson to the top spot, may have been one of the better moves of his recent history. The Raiders have been dreadful in recent years, but now seem more than respectable and a potential playoff team at 4-2, even if starting quarterback Jason Campbell suffered a shoulder injury Sunday against the Browns that will keep him out for at least six weeks, if not longer. The Raiders may actually have upgraded the position, trading two No. 1 picks to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer on Tuesday.
Davis also had a commendable track record in hiring assistants. John Madden was one, and eventually became the most successful head coach in team history. Bill Walsh once worked for Davis as an assistant coach, as did Gruden. He also had Jim Harbaugh on his staff as a quarterbacks coach, and Harbaugh has clearly revitalized the San Francisco 49ers in his first season as a head coach this year. Redskins general manager Bruce Allen also had a long stint as Davis's right-hand man and often credits him for much of the success he's had.
Davis always was considered something of a sinister figure who would do anything it took to "Just Win, Baby," his famous mantra. It is said that any time a helicopter flew over the N.Y. Jets practice field during Oakland week, head coach Weeb Ewbank was certain it was a Davis spy up in the air. Several coaches were even convinced he had put a bug in their locker room on game days, the better to gain even the slightest advantage on the field.
He also will always be remembered for his bitter battles with the league office, and specifically the late Commissioner Pete Rozelle, over his right to move his team to Los Angeles. In the 1980s, the league was constantly in court fighting those disputes, and it has been said that Rozelle's decision to retire as arguably the greatest commissioner in the history of all sports may well have been a direct result of all those wearying dreary days in the courtroom.
Still, Davis could also be proud of a long list of accomplishments that more than justified his inclusion into Canton in 1992, when he also had no qualms about saying "it should have happened a long time ago."
He was a clearly a key figure in forcing the merger of the old AFL and NFL. As a coach, he was a great innovator, and has been credited with the development of the old bump and run defense and the vertical passing game. At the age of 33, he was the youngest head coachgeneral manager in the history of the league, and his eye for talent back then was unparalleled.
Davis either drafted or traded for 11 Hall of Famers - quarterbackkicker George Blanda, receiver Fred Biletnikoff, cornerback Willie Brown, offensive lineman Gene Upshaw, offensive lineman Art Shell, linebacker Ted Hendricks, defensive back Mike Haynes, defensive end Howie Long, tight end Davie Casper, running back Marcus Allen and offensive lineman Bob Brown. Madden became a Hall of Fame head coach and Upshaw went on to become head of the NFL Players Association, often using Davis as one of his main sounding boards.
Davis, whose teams won three Super Bowl titles and played in five, also will be remembered for doing the right thing long before there was a Rooney Rule on the books mandating that teams interview minority candidates for head coach and front office jobs.
He hired Tom Flores, the first Hispanic head coach in league history. He hired Shell as the league's first African American head coach. And the Raiders current and long-time CEO, Amy Trask, remains the highest ranking female executive in the league.
"He wasn't doing it for style points or political correctness points," Trask told the N.Y. Times last week. "But he was absolutely, positively a maverick. When rules were put in place about (minority) hiring, those of us who work for the Raiders would look at each other and smile. He hired the way he hoped everybody would hire. He didn't understand or care about the significance of what he was doing. He did it because it was the right thing to do. He didn't need rules."
Leonard Shapiro's latest book, Golf List Mania, is available on Amazon.com and at local bookstores.