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Al Davis, football pioneer and renegade owner of Oakland Raiders, dies at 82

Al Davis, the owner and onetime coach of the Oakland Raiders who battled the National Football League while becoming one of its most influential and colorful figures, died Oct. 8 at his home in Oakland, Calif. He was 82.

The Raiders announced his death but did not provide a cause.

Mr. Davis built his teams in his own swaggering, devil-may-care image, seeking out tough players who instilled fear in their opponents.

He coined a slogan — “Just win, baby!” — that became one of the most celebrated rallying cries in sports. His team did anything within the rules, and sometimes outside them, to win games.

“I don’t want to be the most respected team in the league,” he once said. “I want to be the most feared.”

In Mr. Davis’s 48 years at the helm, the Raiders became one of the most successful franchises in American sports, winning 15 conference titles and three Super Bowls, in 1977, 1981 and 1984.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the National Football League — with the possible exception of [former Chicago Bears owner and coach] George Halas — who’s had as big an impact as he’s had,” former Raiders linebacker Matt Millen, now a TV analyst, told the Los Angeles Times.

In 1963, Mr. Davis became the Raiders’ head coach and general manager. He remade the team in his own brash image, selecting the team’s colors — silver and black — and its logo, a helmeted pirate with an eye patch. For the rest of his life, Mr. Davis rarely wore any colors other than black, silver or white.

He inherited a team that had a 3-25 record the previous two years. In his first season, the Raiders went 10-4 and Mr. Davis was named coach of the year. During his three years as coach, he had a record of 23-16-3.

He adopted what he called a “vertical game,” with long passes and other crowd-pleasing tactics. He coached or signed a long roster of players other teams considered too old or too hard to handle, including defensive standouts Ben Davidson, John Matuszak and Willie Brown and offensive stars George Blanda, Jim Plunkett and Fred Biletnikoff.

Raiders players often had colorful nicknames — Ted “The Mad Stork” Hendricks, Ken “The Snake” Stabler, Jack “The Assassin” Tatum — and their crafty, bone-crunching style of play left black-and-blue marks around the league.

In 1988, Mr. Davis named one of his former players, offensive tackle Art Shell, the Raiders’ coach, making him the first African American to lead an NFL team. Another of his players, Gene Upshaw, became the head of the NFL Players Association.

In 1966, Mr. Davis became commissioner of the American Football League — the upstart rival to the NFL — and immediately launched a campaign to sign NFL stars, including quarterbacks Roman Gabriel and John Brodie. The two leagues met in the first Super Bowl after the 1966 season, and the NFL and AFL formally merged in 1970.

After two months as AFL commissioner, Mr. Davis resigned and returned to his first love: running the Oakland Raiders. He bought a 10 percent ownership stake for $18,500 in 1966 and put himself in charge of running the team. He eventually became the majority owner and handpicked his coaches, the most successful of whom was Hall of Famer John Madden.

“Whenever there was a time when people said, ‘Let’s do it the way we’ve always done it,’ ” Madden told the Los Angeles Times, “Al would say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Let’s look at this. Maybe there’s another way to do it.’ ”

Arthur Allen Davis was born on July 4, 1929, in Brockton, Mass., and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father was a well-to-do businessman, but Mr. Davis cultivated the image of a street-smart hustler, with his dark glasses and thick Brooklyn accent.

After graduating from Syracuse University, Mr. Davis turned to coaching. While serving in the Army at Fort Belvoir in 1952 and 1953, he coached a military team that defeated the University of Maryland, the reigning national champion, in a scrimmage.

“All my life, all I wanted to do was coach and lead men,” Mr. Davis said in an ESPN documentary.

In the 1950s, he worked for the Baltimore Colts and was an assistant college coach before joining the staff of the AFL’s Los Angeles Chargers in 1960, one year before the team moved to San Diego.

Mr. Davis won a suit against the NFL to move the Raiders to Los Angeles in 1982, only to return to Oakland 13 years later. He often squabbled with other owners and his own players and coaches, and he carried on a steady feud with longtime NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Survivors include his wife, Carol Segall Davis, and a son, Mark Davis.

When he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, Mr. Davis said with typical bravado, “I said many times that it should have happened a long time ago.”

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