Although the NFL’s New York Giants’ signing of Buffalo placekicker Pete Gogolak marked the first break in that rule, it was Davis who began to go after NFL stars _ pursuing quarterbacks John Brodie and Roman Gabriel as he tried to establish AFL supremacy.
Davis‘ war precipitated first talks of merger, although Davis opposed it. But led by Lamar Hunt of Kansas City, the AFL owners agreed that peace was best. A common draft was established, and the first Super Bowl was played following the 1966 season _ Green Bay beat Kansas City, then went on to beat Davis‘ Raiders the next season. By 1970, the leagues were fully merged and the NFL had the basic structure it retains until this day _ with Pete Rozelle as commissioner, not Davis, who wanted the job badly.
So he went back to the Raiders, running a team that won Super Bowls after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons _ the last one in Los Angeles, where the franchise moved in 1982 after protracted court fights. It was a battling bunch, filled with players such as John Matuszak, Mike Haynes, Jim Plunkett and Lyle Alzado, stars who didn’t fit in elsewhere who combined with homegrown stars _ Ken Stabler, another rebellious spirit; Gene Upshaw; Shell, Jack Tatum, and dozens of others.
“He was a pioneer,” said Plunkett, who won two Super Bowls with the Raiders. “He did so many things. He was a coach, he was the commissioner of the AFL, became the owner of the Raiders and he ran that club the way he saw fit. He brought in players that everyone else was discarding, including me, and he made it work.”
After extended lawsuits involving the move to Los Angeles, he went back to Oakland and at one point in the early years of the century was involved in suits in northern and southern California _ the one seeking the Los Angeles rights and another suing Oakland for failing to deliver sellouts they promised to get the Raiders back.
“Personally, I was fond of him,” Bengals owner and president Mike Brown said. “He battled with the NFL, and a lot of us wished that had not been where things went, but under all that was a person I respected. It saddens me to hear that he is gone.”
As Davis aged, his teams declined.
The Raiders got to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, losing to Tampa Bay. But for a long period after that, they had the worst record in the NFL, at one point with five coaches in six years.
It is fitting that this year’s Raiders team is built in typical Raiders fashion with a bevy of speedsters on offense capable of delivering the deep-strike play Davis always coveted, a physically imposing defensive line that can pressure the quarterback and an accomplished man coverage cornerback in Stanford Routt.
Once a constant presence at practice, training camp and in the locker room, Davis was rarely seen in public beyond the bizarre spectacles to fire and hire coaches where he spent more time disparaging his former coach than praising his new one.
He did not appear at a single training camp practice this summer and missed a game in Buffalo last month, believed to be only the third game he missed in 49 seasons with the franchise. Davis did attend Oakland’s home game last week against New England.
Although he was no longer as public a figure, he was still integrally involved in the team from the draft to negotiating contracts to discussing strategy with his coaches. Jackson has said Davis was unlike any other owner he had worked for in his ability to understand the ins and outs of the game.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to sit and talk football, the X’s and O’s and what it takes to win in this league consistently on a consistent basis, and there’s nothing like working for coach Davis,” Jackson said.
While other owners and league executives branded Davis a renegade, friends and former players found him the epitome of loyalty.
When his wife was stricken with a heart attack, he moved into her hospital room and lived there for more than a month. And when he heard that even a distant acquaintance was ill, he would offer medical help without worrying about expense.