Of all the sports owners who’ve passed away since I became a sports fan, very few have garnered as much attention as Al Davis’ death last Saturday, October 8, 2011 at the age of 82. Really, the only other time I can remember people paying this much attention to an owner dying was when George Steinbrenner passed away in 2010. But then again, few owners captivated the public in life like Al Davis.
It’s not like Davis’ Oakland Raiders teams were all that successful in recent years. The Raiders have made the NFL playoffs six times in my lifetime and only three times since moving back to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995. And even when the Silver and Black did make the playoffs, it never really ended well; those six playoff appearances included such lowlights as
- a 51-3 blowout by the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game in January 1991.
- The infamous “Tuck Rule Game” in January 2002 where a then-little known NFL rule took away a fumble by Tom Brady and kept the New England Patriots’ quest for what would prove to be their first Super Bowl title alive.
- Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003, where the Raiders lost 48-21 to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team coached by Jon Gruden, who Davis had literally traded away the previous offseason. Also possibly the most boring Super Bowl I’ve ever watched.
Otherwise, Davis made headlines more for his obsession with drafting players more on speed and strong arms, a fixation which culminated in the Raiders using the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft to select one of the most infamous draft busts of all time, QB JaMarcus Russell, and his penchant for firing coaches. The most infamous example of this was in 2008, when he canned Lane Kiffin as the Raiders’ coach and used an overhead projector to list Kiffin’s various failings.
Davis also refused to pay back any money to the L.A. suburb of Irwindale after a failed and expensive attempt to build a new stadium for the Raiders there and left a lot of Los Angeles sports fans bitter when he moved the Raiders back to Oakland.
But while his last few decades weren’t that successful, in his first few decades as coach/GM/owner of the Raiders, Davis made a bumbling little AFL team into a widely respected and feared juggernaut that made it to four Super Bowls and won three of them.
He also served as commissioner of the AFL, helping to put it on the map, so every Bills, Jets, Patriots and Dolphins fan on this campus owes him a debt of gratitude. And perhaps most importantly, he hired the league’s first African-American coach, first Latino coach and first female GM.
Say what you will about Al Davis’ obsession with winning, at least he never let race or gender get in the way of finding people who could help him win. And sadly, that hasn’t been a given in sports far too often.