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Column: Davis always in charge, forever the coach
Question of the Day
Only seconds remained in the game at the Orange Bowl in Miami as the Dolphins prepared to punt the ball away. The Raiders win had already been secured, and most of the writers were on their way downstairs when a loud voice broke the relative silence of the press box.
“Tom, Tom!” Al Davis yelled to a coach who had no chance of hearing him on the sidelines. “Watch out for the fake!”
Always in charge. Forever the coach.
Forget that, and you didn’t last long with the Raiders. Davis could be a benevolent dictator one moment, a vindictive one the next.
He was the only owner with his own catch phrase: “Just win, baby!” It was as much a part of the culture of the Raiders as the menacing fans in silver and black wearing spikes in the stands.
That he stayed too long and meddled too much was evident by the decline of his teams in recent years. But he held on as all dictators do before finally losing the one battle even he knew he couldn’t win.
“I can control most things,” Davis said a few years ago, “but I don’t seem to be able to control death.”
That the tributes poured in after his death Saturday at his home in Oakland was expected. Whatever anyone thought of Davis _ and there were some who thought some unprintable things _ he was an icon of the sport who did a lot more for the NFL than just put together three Super Bowl winning teams.
That some of the tributes were carefully worded was equally expected. Cross Davis and you were usually an enemy for life, pursued at times in the courtroom with the same intensity he demanded that his Raiders show on the field.
He went through seven head coaches in the last decade alone, and the breakups were never pretty. After introducing new coach Hue Jackson in January, Davis took the opportunity to accuse fired coach Tom Cable of lying to him and putting the Raiders in possible financial peril.
“All this stuff goes a long way against my wishes … and against the Raider way,” Davis said. “And I just wasn’t going to take it anymore.”
Be loyal to him, though, and you were a Raider for life. The Raiders were a dysfunctional family, yes, but a family nonetheless.
“To me, he is the greatest,” said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who got his first NFL coaching job in Oakland. “The autumn wind will always be a Raider.”
Davis, who is believed to have missed only three games during his 49 years with the Raiders, watched them for the last time Sunday when they were beaten by New England at home. The man who insisted that winning was everything ended with a loss, and in that some might find a bit of irony.
He had been frail for years, using a walker to get around. But he still worked the phones, looking for talent around the league or an edge that he might be able to pass on to his new coach.
He never backed away from a fight in nearly a half century in the league. But there wasn’t much left to fight for in today’s NFL, where owners now all wear suits, talk about revenue enhancements and wait for the next check to come in and make them even richer.
There won’t be another Al Davis because there can’t be another Al Davis. Not today, when the NFL is such big business that there’s no chance of anyone advancing through the ranks as a coach, general manager and finally owner. Not today, when coaches are so risk averse that they wouldn’t dream of allowing someone like Daryle Lamonica to sling one long pass after another to Fred Biletnikoff.
Davis was always willing to take a chance, whether it was suing the NFL so he could move the Raiders to Los Angeles, or giving $32 million in guaranteed money to No. 1 draft flop JaMarcus Russell. Indeed, Davis had a reputation for throwing good money after bad players in his later years, so desperate was he that his beloved Raiders would win again.
“He wasn’t afraid of standing alone and making a bold move such as suing the league,” former Raiders linebacker Matt Millen said. “He had naysayers, but he didn’t care, because he didn’t care what people thought.”
That put him in the same company as another larger-than-life owner in a different sport. Davis and George Steinbrenner were both born on July 4 _ though a year apart _ and the two bombastic owners sometimes would call to cheer the other one on if his team was not doing well.
When Steinbrenner died last year, Davis was eager to join in the tribute to a man he called his friend.
“I judge sports figures based on individual achievement, team achievement and contributions to the game,” Davis said. “George was right up there with me at No. 1 _ bright, aggressive and, most of all, not afraid.”
Davis will likely never get the kind of monument dedicated to Steinbrenner at Yankee Stadium, if only because the Raiders don’t own their own stadium. But fans came by Raiders headquarters Saturday to find a black flag with the team’s pirate logo flying at half-staff.
They left bouquets of flowers and handwritten cards beneath it, a touching tribute to a man who in life never seemed touched by much.
A league he helped build will survive without him, of course. The NFL is huge and powerful and depends on no one man.
It’s more personal in Oakland, where it’s hard to imagine the Raiders without Al Davis.
“Just win, baby!” will never seem the same.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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