In the stadium of his East Bay youth, on the field where he broke the collarbone of a star quarterback and helped the Hayward High Farmers win a championship, Jack Del Rio finally was home. Wearing a silver-and-black nylon pullover with a large team crest, he walked into the Coliseum for what he called a dream realized Friday night, a chance to revive the famed football franchise he loved as a kid while watching Kenny Stabler and John Matuszak with his father.
“A lot of emotion,” he said, “a lot of emotions just thinking about it.”
The past. The future. And what has been miserably lacking in the space between. “We want to create a winning culture,” Del Rio said. “We want to take the torch and build this thing great again.”
The rest of us might view “this thing” far differently, as a possible career suicide mission. He’s the newest head coach of the Raiders, who still are based in Oakland but soon could be headed to southern California by way of San Antonio, London or a strip-mall parking lot in San Leandro. For all the potential nostalgia over Del Rio’s homecoming, the stands of the dilapidated edifice were only one-third full at kickoff for the preseason opener, and those people who were inside — including the usual costumed loons in the Black Hole — were cautiously hopeful at best and funereal at worst. Since 2003, this franchise has spun into a 56-136 death spiral during which eight coaches have failed and been collectively outscored by 1,428 points. Good football men come to the Raiders and leave as bad football men.
Is Del Rio just the latest kamikaze pilot?
Or might he be the one who saves them, even if it’s for a Los Angeles audience? Might he be the one who takes this always-bizarre scene — a “Praise Jesus” revival in the parking lot, old NFL Films music mixed with Def Leppard during warmups, the baseball infield dirt in all its glory, disproportionate boos for the St. Louis Rams, weed scents on the ramps — and turns the Raiders into a serious operation?
And might he realize that all a Raiders fan needs is an offense to feel like the old days are back? There was Derek Carr, finding rookie missile Amari Cooper three times early as the crowd chanted “Cooooop!” There was Cooper, exchanging welcome shoves with cornerback Janoris Jenkins. There was running back Latavius Murray, 6-3 and 230, rumbling for 17 yards, followed by the Big Janikowski for a field goal. Fun — for the 40,000 or so who eventually arrived, enjoying a 18-3 victory in which the efficient Raiders committed only one first-half penalty.
“It was an excellent night. It was a clean night. I’m overall very pleased with the effort,” said Del Rio, who still looks and talks like one of the players.
Just win, dude.
“He just looks like a player, man. He’s just chilling,” Khalil Mack said. “That’s what you really want to see in your head coach, a relaxed, confident guy. He has the swagger of a player.”
So far, though one never should forecast even moderate expectations around here, you do have to like the man’s style and approach. He hasn’t purged the team nickname, but Del Rio has banned all negativity about what degenerated during the eras of Dennis Allen, Hue Jackson, Tom Cable, Lane Kiffin, Norv Turner and the rest, going so far to ask former team greats to avoid the topic while visiting camp in Napa. To facilitate this complete mental makeover, he hired a “mindset” coach who advises players how to think, eat, sleep, channel energy and exude positive vibes. Oh, he’s still old-school enough, as a 30-year NFL veteran, to make a player drop for pushups when he makes a mental error on the field. “Those are things that get you beat,” he said, “so you need to provide plenty of incentive to make sure they don’t happen.” But Del Rio refuses to let anyone believe the mistakes happen because of karma, because they always happen to the Raiders.
“That’s not a part of who we are right now. We’re going forward,” he said. “I always attempt to paint a picture. I know these guys really want to win. They’re willing to work, and we need to paint a picture and show them how to get there.”
Unlike some of his predecessors — unforgivably, Allen, Jackson, Cable and Kiffin had no NFL head-coaching pedigrees before arriving — Del Rio has the experience to paint many pictures. He coached the Jacksonville Jaguars for nine years and 142 games, three in the playoffs, and also filled in as a Denver Broncos interim coach two years ago when John Fox underwent a heart procedure. His tenure didn’t end well in Jacksonville, where he had only three winning seasons and was fired in 2011, and some league people think he’ll never be more than an average head coach.
So Del Rio, along with the fury of being home again, has a burning desire to demonstrate his coaching prowess. What better way than turning around the ultimate dead-end franchise? “I feel like the last three years have been very beneficial in terms of me being re-energized, rejuvenated,” he said. “I was able to collect myself, go through some things that went well and didn’t go well. I was able to make sure my thoughts going forward were to not make mistakes again where I had made mistakes, to do the things that I did well even better. Basically, just grow from the experience.”
He suffered rejection when his alma mater, the University of Southern California, nixed him for Steve Sarkisian, whose early reviews are mixed as the so-called “next Pete Carroll.” The Trojans’ loss may be the Raiders’ gain. Not that they’ll make the playoffs this season, but an 8-8 push is logical knowing the talent Del Rio inherits from Reggie McKenzie’s drafts. As the team’s first general manager since a fellow named Al Davis took over the entire operation decades ago, McKenzie committed early blunders by drafting cornerback D.J. Hayden in the first round in 2013, then stockpiling too many burned-out veterans in free agency last year. But McKenzie has been brilliant in his last two drafts, nailing Carr and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mack last year, then wisely plucking Cooper at No. 4 this year to create the longball passing game that once was the franchise trademark.
“I want to see how they jell and come together. I feel pretty good about this team. Really good,” McKenzie said. “I think we’re big and strong. I think we’re fast. I like the way the players are responding to the coaches, the energy is off the chain. I think it’s looking the way I like it to look.”
Del Rio also has effectively managed the L.A. distraction. He wouldn’t have taken the job without a promise: Owner Mark Davis would spend $8 million on a practice facility upgrades in Alameda, where a new weight room and a modern look were sorely needed. It sends a swift message to the players when Davis makes a sizable investment just down the street from where the city of Oakland and Alameda County won’t pledge a penny to a new stadium project, which prompted Davis to slam local government officials last week.
“We need help, and they don’t want to give us any,” Davis told the Examiner at a special meeting of NFL owners. “I haven’t heard anything from them. Nothing. Zero. I don’t know why. Ask them. They’re the ones who can answer that. Hey, I don’t know what they think. I really don’t know. All I can answer is that we want to stay there. We’ve got 500 million dollars to invest in [the area] and be there 30, 40 years — the rest of my life, the Oakland Raiders. I’ve said that consistently and I haven’t changed.
“But we have Raiders Nation, and a lot of those fans said they’ll be happy to drive to L.A. if we go there. They understand we’re not trying to run out of there.”
With the NFL wanting at least one team based in L.A. next season, a clock ticks over the Raiders’ season. They conceivably could play their final game in Oakland on Christmas Eve. Del Rio refuses to let it be a distraction. “It’s really simple for me. I’m asked to lead this football team. We’re going to be fairly insulated because we won’t affect [a relocation decision],” he said. “We will be impacted, potentially, down the road. But that’s down the road. Why worry about things we don’t have control over? We talk to the players about it all the time. Concentrate on preparing for this season and playing great football for each other, for our fans, and let the people that need to take care of that stuff do their jobs.”
The story would be remarkable if Jack Del Rio, on the very soil where he starred as a high-school athlete and watched rock concerts, resurrected the Raiders. For now, it’s just cool that he’s here, a head coach who actually might know what he’s doing.
“You can tell he’s done this before. It’s really cool to play for him,” Carr said. “We’re heading the right way.”