Al Davis, whose iron-fisted reign over the Raiders for practically their entire existence led to three Super Bowl titles and made the silver-and-black franchise a symbol of renegade toughness, died Saturday. He was 82.
Brilliant, enigmatic and unapologetically independent, Mr. Davis turned the Raiders into one of the most successful franchises in pro football in the 1960s and ’70s. A keen judge of talent, he was willing to accept other team’s castoffs and troublemakers and able to get the best out of them.
He defied the National Football League by moving the team to Los Angeles in 1982 without league approval, then brought it back to Oakland in 1995. The Raiders won Super Bowls in 1977 and 1981 and a third while in L.A. in 1984.
They reached the Super Bowl one more time after the 2002 season but lost to Tampa Bay and coach Jon Gruden, whom Mr. Davis had traded to the Buccaneers earlier that year for four high draft choices and $8 million.
Since that Super Bowl, however, the Raiders have struggled and Mr. Davis became more reclusive as his health deteriorated.
Despite a 8-year playoff drought, Mr. Davis rarely missed an opportunity to burnish his own image or hearken back to the Raiders’ glory days. When Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died in July 2010, Mr. Davis said, “I judge sports figures based on individual achievement, team achievement and contributions to the game. George was right up there with me at No. 1 – bright, aggressive and, most of all, not afraid.”
It was as if he were writing his own epitaph.
In his personal feuds with former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, tailback Marcus Allen and others, Mr. Davis was as intense as he was toward the game itself. When he fired coach Lane Kiffin four weeks into the 2008 season, he took great pains – even using an overhead projector – during a news conference to state his case for not paying Kiffin the rest of his contract.
No other owner in modern professional sports history has dominated his franchise as thoroughly and for as long as Mr. Davis. He reveled in victories, both on the field and in his frequent courtroom skirmishes, and loved to use team slogans like “Pride and Poise,” “Commitment to Excellence,” “Team of the Decades” and “the Greatness of the Raiders,” even when the Raiders’ struggles drained them of meaning.
He antagonized NFL executives, opposing owners and public officials in both the East Bay and Southern California with his threats to move the team and his willingness to take practically any dispute involving the team to court.
“I don’t care if people like me,” he said. “I just want them to respect me, even fear me.”
I don’t believe in speaking ill of the dead so I won’t. I’ll just say that since 1982 the team has been far more popular with the fans than the owner.
Davis has run the Raiders since I was a little kid. It will be interesting to see what happens to the team in the post-Davis era.