Al Davis: Fearsome American football coach who helped pave the way for today's glittering NFL

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The Independent Online

If ever a single individual embodied the toughness, the brashness, the passion and the sheer cussed ruthlessness of American football, that person was Al Davis. In varying permutations, over the space of almost half a century, he was coach, manager and owner of the Oakland Raiders (for a decade the Los Angeles Raiders). As commissioner and moving spirit of the upstart American Football League, his buccaneering behaviour was a key factor in the AFL's merger with the established National Football League that paved the way to the colossally successful NFL of today, complete with its seasonal showcase the Super Bowl, the gaudiest sporting event on the planet.

"Just win, baby," was Davis's catchphrase, and it served as the philosophy for his every dealing, on the field and off it. He seemed to wake up each day spoiling for a fight. He married, and had a son, but football consumed him. He rarely dressed in anything other than the team's colours of silver and black. "It's a tunnel life," Davis once told People magazine, "I'm not really part of society."

The son of a New York businessman, he became an assistant coach virtually the moment he graduated with an English degree from Adelphi University on Long Island in 1950 – first at college level and then in 1960 with the San Diego Chargers of the infant American Football League, founded the previous year as a rival to the NFL.

"There isn't a doubt in Al Davis's mind that right now he's the smartest guy in the game," Sid Gillman, the Chargers head coach, commented. "He isn't. But he will be pretty damned soon." That prophecy started coming true the next year when Davis and moved 450 miles up the coast to take over as head coach and manager of the floundering Raiders.

At 33, he was the youngest man to hold the jobs in pro football history. He turned Oakland into a winner with a combination of spectacular offense, centred on the thrilling long passes of what he called "the vertical game", and the roughest defensive tactics he could get away with. These included crunching "bump and run" hits to take out opposing wide receivers. "I don't want to be the most respected team in the league," he declared, "I want to be the most feared." He waged war not just against onfield opponents, but against the NFL off it as well. In 1966 he became AFL commissioner, or chief executive, and set out to sign up the NFL's biggest stars and establish the AFL as the biggest force in the sport.

By the end of that season the champions of the two leagues met in the first Super Bowl. But so nervous were the other AFL owners at Davis's tactics that they went behind his back to negotiate a merger with the NFL. Furious, Davis resigned and went back to Oakland. One fellow owner later referred to him as "a lying creep" and the animosity was mutual. "Not all of them are the brightest human beings," Davis later declared of his colleagues.

The second part of his Oakland career, as general manager and managing partner, proved the best. Between 1967-85, by winning percentage, the Raiders were the most successful franchise in American sport, capturing 13 divisional championships and three Super Bowls – the last in 1984, when he had moved the Raiders to Los Angeles. The NFL fought its old foe tooth and nail to prevent the switch but Davis, cantankerous as ever, sued for breach of anti-trust laws and got his way.

In 1995, however, he returned the team to Oakland, but the magic was gone. In 2003 the Raiders made their last Super Bowl appearance to date, crushed 48-21 by Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Over the past 15 years the team has had only three winning seasons, and many murmured that the game had passed the old man by. But in his prime Al Davis was a force of nature such as the NFL had rarely seen. Just win, baby. He did.

Allen Davis, American football coach and executive: born Brockton, Massachusetts 4 July 1929; married Carol Segal (one son); died Oakland, California 8 October 2011.