NFL loses a legend with death of Raiders' Al Davis

October 8, 2011

The NFL lost one of its most legendary figures and perhaps its all-time maverick Saturday when the Oakland Raiders announced the death of their owner, Al Davis.

Davis, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was 82.

He was an anti-establishment icon in the nation’s most popular and prosperous sport, clashing with the league in court in the 1980s and ’90s over rights to the Los Angeles market and transforming teams filled with players unwanted elsewhere into the winners of three Super Bowl titles.

Davis didn’t merely fire coaches. He ousted them and then fought with them over the money in their contracts. He played the part of the renegade proudly, with his trademark black-and-white sweat suits and his “Just win, baby” motto. But friends and close associates also described him as fiercely loyal, and his contributions to the sport included not only stints as a coach, front-office executive and owner but also a role that helped to shape the history of the sport when he served as the commissioner of the American Football League.

“Al Davis’s passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a written statement. “He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level. The respect he commanded was evident in the way that people listened carefully every time he spoke. He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the NFL.”

Davis, who was born in Brockton, Mass., and grew up in Brooklyn, reached the NFL in 1954 at age 24, doing front-office work for the Baltimore Colts. He joined the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960 as an offensive assistant for coach Sid Gillman, and by 1963 he became the 33-year-old head coach and general manager of the Raiders.

He became the AFL’s commissioner in 1966 and oversaw the rival league’s bid to challenge the NFL for professional-football supremacy until the two leagues merged for the 1970 season.

“Al Davis has long been a pillar of professional football and a leader of one of our most legendary franchises,” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “His contributions, dedication and foresight changed the game for the better. The league has lost one of its all-time greats.”

Davis’s Raiders won Super Bowls in the 1976 and 1980 seasons while based in Oakland and in the 1983 season while based in Los Angeles. His relationship with the sport’s leaders was complex. Davis battled the NFL in courtrooms. Yet when Paul Tagliabue became the NFL’s commissioner in 1989, Davis called several times soon thereafter and urged Tagliabue to improve the league’s relationship with the players to end the period of frequent labor strife between the two sides.

Tagliabue listened. When the long-standing labor peace crafted by Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, the one-time Raiders offensive lineman who became the executive director of the union, was in danger of crumbling in 2006, Davis stood up at an owners’ meeting in Dallas and urged fellow owners to heed Tagliabue’s advice and approve the prospective deal with the players that was in front of them.

The owners did so, and Davis told reporters that day: “I love our league. It has its faults. But it’s the best in sports.”

The Raiders reached the Super Bowl in the 2002 season but lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They haven’t had a winning season since then, and Davis generated more headlines in recent years for firing coaches than for making much headway toward recapturing the franchise’s glorious past. He feuded publicly with Lane Kiffin after firing him as the team’s coach and refused to pay Kiffin the remainder of his contract, just as he once had refused to pay money that Mike Shanahan maintained he was owed after being fired as Davis’s coach.

But the Raiders have showed some signs of progress, going unbeaten in the AFC West last season en route to an overall record of 8-8. They’ll take a 2-2 record this season into Sunday’s game at Houston.

“Al Davis was one of the most innovative and dynamic pioneers in the history of the National Football League,” New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson said. “He was passionate about his team and about the game of professional football and he personified the legacy of the Raiders. We share with his family and friends our heartfelt sympathy on the news of his passing.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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