Born in Brockton, Mass., Davis grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Erasmus Hall High School, a spawning ground in the two decades after World War II for a number of ambitious young people who became renowned in sports, business and entertainment. Davis was perhaps the second most famous after Barbra Streisand.
“We had a reunion in Los Angeles and 500 people showed up, including Bah-bruh,” he once told an interviewer in that combination of southern drawl/Brooklynese that was often parodied among his acquaintances within the league and without.
A graduate of Syracuse University, he became an assistant coach with the Baltimore Colts at age 24; and was an assistant at The Citadel and then Southern California before joining the Los Angeles Chargers of the new AFL in 1960. Only three years later, he was hired by the Raiders and became the youngest general manager-head coach in pro football history with a team he called “the Raid-uhs” in 1963.
He was a good one, 23-16-3 in three seasons with a franchise that had started its life 9-23.
Then he bought into the failing franchise, which played on a high school field adjacent to the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, and became managing general partner, a position he held until his death.
But as the many bright young coaches he hired — from John Madden, Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden to Lane Kiffin — found out, he remained the real coach. He ran everything from the sidelines, often calling down with plays, or sending emissaries to the sidelines to make substitutions.
In 1966, he became commissioner of the AFL.
But even before that, he had begun to break an unwritten truce between the young league and its established rivals, which fought over draft choices but did not go after established players.
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 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, Willie Brown and dozens of others.
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.