By Glenn Dickey
Love him or hate him, and there were plenty on both sides of that divide, Al Davis could not be ignored. As AFL commissioner in 1966, he devised a strategy of going after top NFL quarterbacks that forced the NFL to seek peace. As general managing partner of the Raiders, he built a powerhouse that won three Super Bowls and played in five over a period stretching from 1967 through 2003. When he decided he wanted to move his franchise from Oakland to Los Angeles, he never even sought permission from other owners. When the NFL sued, Davis won the suit and the Raiders played in L.A. from 1981 through '95, when he moved the franchise back to Oakland.
And along the way, he built an image of the Raiders as renegades. His motto: "Just Win, Baby."
In his early years with the Raiders, pro football was very conformist. When teams traveled on airplanes, coaches and players all wore suit and ties. Even in hotels, they did the same. I remember covering a 49ers-Rams exhibition in Anaheim in 1969 when 49er players sat around the hotel courtyard in coats and ties before going to the stadium, though it was a very warm day.
Nothing like that for the Raiders. Davis had no dress code — at least partially because Davis had none, either. He would board the plane in faded blue denims, and the players would be dressed likewise. The contrast was especially vivid when the Raiders played the Kansas City Chiefs under Hank Stram, because the Chiefs were always dressed as if they'd just stepped out of Gentleman's Quarterly.
Similarly, though the Raiders had the same curfews as other teams, the players knew how to circumvent them. As soon as the coaches checked their rooms, they'd check out. Marv Hubbard once called me at 5 a.m. from the party he'd been at since curfew. The next day, coach John Madden said Hubbard had "the runs." I could easily guess why.
Women followed the Raiders everywhere. Once on a road trip when I was covering the team and we were at a hotel in East Orange, N.J., I was sitting in the lobby reading at midnight when elevators opened up with giggling young women coming out. They then went to the outside staircase to go back to the players' rooms they had just left before curfew.
This was not Davis' personal style. He seldom drank and was never a chaser. One time on the road, a gagster sent a woman to Davis' room. He promptly vacated it and went to the lobby until he was sure she was gone. But whatever his personal tastes, he never imposed them on his players. Ted Hendricks would stop by the Airport Hilton after practice to down martinis. Ken Stabler would show up for a game without having gone to bed — at least, to sleep — the previous night. Davis didn't care, as long as they produced, as Hendricks and Stabler both did, magnificently.
Davis cultivated a hostile relationship with the NFL, even when the two leagues merged and the Raiders were ostensibly under the NFL umbrella. The hostility was reciprocated, from the time he initiated the quarterbacks strategy. In 1968, when I was covering the Raiders, they played in the AFC championship game in New York. One time during the week, I was in the NFL offices and some low-level employees were playing darts — with Al Davis' face as the target.
Later, it became much more serious, of course, and Davis' relentless fight against commissioner Pete Rozelle no doubt led to Rozelle finally giving up the office.
There was a great irony in the battle between Rozelle and Davis, as Los Angeles columnist Melvin Durslag told me when I interviewed him for my 1991 book on the Raiders, "Just Win, Baby." Durslag was struck by the fact that Davis portrayed himself as the alley fighter and Rozelle as the patrician, though their backgrounds were the opposite of that picture. Davis had grown up in a comfortable middle-class family in Brooklyn — his father was a successful businessman — while Rozelle had grown up in a much less comfortable environment in Compton, a poor southern California community.
There were many contradictions to Davis. Though he could be quite hard on people who worked for him and an implacable opponent to those in the way of what he wanted, he could be very generous to others. A couple of examples. When Stram had a heart attack, Davis paid for the best heart specialist to treat him. When his wife, Carol, nearly died from a heart attack, a grateful Davis paid for new beds in the hospital where she was treated.
In each case, and in many others where he was very generous, he forbade any publicity on what he had done. "He's the only man I know who keeps his good deeds secret and publicizes his bad ones," Durslag marveled.
Durslag wasn't the only one who was puzzled by Davis' paradoxical behavior. Over the years, I had countless discussions with people who had worked with and for Davis, trying to unlock the mysteries of his personality. We never did, of course, but there is probably no better indication of how important he was than that so many people wanted to talk about him. And, it wasn't just talk. When I was on the beat and at dinner with media people — at Davis' instruction, the Raiders paid for those dinners, which were often lavish — there were always employees who would do Davis imitations. Bob Bestor, who was first a P.R. man and then a business manager for the Raiders, probably did the best.
Those were the fun times for me, when I was on the beat and we could poke fun at the Davis idiosyncrasies, such as that time we were flying back to New York for the 1968 championship game and got put into a holding pattern over the airport. "Tell the pilot to tell the airport people they've got the Oakland Raiders up here," Davis told Bestor. Surprisingly, that didn't get us on the ground any earlier.
Or, there was the time when I kidded Davis in training camp about his secrecy about roster cuts. The secrecy was usually because Davis put some big names on the list, which he would pull back, to distract others from claiming young players he wanted to keep. This time, though, he didn't have to hide any young players, so he said, "You want the cuts? I'll give them to you." I wrote them for the San Francisco Chronicle and the next day, Madden came storming up to me and said, "Where did you get those names?" I told him and Madden just said, "Oh," and walked away.
My relationship with Davis changed dramatically when I became a columnist and criticized him for the way he was trying to force Wayne Valley out of the ownership (his strategy eventually worked, as Valley sold his shares to Davis) because it had been Valley who had first hired him as coach and then brought him back as managing general partner after the AFL-NFL merger. We never again had a meaningful conversation.
But, that was Al Davis. He was an original, always operating on a very emotional, personal level. The mystery of his personality will never be solved, but we know one thing for certain: The NFL would not be the same today without him.