James Corrigan: Davis, the gridiron pioneer, was not fixed on making points – just amassing them
Imagine an owner of a Premier League team who had been with the club for 50 years
America did not lose one icon last week. It lost two. Al Davis will not receive the eulogies of Steve Jobs, but for anyone interested in gridiron, if not all of American sport, the man was most indeed an equivalent.
A pioneer, like Jobs. A rebel, like Jobs. A visionary, like Jobs. A one-man success story, like Jobs.
There were a few major differences between these mavericks. Jobs was only 56 when he died last Wednesday, Davis was 82 when he passed away on Saturday. Whereas Jobs defined style, Davis, with his hair slicked back into a greasy ducktail, would have seemed born to the corner of a bookies in the Sixties with a rolled-up fag and a copy of the Daily Express. But just like Jobs, Davis's appearance was perfectly suited to his image.
In terms of football, think Sir Alex Ferguson crossed with Ken Bates. In terms of The Simpsons, think Mr Burns. Inevitably, the slogan he made famous with the Oakland Raiders, "Just win, baby", is important in his story. Not because of what it meant, but rather in the spirit it was uttered. It wasn't a bright note of positivity said in the manner of a Sarah Palin, but a gravelly demand of certainty said in the manner of a Marlon Brando.
It was an unequivocal statement and in just three words encapsulated the same basic necessity of professional sport which Vince Lombardi and Bill Shankly offered up in so many more. Davis was no great orator. In fact, he did not care for journalists or, if truth be told – his family and staff apart – for other people. "It's a tunnel vision, a tunnel life," he once told People magazine. "I'm not really part of society."
Except that American society owes Davis so much. He was perceived as ill-tempered and downright devious in the acquisition of silverware, but the Stateside sports fan is now being reminded of his legacies. As a head coach, a commissioner, a general manager and an owner, Davis, more than any other figure, was influential in heralding American football's "modern era".
He is responsible for the NFL which exists today. As the commissioner of the renegade AFL in the mid-Sixties he forced the established NFL into merger, by aggressively buying up all the best players. Davis was actually against the amalgamation, he wanted to "just win" not "just merge". In this case he was the reluctant pioneer, and so many more of his innovations were the result of his ceaseless ambition.
Take the style of play. Gridiron, as Lombardi observed, "was first and foremost a running game". In the early Sixties it was all grunt and biff and a running back squeezing five yards through a hail of dust. It was as exciting to the eye as the England rucking system. As a 33-year-old head coach and general manager of the Raiders, Davis looked to the sky. He was the great proponent of "the vertical passing" game and as commissioner altered the rules to make the game more offensive and hence more sexy.
He wasn't so introverted as not to realise the potential power of TV and again, in his short time as head of the AFL, he opened up the game to the viewer, miking up the coaches and insisting the play was broadcast from many angles. He also recognised the need for a villain in sport's burgeoning pantomime. So he dressed his team in the intimidating silver and black, stuck swords and a sinister eye-patch on the helmet and employed huge, nasty thugs as his linemen and linebackers. The millions of disaffected in the country thus had their misfits to support. Good always does require its evil to flourish.
But Davis did all this with one objective in mind – how best to prevail. He adored the talented and ignored prejudice, appointing the first black quarterback, the first black head coach, the first Hispanic head coach and the first female chief executive in the NFL. These weren't appointments to make a point; they were purely done to amass points. No barrier would stand in his way, as he proved with repeated court battles with the NFL. The legal profession will miss him almost as much as football.
Of course, this pig-headedness led to controversy. Davis wired visiting team rooms, adopted a merciless hiring-and-firing strategy, and was vicious to journalists who he regarded as against him and his team (sound at all familiar, Sir Alex?). Hunter S Thompson penned a legendary essay in Rolling Stone entitled "Fear and Loathing at the Superbowl". The Godfather of Gonzo described how during the first practice he attended Davis asked a local journalist who Thompson was. After being assured he worked for the magazine and not the band, the journalist mentioned another gridiron journalist who would vouch for Thompson. "Holy shit!" replied Davis, "we ran that guy out of here with a cattle prod."
Due to his nature, Davis did not compile a stockpile of sympathy with the average sports fan and, in his latter years, with the Raiders falling away from the remarkable run of consistency which brought 15 Divisional Championships, five AFC/AFL titles and three Superbowls, he was depicted as a raddled old tyrant who wouldn't let go.
Yet imagine an owner of a Premier League team who had been with the club for 50 years. Imagine an owner who did not have any private money except that which he earned through his team's glory. Imagine an owner who had been the manager and after that the chief executive, who had worked with no other professional club. No, it's impossible to, isn't it?
Reflected glory meant nothing to a man such as Davis; the Raiders weren't his vanity project, they were his only project. Davis lived Jobs's creed before the latter ever said it. He stayed hungry and he stayed foolish.
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