Last week, Ninetynineyards looked at the Seattle Seahawks who will be in London to play the Oakland Raiders on October 14, so this week Ninetynineyards put the spotlight on the Raiders and the coach they are always identified with – Al Davis.
The Raiders began life in 1960 when Barron Hilton, the son of the hotel owner of the same name, decided Oakland should join the ranks of pro football. The new American Football League was formed in August the previous year when a handful of rich entrepreneurs decided to challenge the pro football monopoly of the NFL.
When the idea of a new “pigskin loop” was first proposed, Oakland wasn’t mentioned as a potential franchise although Hilton was involved in the preparations for a Los Angeles team.
It was no surprise the NFL did not make life easy for the rival league seducing some of the cities by intimating they would be granted NFL franchises. The desperate efforts of the established league to sow disunity among the AFL’s teams saw the Minnesota-St. Pauls franchise jump ships. That left the AFL with seven teams and an unbalanced look to their intention of splitting them into two divisions of four teams.
The Raiders arrived two months later in January 1960 as the replacement for Minnesota. Having missed the AFL draft held the previous November, the Raiders were immediately handicapped by not having the pick of the best players.
Although the games were not due to be played until September, the Oakland franchise had little time to choose a coach and prepare their organisation for the season ahead. The AFL did hold a “12th” man draft that saw the other seven teams protect eleven of their players before the Raiders selected from those left.
The team were originally called the Senors, but that name certainly doesn’t present an impressionable image that the definitive Raiders logo does today. After complaints about the name, the team became the Raiders with controversy never far away.
Because of the short notice to find a venue, they were forced to play their first season across the bay in San Francisco guaranteeing they would have the lowest attendance in the league. With quarterback Tom Flores at the helm, they finished their debut season 6-8.
After another year playing in San Francisco when they finished 2-12, the team finally got to play their home games in Oakland in 1962. They played in Frank Youell Field which was appropriately named after a local undertaker. Unfortunately, after losing Flores to a lung ailment for the year, the Raiders died a death on the field only managing to win their final game.
After that disastrous start to their pro football adventure, 1963 was a critical year for the team. Green Bay’s offensive line coach Bill Austin was offered the position as the Raiders head coach, but he decided to stay in the NFL.
For the Raiders, Austin not wanting to leave the comfort zone of the senior league would change the franchise forever. The Raiders hired Al Davis to take over the vacant coaching and general manager positions. Aged 33, Davis had served his coaching apprenticeship as assistant to San Diego’s Sid Gillman who also had Chuck Noll on his coaching staff at the time.
Davis would instantly turn around the organisation’s mind-set from deadbeats to winners. He purged the look of losers by changing the uniform to the silver and black colours that have now become synonymous with the Raiders.
The opening game of his first season saw the Raiders travel to Houston to play the team that had featured in the three previous AFL’s championships, winning the first two. An 85-yard touchdown pass from Tom Flores helped the team surprise the sports world with a 24-13 triumph over the Oilers.
That upset put down a marker for the rest of a season that saw the Raiders return a 10-4 record, the second best in the league earning Davis the AFL Coach of the Year award from the Associated Press.
Davis instilled confidence in his team and is remembered for telling them, “Just win. Play hard. Try not to make mistakes, but don’t worry about mistakes because there’s only one thing that counts: Just win.”
He coached for three years before his tough negotiating skills saw him named the league’s commissioner as the AFL began moves to merge with the NFL although Davis told reporters at the time, “My goal is to make the AFL the best league in pro football.”
The brash Davis was just what the upstart league needed in their battle to obtain recognition as a serious rival to the senior league. Davis was the front man for the league while the merger talks were conducted in secret without his knowledge.
A month after the merger was announced in June 1966, Davis resigned as commissioner and returned to Oakland as a general manager, saying “under no circumstances” would he ever coach again.
That same year, the Raiders finally got their own home when the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum opened its doors to football. The following year, the Raiders went to what would be known later as Super Bowl II where they lost to the Green Bay Packers.
The California Times wrote in 1969 that Davis was a man feared, envied, hated, criticised, suspected, accused, held in awe, but more than all of these – respected. And for Davis, who took the AFL and the Oakland Franchise from the laughing stock of sport into two of the most respected enterprises in the country, respect is entirely sufficient.
Al Davis photo courtesy of the Oakland Raiders media guide.