“Just win, baby.” –Al Davis
Controversial and combative are two words often used to describe Al Davis, the principal owner of the Oakland Raiders who died Oct. 8. He was much more than that – a creator, a builder and a dedicated believer in his team. His story as he described it was a “tunnel life” focused on football.
“He was my best friend,” said former Raiders Coach John Madden. “It’s Al Davis. Al Davis doesn’t die. Just the shock of it. Even though you could see him and knew he was sick and he was failing, he is a fighter, he fights that, you know he was gonna beat it.”
Davis died a legend, even as he led a struggling organization. His Raiders, a dominant force from the mid-’60s through the mid-’80s, hadn’t recorded a winning season in 10 years. Their last Super Bowl victory occurred when he was a “mere” 54 years old. At 82, many fans and critics felt he’d lost his touch, that he had held on to his power for too long.
Davis led the Raiders for all but three of the team’s 52 seasons as coach, general manager or owner. Under this leadership, the Raiders won three Super Bowls and 15 AFC-West divisional titles. He was an ambitious and driven leader who pushed for greatness, victory and dominance. He could be abrasive and demanding, and always expected blind loyalty. His well-known catch phrase was “Don’t adjust. Just dominate.”
Davis took on the established order, attacking the NFL. He created an image of the Raiders as aggressive, nasty and powerful. He was behind the selection of a pirate logo and silver and black color scheme. Davis is also credited with hiring the first black and Hispanic head coaches in the NFL. He also recently appointed the first female CEO.
As a pro football team owner, Davis was often involved in details and decisions atypical for such a figure. This appeared to some to work poorly later in his career as he was criticized for poor personnel selection, feuding with star players, and an inability to retain head coaches. He was thought by many to be a stubborn, eccentric old man who couldn’t accept that his best leadership years had passed.
Nevertheless, as argumentative as Davis could be, his career as outlined in his New York Times obituary holds lessons for any manager looking for an example of how and how not to lead change.
- Be clear in your mission. “Just win, baby!” was the Raider’s motto. Respect was not something Davis craved for his team. He wanted others to fear him, and in part it led him to design the Raider’s colors and logo.
- Know the game. Davis played football in college and began as an assistant upon graduation. He served as an assistant to the legendary Sid Gilman who coached the San Diego Chargers and from 1963 (except for a short time in 1966 when he was commissioner of the American Football League), he was either coach or owner of the Oakland Raiders.
- Promote talent. Al Davis was a shrewd judge of football management potential. He promoted John Madden to head coach and he piloted the Raiders to their first Super Bowl title. Such was his push for talent that Davis hired the first Hispanic coach, Tom Flores, and the first black head coach, Art Schell.
- Stand up for what you believe. Davis was head coach of the Oakland Raiders from 1963 to 1966, but gave it up to serve as the commissioner of the American Football League, which was the upstart to the lordly National Football League. Under his watch, the AFL gathered NFL stars and drove up signing bonuses for college players.
Like all leaders Al Davis was not perfect, and very often his imperfections were more evident, but he built a sustainable football franchise and its value has only risen with the times.
“He was a pioneer,” said Jim Plunkett, who won two Super Bowls with the Raiders. “He did so many things. He was a coach, he was the commissioner of the AFL, became the owner of the Raiders and he ran that club the way he saw fit. He brought in players that everyone else was discarding, including me, and he made it work.”