Al Davis, Maverick Owner of NFL’s Oakland Raiders, Dies at 82

Al Davis, the renegade owner of the Oakland Raiders whose battles with the National Football League gave him an outlaw image matching that of his silver-and-black- clad team, died at the age of 82.

The Raiders announced his death yesterday on their website, without providing any further details.

While imploring his players on the field to “Just win, baby,” Davis ran some of football’s biggest sideshows.

He first faced off with the NFL in the 1960s when, as the hard-charging commissioner of the rival American Football League, he escalated a tug-of-war for top players. The two leagues merged months into his tenure.

As owner of the Raiders, the team he led and loved as far back as 1963, he moved the franchise out of Oakland and to Los Angeles, then back to Oakland 13 years later, in a bid for a better stadium. He feuded with the NFL and with at least one Raiders star, Marcus Allen.

The Raiders won Super Bowls in 1976, 1980 and 1983 as well as 15 AFC West titles during an extended reign as one of the league’s best teams from 1963 to 2002. More recently they were among the league’s worst, winning 29 games and losing 83 from 2003 through 2009, before posting an 8-8 record in 2010. Oakland has a 2-2 record this season going into today’s game in Houston.

‘I’m the Raiders’

“People love the Raiders and every time they think of the Raiders, they think of Mr. Davis,” Willie Brown, a Hall of Fame cornerback and now an assistant with the team, said in a statement. “It’s a sad day in the Raider nation.”

Forbes magazine estimated the franchise’s value at $761 million in 2011, higher than only one other team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, in the 32-team league.

“History will dictate what my legacy is,” Davis said in an interview for “Straight Outta L.A.,” a documentary directed by rapper Ice Cube for ESPN in 2010. “Maverick is fine, ‘cause I am. Outlaw I’m not. But if believing in what you believe and sticking up for your rights and sticking up for the rights of others from time to time -- do it your way. Don’t let the culture tell you what do. That’s being a Raider.”

Regarding the team’s recent run of ineptitude, he said, “We slipped tremendously, and it’s my fault. I’m the custodian. I’m the Raiders, at least the face of it.”

On and On

Davis was inducted in 1992 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which hailed him as the only person to work in professional football as personnel assistant, scout, assistant coach, head coach, general manager, commissioner and team owner. “I love the game, I love the league, I love my team,” he said at his induction ceremony.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said yesterday, “There was no element of the game of professional football for which Al did not enjoy a thorough and complete level of knowledge and passion.”

“He’ll be sorely missed,” said Jim Plunkett, who quarterbacked the Raiders’ last two Super Bowl-winning teams. “His contributions to the game of football go on and on.”

“Al Davis’s passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level.”

Racehorse Football

Arthur Allen Davis was born on July 4, 1929, in Brockton, Massachusetts, the second of two sons in a Jewish family. He grew up in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, where his family had moved for his father’s work as a rain-coat manufacturer.

He was a reserve on the Erasmus Hall High School basketball team and was cut from the varsity football team at Syracuse University, where he earned an English degree, according to a 1991 Los Angeles Times profile.

Right out of college, he became line coach for the football team at Adelphi College in New York, then head coach of the U.S. Army team at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. For one year, 1954, he ran player personnel for the Baltimore Colts of the NFL, then returned to the college ranks at The Citadel, where he introduced an early no-huddle offense called racehorse football, and at the University of Southern California.

“All my life, all I wanted to do was coach and lead men,” he told the ESPN documentary. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1991 that Davis’s fascination with military history was reflected in a slogan on each edition of the team’s travel itinerary: “Let’s go to war!”

NFL, AFL Merger

In 1960, he moved permanently to the pros, coaching receivers for the Los Angeles Chargers in their inaugural season in the American Football League. Before the 1963 season he became head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders, who had won just nine games and lost 33 in their first three years. Davis turned the team around, winning AFL coach of the year honors after a 10-4 season.

AFL owners named him commissioner in April 1966. He pledged to fight the bigger, more established NFL for top players and declared himself uninterested in merging the two leagues.

Within months, though, back-channel negotiations among owners of the two leagues produced a merger agreement and, in January 1967, the first game between NFL and AFL champions -- what would later become known as Super Bowl I.

Davis, “feeling betrayed and made to look foolish” by the merger, according to biographer Mark Ribowsky, returned to the Raiders as part-owner and managing general partner. The team earned a spot in Super Bowl II, losing to the Green Bay Packers.

Sole General Partner

During the next two decades, Davis first outmaneuvered one partner and then outlived another to become the franchise’s majority owner and sole general partner. His ascendancy coincided with that of the team. The Raiders cruised through the 1976 season on the way to their first championship in Super Bowl XI, winning again in 1980 and 1983.

The first two championships were as Oakland’s team, while the 1983 triumph culminated the team’s first year as the Raiders of Los Angeles.

Davis moved the franchise, over the objections of other NFL team owners, after asking for the addition of luxury boxes at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. With the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission, the Raiders went to court to successfully challenge an NFL rule requiring teams to win league consent before relocating. The team and commission also won millions in damages in an antitrust case against the league.

Back to Oakland

In 1987, following the collapse of plans to renovate their new home, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Raiders signed a deal with another nearby city -- Irwindale, which agreed to lend $115 million for a new 65,000-seat stadium to be built by 1990.

That too, devolved into squabbling, and in 1990, after a public courtship with yet another suitor, Sacramento, the Raiders announced they would return to Oakland, which also fell through. The team signed a 20-year lease agreement to remain in Los Angeles, with $145 million in promised renovations to the Los Angeles Coliseum. Those renovations weren’t made.

After the 1994 season, Davis gave up on one final prospect, a new stadium at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles. “The owners stopped me,” he said on ESPN. “For them to give their OK, they wanted me to take a second team, and I wouldn’t take a second NFL team into Hollywood Park. I just wanted to be alone.” He brought the team back to Oakland, which agreed to add seats and make other improvements to its stadium.

His Own Course

Davis followed his own course other times as well.

In the 1987 draft, Davis used the Raiders’ final pick to choose Bo Jackson, even though Jackson one year earlier had rebuffed football for Major League Baseball. Wooed by Davis, who offered full-time pay for part-time play, Jackson joined the Raiders after the 1987 baseball season ended and went on to play through 1991.

In 1989, Davis promoted Art Shell, a former Raider star player, from assistant coach to head coach, making him the first black head coach in the modern era of the NFL.

Davis never cited a reason for his long feud with Allen, the running back who was the team’s first-round draft pick in 1982 and most valuable player of Super Bowl XVIII. In a television interview in his final months with the team in 1992, Allen said Davis had “attempted to ruin” his career.

Asked about Allen in the ESPN documentary, Davis would say only, “It’s a deeper story than you even dream, that I was well aware of, and I just got a certain approach to life.”

Davis and his wife, Carol, had a son, Mark.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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