When I was picked to cover the Raiders for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1967, I thought I knew football, having watched games since childhood and even covering college football for one year for that paper. But the first time I sat down to talk with Al Davis in training camp, I realized I really knew very little. From that point, whenever Davis was willing to talk with me, I listened and learned.
Davis, who died Saturday, was at the top of his game, still young — 38 that year — and brimming with energy and ideas. He had that drive that few have to be the very best, and one of his methods was to divide the world into us vs. them, with the second group much the larger. He convinced himself that others were out to get him, which soon became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
He had left the Raiders in 1966 to become AFL commissioner, devising a strategy to force the established NFL to sue for peace by going after top NFL quarterbacks, including John Brodie of the 49ers. Davis’ strategy forced the merger, but he did not get the prize he wanted: commissioner of the expanded NFL.
“You couldn’t even get the votes of owners in our league,” said Raiders owner Wayne Valley, a plain-spoken man who then hired Davis back.
Valley wanted Davis to be a coach and general manager, but Davis wanted no more of coaching. Instead, he came back as managing general partner, as Valley arranged for him to buy 10 percent of the club. Since the book value of the Raiders was only $185,000, Davis bought in for $18,500.
Davis didn’t coach long enough for anybody to make predictions about his coaching future, but he was brilliant at putting a team together. He had help from Ron Wolf, who started a long and successful career as a pro football executive under Davis; it was Wolf who convinced Davis to draft Ken Stabler in 1968. Scotty Stirling, then the general manager, and coach John Rauch convinced Davis to trade for quarterback Daryle Lamonica before the 1967 season. Davis was reluctant because he didn’t want to give up receiver Art Powell.
But Davis was usually the one who made the big moves. He had a great eye for spotting talent that was unrecognized by other teams. Denver provided him with a couple of big opportunities. Willie Brown was languishing there, seldom playing, but Davis recognized a player who would be perfect in the bump-and-run pass defense the Raiders were using, at a time when most pro teams used zone defenses. Brown became a Hall of Fame defensive back for the Raiders. Davis traded for Hewritt Dixon, who had been playing tight end for the Denver Broncos, and turned him into a fullback who was also capable of going deep for a pass.
He drafted running back Kent McCloughan and turned him into a cornerback who slowed down even Lance Alworth, the best receiver in pro football at the time, before he sustained a career-ending knee injury. He picked up Ben Davidson and Isaac Lassiter off the waiver wire and they become the cornerstones of a defensive line that set a pro record for most sacks in a season, along with Tom Keating, obtained in a Davis trade in 1965.
He wasn’t an innovator; he brought Sid Gillman’s offense from the San Diego Chargers north. But he made the absolute most of that offense, using both speedy backs such as Clem Daniels and Charlie Smith, as well as receivers for quick strikes.
Davis had a long run of success, from the time of the Raiders’ first Super Bowl, in 1967, to the late ’80s, when the team was in Los Angeles. Like an aging athlete, he stayed on stage too long and the magic evaporated. But I’ll never forget how brilliant he was in the early years, and how much I learned from him.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.