Saturday, October 29, 2011
The Pittsburgh Steelers were the dominant football team in the late 1970s, but their chief rival was on the opposite coast. In 1975, Oakland defensive back George Atkinson delivered a blow to the Steelers’ great receiver, Lynn Swann, and in the process Swann suffered a concussion. In 1976, Atkinson again delivered a blow to Swann in a regular season game and this caused the receiver to suffer a second concussion. So outraged was Pittsburgh Steelers coach, Chuck Knoll, that Noll was quoted as referring to Atkinson as being part of the “criminal element” of the National Football League. Few people doubted that Noll was referring to the Oakland Raiders overall when making his statement. It was a statement that Noll would come to regret. Not only was Noll fined by the NFL for making this statement, he was also sued by Atkinson for defamation.
Atkinson lost his lawsuit, but it proved to be a victory for Al Davis. The Raiders have always been renowned as the dirtiest professional football team in the league. However, introduced as evidence in the lawsuit were film clips showing other professional football players -including members of the Pittsburgh Steelers – taking dirty shots at their opponents. Al Davis was allowed to put on display the hypocrisy of Noll and others like him that hurled accusations of dirty play by the Raiders while not cleaning up their own actions.
It seems ironic that Davis, who for a number of decades ran the team that produced the highest winning percentage in all of football and who for four years was the commissioner of the AFL, was disliked and considered an outsider by most of the other football owners. It’s understandable, however, because Davis was never hesitant to take the NFL to court if they objected to any of his proposed moves. It seemed like Davis could never decide whether he wanted to play in Oakland or Los Angeles. Any effort to block him from moving from one city to the other resulted in an antitrust suit being filed by Davis against the league. Davis actually openly supported the creation of the USFL, which was competing directly with the NFL.
Davis was long time enemy and tormentor of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Rozelle probably long resented that Davis, while involved in the AFL, was aggressively scouting and recruiting players that it was taken for granted would sign with the NFL. So successful was Davis in his pursuit of such players that the NFL finally decided to merge with the AFL rather than continue to compete against them. Rozelle certainly must have suffered each and every time that he had to award Davis the Vince Lombardi trophy after the Raiders won the Super Bowl. The Raiders won the Super Bowl three times while Rozelle was commissioner.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of Al Davis as an owner of a professional football franchise was the colorful characters that he introduced and/or brought to the AFL and NFL as members of the Oakland Raiders franchise. These would have included: Darryle Lamonica, George Blanda, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto, Willie Brown, Ted Hendricks, Ben Davidson, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell (coach and player), John Matuszak, Jack Tatum, Lyle Alzado, Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett and Howie Long. John Madden, Tom Flores and John Gruden were some of his head coaches. Many of these players were either recruited directly by Davis or brought in after being rejected by other franchises.
Sadly, Davis was probably a victim to his own ego when he continued trying to fully control a football team while not keeping up with football trends. The scouting techniques he had used so successfully during the 1960s through the 1990s was not conducive with the internet age. Davis, who used to personally scout every player that he drafted to get an edge on his opponent, couldn’t understand that other owners and coaches could now effectively scout through use of a wireless connection. And his habit of micromanaging his football team became counterproductive. It seemed like during the last dozen or so years of his life Davis could not go a season without having to fire the Raiders’ head coach. The Raiders could no longer claim to be the most successful team in the NFL during these last years, and much of the reason could be blamed on Al Davis.
It’s probably been overstated about how much Davis cared for his players. Many of his players adored the miscreant, but others didn’t seem to come to such a great ending in their playing careers. Matuszak and Alzado both had their lives cut too short – the former because of known substance abuse and the latter allegedly by steroid use. I use the term “allegedly” here because, though Alzado claimed the brain tumor that would eventually kill him came about due to steroid use, no medical specialist has yet to give his claim any credibility.
There are few things I do admire about Al Davis. One was that he seemed more concerned with his football team’s success on the football team that he did about any ledger statement. The other was that he kissed up to no one and ran his team exactly like he wanted it to be run. It’s remarkable story that he could have so much success in a league that wanted nothing to do with him or his organization. From the day he took over as head coach and general manager of the Raiders in 1962, he put his personal mark on the team that was to be his until the date of his death almost fifty years later. At the age of 33, he was the youngest individual to ever play these two roles. Besides revolutionizing the scouting of players, he opened up the passing game and created what was to become known as the “west coast” offense. Only Al Davis, someone with enough assets to run a professional sports franchise, could have been viewed as an anti-establishment outsider. The logo of the Raiders, one of the most famous in all of football, was one that Davis created.
In one real sense Davis had a positive influence upon the game. Davis was well ahead of his time for an owner of a football team when it came to race relations. Davis scouted heavily for black players in the early 1960s. Davis refused to allow the Raiders to play a preseason game in Mobile, Alabama and also refused to allow an AFL “All Star” game being played in New Orleans because of segregationist policies in both cities. Davis was the first NFL owner to hire a black coach. The rest of the owners were far behind Davis in these practices.
For sentimental reasons, I wish that there could be more owners of sports franchises like Al Davis. I grow tired of a media that covers sports as if all great athletes were plaster saints. Al Davis was at least open about his own flaws.
© Robert S. Miller 2011