Few knew Al Davis' football genius as well as Ron Wolf, the former Packers general manager who cut his teeth as a scout in the Raiders' organization.
In 1963, Pro Football Illustrated managing editor Ted Elbert was in San Francisco when Davis was named Oakland's head coach and general manager. Elbert quickly secured an interview. "Al mentioned (during the interview) that he wanted someone in his talent department who knew names," says Wolf. Elbert encouraged Davis to contact Wolf, who had spent time with the publication.
Davis coached Wolf on what he was looking for in young prospects — desirable qualities for each position. The mission for every Raiders employee was clearly defined: Make Oakland a better football team, piece by piece.
Davis, his four assistant coaches, and Wolf sat in a room each night and studied the players of the American Football League. "(Davis) was a comparison freak," says Wolf. "All the left tackles in the league, how they ranked. All the left ends on defense, how they ranked." This was before Dallas had earned its reputation as pro football's scouting leader, and before the modern NFL draft. The Raiders were constructing their winning team with winning analysis.
And it's no surprise Davis stressed two qualities to his talent evaluators: "Speed and athleticism," says Wolf, "those were the two ingredients."
To earn your way into Davis' inner circle required long hours without much reward. "I wasn't making money, that's for sure," Wolf laughs. But Davis took care of his guys. He took Wolf with him to New York during his brief stint as the AFL's commissioner in 1966.
What the Raiders built in the 1960s cannot be overstated, and Wolf says Davis had an enormous impact on every decision that was made within the organization. He was the last of pro football's do-it-all men. "You think about professional football, you think about how Curly Lambeau dominated the 1930s, George Halas the 1940s, Paul Brown the 1950s," says Wolf. "Well, Al Davis dominated it toward the end of the 1960s and through the '70s and '80s." All of those men managed every aspect of their respective teams, at some point. Davis' legacy, says Wolf, places him in such elite company.
Davis' knack for acquiring talent (he was a master of one-sided deals, says Wolf) helped to build those winning teams. Davis was both fearless and bold. In 1973, the Raiders were seriously considering two men with the 23rd pick in the draft — Michigan State offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure and Southern Miss punter Ray Guy. The Raiders chose the punter, breaking every unwritten rule linked to the draft. "One guy's in the Hall of Fame (DeLamielleure)," Wolf said years ago, "and the other should be."
After Gene Upshaw passed away in 2008, Wolf was invited to a special ceremony to celebrate the offensive lineman. "You sit in a room with those players," says Wolf, "and you suddenly realize how great those teams were. Mike Haynes, Lester Hayes, Ted Hendricks, Art Shell — you could go on — the great names in professional football, and there they are, and they all played together."
Wolf admitted in a 2008 interview that he didn't want Oakland to draft Upshaw in 1967. Upshaw was Davis' guy. But like war rooms can be, the two men made cases for their guys — Davis for Upshaw, Wolf for Arkansas halfback Harry Jones. Recalled Wolf to Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman of the pick: "We argued right up to the start of the draft, into the first round, actually. Finally Al threw his hands up and said, 'All right, dammit, you win. Call Harry Jones and alert him. Use the phone in the hall.' I went out to the hall phone. We had a radio hookup to draft headquarters in New York that day, with a loud speaker, and I could hear Pete Rozelle announcing the first-round selections. So I looked up Jones' number, and while I was dialing, I heard Rozelle on the loud speaker, 'In the first round, the Oakland Raiders select Eugene Upshaw, guard, Texas A&I.'"
Wolf left the Raiders to become Tampa Bay's vice president of operations in 1975, then returned to the organization three years later. After he was named Green Bay's general manager in late 1991, Wolf continued to check in with his old friend every so often. "I have undying regard and respect for him," says Wolf. "Always will." When they'd visit in Chicago, Davis was often flanked by George Blanda or Bo Jackson, says Wolf.
Wolf wasn't there for some of Davis' darkest moments — the blown calls and bad breaks — but marvels at how well his former boss handled those situations.
"That deal in Denver (Rob Lytle's fumble that wasn't), that's inexcusable that something like that would happen in a championship game. Same thing in New England with (Tom) Brady years later (the 'Tuck Rule' game). And the Franco Harris play (the 'Immaculate Reception') — how rare could that be? Those things always seemed to happen to him, but I don't think anybody ever heard him say anything about those things. He never played on that. He never made those excuses.
"Maybe it's that old saying, maybe that was his mantra: 'Never let them see you sweat.' "
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac