Al Davis Leads His Raiders into Super Bowl XV, but Not for the Love of Pete
As managing general partner of the Oakland Raiders, Davis will look on with satisfaction as his team competes this week in its third Super Bowl. The Raiders are, in fact, the winningest team in pro football since 1963, the year Davis joined the organization as coach and general manager. But this season may represent Davis' greatest achievement, since his triumph has been accomplished with a motley roster of other teams' discards. His most spectacular reclamation project, journeyman quarterback Jim Plunkett, engineered the 34-27 upset of the San Diego Chargers which put Oakland in the championship game. But it was not Plunkett who received the symbol of victory. "No one took more abuse in this organization than one man," said Raiders defensive captain Gene Upshaw in the locker room. "He's gonna get the game ball—Al Davis."
If NFL Commissioner Rozelle has to award Davis the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Sunday's game in New Orleans, he may do so with a lot less enthusiasm. Rozelle, the smooth and powerful ex-publicity man, and Davis, the abrasive schemer with the lone wolf mentality, have been sniping at each other since 1966. Davis was the new commissioner of the upstart American Football League at the time, and it was his hard-nosed bargaining that led to the AFL-NFL merger. Even so, his personal choice for commissioner of the new league—himself—was passed over by his fellow owners. The NFL's Rozelle was chosen instead.
There has never been any love lost between the two men, and now Davis is challenging Rozelle again—not to mention all the other owners and his own Oakland fans. Though the Raiders have mostly filled their 50,000-seat stadium in the city across the bay from the City by the Bay, Davis wants to move the team to Los Angeles, where the 75,000-seat Coliseum is temptingly vacant. "I'm not trying to go to Nome, Alaska or Pocatello, Idaho," argues Davis. "I'm trying to go to a city that has good location, good weather, a big stadium and a huge population." Under league rules, however, three-fourths of his fellow owners would have to approve the shift of the franchise. Demonstrating the vast goodwill on which Davis can draw, the owners disapproved the move last March, 22-0, with the others abstaining.
While Davis claims his fellow football moguls are trying to keep him from making the money he needs to remain competitive, San Diego owner Gene Klein has called Davis "a sick man" and compared his publicity techniques to those of Hitler and Goebbels. The proposed move has also prompted a flurry of intense, if less hysterical, protests from Oaklanders, weary of having their city invidiously compared to San Francisco. The NFL is suing to stop the Raiders from moving, while Davis and the Los Angeles Coliseum commissioners are asking $213 million damages in a suit against the league. (In a deposition, Davis charges, among other things, that Rozelle was guilty of scalping tickets to last year's Super Bowl.) "I'm willing to go before any neutral body," says Davis, "and let them judge, rather than have my competitors tell me I have to stay here so they can eventually kick the hell out of me."
No one kicks the hell out of Davis for long—his competitive instinct is too finely honed. According to an instructive popular myth, former San Diego Coach Harland Svare is said to have approached a light fixture in the visitors' locker room at Oakland once, yelling, "Damn you, Al Davis, I know you're up there." Asked later if he had indeed bugged the Chargers, Davis would say only, "The thing wasn't in the light fixture, I'll tell you that."
Davis' father, Lou, was a successful children's clothing manufacturer who moved the family to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn when Al was 5. Strictly second-string as an athlete, Davis had the time and inclination to contemplate strategy. After graduating from Syracuse (in English) in 1950, he became assistant football coach at Adelphi University, then took a series of college jobs before becoming an assistant with the Chargers in 1960.
When Davis joined the Raiders, they had won only one game the season before. The following year he led them to a 10-4 mark. Though he owns only 25 percent of the team's stock and there are 14 other partners, nothing happens in the franchise without Al Davis' approval. It was his decision to choose little-known punter Ray Guy in the first round of the 1973 college draft, and to pick a widely belittled defensive back named Lester Hayes in 1977. Both rewarded him by becoming All-Pro performers. Equally decisive in matters of style, Davis also selected the team's distinctive colors, silver and black. "I used to be color-blind," he explains.
Such preoccupation has not left much time for Davis' wife, Carol, and their son, Mark, 25, a student at Chico State. The Raiders' office is just a 15-minute drive in Al's black Cadillac from his elegant Oakland home, where he screens the team's game films in the family room. "Thank heaven for those movies," Carol once observed wryly. "Otherwise I'd never see Al." The marriage, however, rests firmly on bedrock. When Carol was felled by a severe heart attack in 1979 and lay in a coma for two weeks, Davis talked hospital officials into giving him a bed in the intensive care unit and kept talking to her constantly, even though she could not respond. "I told Carol when we were married that the only thing that could take me away from football was life or death," he recalls. "She tested me." When Carol eventually recovered, the hospital staff was deluged with TV sets and other gifts from Davis. Sam Bercovich, an Oakland furniture store owner, says of his close friend: "People don't realize how sensitive Al is. His facade doesn't show it, but he's a very big-hearted guy."
Raised a Jew, Davis says he is not religious but goes to temple four times a year to pray for his father, who died in 1961. (His mother, Rose, lives on Long Island.) Al neither smokes nor drinks, and sweats through several hour-long workouts a week, starting with 100-yard sprints and finishing off in a weight room. Whatever his other vices, he has never been accused of not taking his work seriously. "I'm wrapped up in professional sport," admits Davis. "It's tunnel vision, a tunnel life. I'm not really part of society."