The man knew football. Also football coaches. Al Davis gave Jim Harbaugh his first pro coaching position. Al Davis gave Hue Jackson his first pro head coaching position.
Davis had his well-reported faults, but consider his virtues. Those two gentlemen always will.
“I don’t think there’s a day goes by I don’t try to implement something that I didn’t learn from Mr. Davis,” Harbaugh said.
What we learned, what maybe we already knew after his tenure at Stanford, is Harbaugh understands how to build a winning team — something he’s done in this first season with the 49ers, who are 4-1.
“When you have an opportunity to learn from somebody like him,” Jackson said of Davis, “and be around him, there’s nothing like it. Nothing.”
Before Jackson became coach of the Raiders, there was nothing like this, a winning record — they are 3-2 — and optimism.
What is a person but his legacy? Al Davis, who died Saturday at age 82, was single-minded, even ruthless, in his pursuit of success.
He left us with mixed feelings, admiration and disapproval. Yet no less importantly, he left an imprint on the game which was his obsession. He wanted to outsmart you. He wanted to beat you.
Al Davis hired Bill Walsh as an assistant. Al Davis hired John Madden as an assistant and elevated him to head coach. Al Davis hired Tom Flores as an assistant and then made him head coach. Al Davis hired Jon Gruden as head coach. Al Davis hired Jim Harbaugh as an assistant. Al Davis hired Hue Jackson as an assistant and subsequently chose him as head coach.
An all-star cast employed by a genius, a label applied to Davis before it was attached in later years to Walsh.
It was strange Monday, attending the media sessions first at Santa Clara for the Niners, then later at Alameda for the Raiders.
The weekend wins were a topic. The weekend loss of Al Davis was no less a topic.
Harbaugh was the Raiders’ quarterbacks coach in 2002 — their Super Bowl season — and 2003. He left to take the head job at University of San Diego, even though Davis pleaded with him to stay in the NFL, stay with the Raiders.
Last January there was talk Harbaugh might go to the Raiders, but as we know, he took over the Niners.
When asked, in a usual journalist’s attempt to simplify the complex, what was the one thing he learned from Davis, Harbaugh answered, “There’s not one thing. There are hundreds of things, all very important. ... He was a great man.”
Please Jim, one thing. “Just win.”
Which, of course, was the thing Davis believed in most, baby.
Jackson, two hours later and 35 miles away, duplicated Harbaugh’s thoughts, almost verbatim.
“There’s so many things,” said Jackson when someone wondered what he would miss most about Davis. “There’s not just one thing.
“Probably just the late-night conversations when we would talk about practice, about what we needed to take care of ... A lot of things I’d probably already thought of, but it was reassuring having him say it.”
Advice for both Jackson and Harbaugh which never was unappreciated and you believe never will be forgotten.