Amid the hype and opulence of Super Bowl 15, Al Davis, the brains of the Oakland Raider organization, lurks in the shadows. And the script for this game couldn't be unfolding better if he had written it himself.
Of course, an Oakland win over Philadelphia in Sunday's 6 p.m. contest would be the ultimate climax to the story -- and the ultimate embarrassment to his long-time adversary, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who faces a February court battle with Davis, the club's managing general partner, over the Raiders' attempt to move to Los Angeles.
Davis and his team thrive in the controversial atmosphere that has engulfed his Super Bowl. The Raiders are being cast as the underdogs, and they have turned the game into a sort of great crusade to kick sand in the face of an unappreciative sports world.
"No one thought we would have a winning season this year, then no one thought we'd get into the playoffs, then no one thought we'd win a playoff game," said guard Gene Upshaw, who repeats this vintage, chip-on-the-shoulder Raider message over and over. "No one thinks we should be here either. Only we think we belong. Now it's up to us to prove we are right."
A Super Bowl win would supply the final touches on what already has become Davis' proudest achievement.
He took a team that needed to be rebuilt, traded its two best players, stood firm when a retread quarterback became a starter and then watched as Rozelle and the rest of the NFL establishment blanched while the Raiders marched to New Orleans.
And all the while, Davis was waging his savage, bitter battle with the league over the proposed switch to Los Angeles. He has turned his showcase of NFL games into his personal calling card. And that card is stamped, at least in the opinion of Ron Wolfe, Oakland's personnel director, with one word: "genius."
A sampler from the Al Davis legend, which has grown and thrived over the 34 years he has been in football:
The Raiders are trailing New Orleans, 35-14, at halftime in a 1979 game. Davis, who claims he no longer really coaches the Raiders (he coached them from 1963 to 1966), orders a change from a three to a four-man defensive front. Oakland wins, 42-35.
He once wanted to move a wide receiver, Drew Buie, through waivers. So he contacted 12 teams, talking trade for an end, while placing Buie on the waiver list. The other clubs, figuring Buie was a dud, ignored him. Davis then re-signed him.
Foes long have accused Davis of watering the Oakland Coliseum field to turn it into a slow track. Hours before the AFC championship game two weeks ago in San Diego, it began raining. "They say Al has connections, but this is too much," was the running gag throughout the press box.
He had been coach of the Raiders for just eight days before Harry Wismer, then owner of the New York Jets, was accusing Oakland of illegally signing wide receiver Art Powell, who became the first of Davis' successful player reclamation projects.
He persuaded Edward DeBartolo, owner of the San Francisco 49ers, to hire Joe Thomas as the team's general manager. Davis received a finder's fee, reported to be $150,000. Thomas soon had the 49ers in turmoil before being fired. "All Al wanted to do is undermine his closest competitor," said one league executive. "And he got paid for it."
When Davis was an assistant coach with the old Los Angeles Chargers of the AFL, he convinced Lance Alworth to sign with the team by drawing football diagrams on a table cloth and then pointing to the wide receiver spot before telling him: "This is your position. You can be great. You can catch 10 passes a game." Alworth later found out Davis made the exact same spiel to every player he was trying to sign.
Other than perhaps Cincinnati's Paul Brown, no NFL owner dominates his franchise quite like Davis dominates Oakland.
The Raiders have no general manager, no offensive or defensive coordinator, no membership in a scouting combine. Davis is the Oakland Raiders; his employes for the most part are nameless faces who receive little of the credit for the team's success and certainly little of the blame for its failures.
Nor has anyone else in the NFL gone about maintaining greatness in quite the same way as Davis. He has kept the Raiders a force for the 17 years he has been with the club -- they have the best record of any team in the league over that period -- through a combination of shrewd trades, good drafts and successful gambles on supposedly washed-up players. His closest competitors during that span, Dallas, Los Angeles and Minnesota, have relied almost totally on the draft.
Davis attends practice almost daily, has his own copy of game films and makes regular strategical suggestions. And he has won with a puppet for a coach (John Rauch), with a strong-minded door kicker for a coach (John Madden) and with a calm, single-minded ex-quarterback for a coach (Tom Flores).
In the process, the image of Davis and the Raiders has far exceeded reality.
The image is of an owner who is sinister, devious, mysterious, deceitful, cold, manipulative. The image of the team is dirty, brutal, bullish, offbeat, a bunch of outcasts and rebels just like the boss. That both the team and the owner wear black (and silver) only enhances their uncomplimentary portraits.
The Raiders, in reality, may not be candidates for the Mr. Nice Guy award, but they are far more relaxed and much more open-minded than, for example, the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I had the same image of Oakland as anyone else before I came here," said Bob Chandler, who was acquired from Buffalo in the offseason. "But I soon found out these guys aren't brutes. People have them stereotyped. Everything is low-key and relaxed here. But I also found out that Al Davis makes sure everything -- facilities, travel, accommodations -- is first class. That's why everyone responds to him."
Davis' image is far harder to crack. Davis himself refuses to shed much light on the matter. He says he doesn't know if he agrees with the idea he is a maverick; yet in the next breath, he says he never follows the crowd "and there is a certain group of owners who don't go for that approach."
This much is certain. Davis is a workaholic who doesn't believe in clock-watching for himself or his employes. He is an impulsive, odd-hour phone caller, a lover of politics and fine English literature, a devoted weightlifter and exercise buff.
He also sees only black and white in his relationships; there is no gray area for compromise. He is convinced the Los Angeles controversy has only reinforced his feelings -- that the league and Rozelle are out to do him in. He is feisty, shrewd and very complex. And he is obsessed with the desire to win.
"Just about everything that you hear about Al is completely opposite from the truth," said Madden, who had to win the Super Bowl in 1977 to finally prove he, not Davis, was coaching the Raiders. "He's not sinister. He's a very loyal guy.
"But once these images start, they can't be stopped. Things like watering the grass and putting grease on uniforms, maybe the knocks on those things were justified in the early days of the AFL. But not anymore. Yet now if we have luck with a player like John Matuszak, Al isn't given any credit. iBut look at the praise the Eagles get for what's happened with Claude Humphrey."
Says Wolfe, who has been with Davis on and off the last 18, sometimes stormy year: "He's a fine human being to the people who work for him. But if you mess him up, you get chewed out.He's hard on you, very hard."
And: "You don't sit down with him and talk about fishing in the bayous. He'd tell you to get lost. He isn't a guy you hold an off-the-cuff talk with. His life is football, that's all he really wants to think or talk about."
Dan Arkush, managing editor of Pro Football Weekly, has a unique realtionship with Davis, who was a close friend of Arkush's late father, Arthur. When Pro Football Weekly had financial problems recently, Davis and the Raiders bought 25 percent of the publication, although they have no editorial control. Now the weekly paper walks a tightrope trying to avoid being entangled by Davis' web.
"Talking to Al is like playing a massive mind game," Arkush said. "He seems to work every word to his advantage. He can be outright sincere and genuine, like when my father died. He is the most complex guy I've ever seen.
"You can learn more about football from him in 15 minutes than you could in a lifetime from anyone else. He is a genius about the game. But anyone who can put up with him for a year deserves a medal. You come out after eating a dinner with him and you feel like you've run five miles. He is just a very domineering person. He's no back-slapper, that's for sure.
"I think he has an inferiority complex. To make up for it, he loves to do things in big ways and he loves to project this tough-guy image."
Davis' individualtistic approach is maintained even in his speech and dress.
He has the improbable combination of a rough Brooklyn-Southern accent. He looks like something out of "The Hustler" with his greased-back hair, leather jackets, sun glasses, jewelry and those everpresent black-accented clothes.
Davis, 51, grew up in Brooklyn, the son of affluent parents. He was a sports fanatic who was enamored with Army, the Black Knights of the Hudson, and later made black the dominant color of the Raider uniforms. He chose as his hero New York Yankee General Manager George Weiss, a quiet behind-the-scenes wheeler and dealer.
"I try to keep a low profile," he said. "When I was a kid, the great genius in baseball was George Weiss. Maybe the other kids in my neighborhood admired the players, guys like Dixie Walker, Pee Wee Reese, Joe DiMaggio and all the rest. But Weiss was my hero. He developed a great organization, one that created a dynasty that professional sports will never see again."
Davis attended Wittenberg College and graduated from Syracuse before being named line coach at Adelphi. He later coached at The Citadel and Southern California, where his recruiting led to a two-year probation for the Trojans. He then joined Sid Gillman's staff with the Chargers. A fellow assistant on that staff was Chuck Noll.
Wolfe maintains that Davis still is "10 years ahead of everyone else in this league with his thinking."
He certainly was a major force in creating the NFL as we know it today. During his six-month tenure as commissioner of the AFL, he forced a merger with the NFL by signing eight of the older league's top quarterbacks and other stars. When the leagues merged, Rozelle was named commissioner and Davis was left to lament: "They didn't let me pursue the victory I had won."
Davis, who became the Raiders' head coach in 1963, returned to Oakland in 1966 as managing general partner, along with 16 percent interest in the team. It was a mercurial ascent up the pro football power ladder, and he has been jousting ever since with Rozelle and his fellow NFL owners.
Dominating his private wars is his overwhelming ego. Davis is convinced he has created the best organization in pro football through his own genius. He was instrumental in turning Oakland into a major league sports town by getting a major league stadium built. 'and now that there is resistance to his attempts to move that franchise to Los Angeles, he is responding the only way he knows: with what once was described as "his own of down-in-the-gut dirty in-fighting."
So what if Oakland has supported its team splendidly? So what if the other 27 owners are opposed to the move? Davis believes there will be a future major bidding war for free agents. The untapped riches in Los Angeles will give him the money he will need to keep the Raiders competitive in that skirmish -- and dominant in the league.
"You have to remember that when you talk about Al, the most important thing is that the Raiders are always No. 1 in his mind," said Wolfe. "They are his obsession. Everything else comes second." m
When Harland Svare was coaching the San Diego Chargers, he was certain that the locker room in Oakland was bugged by Davis. Before one game, Svare gave the place a thorough search. He finally looked up at a light bulb overhead and screamed, "Damn you, Al Davis, I know you are listening."
When Davis was told that story, he leaned back in his chair and laughed.
"It wasn't," he said, "in the light bulb."