In recent years it's become almost cliche to mock Al Davis. Jokes about his appearance and some of his questionable draft choices abound. The man became almost a caricature of himself. His passing this past weekend is an opportunity to take a look at what he has done for the game of football and the legacy he's left behind.
Davis started his professional football career as the offensive end coach for the Raiders in 1960. In 1962 he was hired as the general manager and head coach of the Raiders. At the time he was 33 and the youngest ever head coach in professional football. This was the first major milestone that he set for football. The idea that young coaches could come in and be successful in the league.
He immediately moved on to his next innovation which would be the vertical air game. Basically it was a modfied version of the offense run by Sid Gillman. He kept the ideas of the spread, but instead of short passes he attacked down field. This was his second innovation. Before this time most teams concentrated solely on the run game, with passing coming only in desperate situations. Al Davis believed in being agressive and attacking his opponents.
This strategy earned him the AFL's Coach of the Year award for 1963.
In 1965 he was named to be the AFL Commissioner and this is where he really impacted the game of football. The AFL had previously been looked down as a sort of minor league or sideshow. Pete Rozell did all he could to foster this image, and Al Davis was determined to change this.
Davis encouraged the AFL teams to agressively pursue college recruits. This led to inflated contracts and some interesting stories about players being kept from view until they had signed contracts (usually by taking them out and showing them on the town with minders in tow). One result of this was Joe Namath being offered a contract of $400,000, at that time the highest amount ever paid to a player coming out of college.
Previously there had been an unwritten rule between the two leagues where it was understood that they would not try to sign players who were already under contract to other teams. In 1966 the New York Giants (an NFL team) broke this rule by signing kicker Pete Gogolak away from the Buffalo Bills (an AFL team). This did not sit well with Al Davis and he responded quickly. He immediately signed several starting NFL quarterbacks to higher deals with AFL teams. This was essentially the seeds of free agency.
He was the first to really recognize the power of TV. He inked deals with tv networks for playoff games as a separate entity from regular season games, thus providing two different revenue potentials for the league.
He encouraged the teams in his league to recruit from black colleges, something that just wasn't done in that time period. He encouraged them to sign aging veterans from the NFL who were said to be "over the hill".
After the two years with Davis at the helm of the AFL the NFL realized that it would be better to merge the two leagues. In 1966 Pete Rozelle and the NFL approached the AFL about merging the two leagues. Al Davis disagreed with the decision and resigned his position rather than remain on until the merger completed in 1970.
As owner/manager of the Raiders Al Davis has always been very generous to his players. This was also unusual in the 60s and 70s.
The area in which Al Davis was probably the most influential was that of race relations in professional football. The NFL had an unwritten rule that only 2 black players were to be hired at any one time, because otherwise who would the odd man out room with? Racism was rampant through the country and Al Davis hated it.
In 1963 the Raiders were supposed to play a pre-season game in Mobile Alabama. Due to segregation laws Davis refused to play the game and cancelled it. In 1965 an AFL All-Star game was scheduled to be played in New Orleans. Due to the same issues with segregation Davis told the city no and moved the game to Houston which didn't have the same laws.
Davis was the first to hire a black man as head coach (Art Shell). He was also the first to hire a Latino as head coach (Tom Flores). He promoted Amy Trask to be the CEO of the Raiders, and to date she is the only female CEO in the NFL.
For 49er fans there are several connections to Al Davis. Of course there's the long rivalry between the two teams of the Bay. There's also the coaching influence of Al Davis on Bill Walsh. Most importantly Al Davis acted as the broker on the deal that saw the Debartolo's buying the team and changing the fortunes of the team forever. He recommended that the team hire Bill Walsh as head coach and we know how that ended up.
Anybody who is not showing the utmost respect for Al Davis on his passing is not a fan of football. I can say that with absolute conviction because of the massive impact the man has had on this sport.