Feature

Al Davis, 1929–2011

The hard-charging maverick who shook up football

Al Davis’s aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude was always on display, even when he wasn’t on the sidelines watching his beloved Oakland Raiders. A reporter once asked Davis, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., how he had adjusted to California’s laid-back lifestyle. “Adjust?” an appalled Davis replied. “You don’t adjust. You dominate.”

Davis said he knew from childhood that he wanted “to build the finest organization in sports,” said the Los Angeles Times. After attending Syracuse University, he got his first football coaching job in 1950, at Long Island’s Adelphi College. He coached the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Chargers before becoming head coach, in 1963, of the Raiders—the team he would remain with, as coach, general manager, or part-owner, until his death. His impact was “immediate and dramatic”: He taught the team an “ultra-aggressive” defensive game that transformed it into a winning franchise.

Aggression served Davis well away from the game, too, said Sports Illustrated. As commissioner of the American Football League, beginning in 1966, he ruthlessly poached the rival National Football League’s star quarterbacks until the NFL agreed to a merger, in 1970. He moved his franchise twice, to Los Angeles in 1982 and then back to Oakland in 1995, dismaying legions of fans and provoking a series of legal battles with the NFL that left him “despised by many of the old-line owners in the league.”

Even Davis’s fans had trouble liking him at times, said the San Francisco Chronicle, but he was admirably “fierce, relentless, and color-blind” in his pursuit of victory. The Raiders were one of the first teams to pursue talent in black colleges, and Davis hired both the first black coach and the first Hispanic coach in NFL history. But to him, “breaking barriers” was only one more way to deliver on his famous mantra: “Just win, baby.”

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