There will never be another NFL figure like Al Davis. The late, great Raiders owner blazed a path through football entirely his own.
He went from college assistant coach to NFL assistant under Sid Gillman to head coach to owner to AFL commissioner to Super Bowl champion and Hall of Famer. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of influential NFL figures, and he did it his way.
In many ways, Davis changed the game of football through sheer personality. Before TV money dominated the sport, Davis understood the importance of image. Bill Wallace of the New York Times wrote the following in 1965:
“Davis is the man that NFL management fears most when it comes to signing impressionable and needy collegians.”
With his slick-backed hair, incredible football acumen, snappy clothes, and Brooklyn background, Davis created a mystique early that drew people in. And scared the NFL establishment.
SI’s Peter King called Davis the most “unforgettable” man he’s covered in 32 years, which sounds about right.
“George Halas is the only one who truly compares in the NFL’s 92-yr history … and Al was more of an offensive innovator,” King wrote.
Davis was also essentially the defensive coordinator for the Raiders for most of his time as owner.
As AFL Commish, Davis sat back and smiled when the Giants signed Bills kicker Pete Gogolak, breaking an unwritten rule that the two leagues wouldn’t poach veterans from each other. Bills owner Ralph Wilson was furious. Davis was happy.
“We just got our merger,” Davis said. “If we go out and sign their players, we’ll destroy them. And they’ll come to the table.”
That’s exactly what happened. In a coordinated effort especially targeting the Rams, the AFL counter-attacked with vigor. The merger happened soon thereafter.
Davis was a trailblazer in a number of ways, and that included to giving opportunities to anyone. He hired the first Latino NFL coach — Tom Flores. He hired the first black NFL head coach (Art Shell) since the 1920’s. He hired the first woman as chief executive, Amy Trask. He shaped the way the league is played on the competition committee.
There was always a mystery about Davis. He was loyal and rebellious. Cantankerous, vindictive, cryptic, incisive, petty, bizarre, and sentimental at the same time. Everyone that knew him well seemed to respect and fear him equally.
When long-time combatant NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle surprised the league by retiring at the NFL’s annual meeting in 1989, Davis embraced Rozelle and wished him good luck. Those close to Rozelle didn’t know if the gesture was heartfelt, Machiavellian, or both.
With Davis, you never quite knew.
(Thanks to America’s Game by Michael MacCambridge for much of the source material used in this post.)