Al Davis was complex

Davis was a larger-than-life character. But in 1982, he broke a lot of hearts in Oakland.

Raider fans in the San Francisco Bay area have been mourning Davis in Oakland, but the fact is that 30 years ago, Davis screwed over those loyal fans by leaving them for the bright lights of Los Angeles, where he thought he would be able to get a better deal on such extras as luxury suites and, believe it or not, thought that pro football was going to go to a pay per television view system, and felt that L.A. would be a better market in which to cash in on all that.


In doing so, he joined the ranks of Walter O'Malley in Brooklyn, Art Modell in Cleveland and the Irsay family in Baltimore in devastating a community that had solidly supported their professional sports franchise for decades, as had been the case for the very working-class region that was Oakland and the East Bay.


Things started out well for the Raiders in Los Angeles the first couple of years - the Raiders won the Super Bowl (in Tampa) in their second full year, and there's nothing like playing in front of 90,000, as they did those first few years in the Los Angeles Coliseum.


But then the team started to not perform so well, and the crowds dwindled. For years the Raiders averaged less than 50,000 a game, a true embarrassment in that they were smaller than the crowds in Oakland, despite the fact that L.A. held nearly 40,000 more seats.


Davis started making the same complaints in L.A. that he did in Oakland - that he needed a new stadium. In a masterstroke, he even got city leaders from the suburb of Irwindale to write him a blank check for $10 million, money the city never got back when discussions about the Raiders possibly moving there dissolved.


Meanwhile, like a spurned lover who just can't let go, rumors continued to float that Davis might bring the team back to Oakland, even though there really wasn't any money in the budget to build a new stadium, which is what Davis was holding out for.


In 1990, the L.A. Raiders came up to Oakland to host an exhibition game against the Houston Oilers, a tease for the local fans who still lusted for the team to return, which it ultimately did in 1995 (the Oakland Coliseum was rebuilt for him, adding a large section in what used to be center field and immediately dubbed "Mount Davis" because of how high it stood).


That alienated his Los Angeles base.


Look, Al Davis was a pioneer. He hired the first black head coach, the first Latino coach, drafted the first black quarterback in the first round (Eldridge Dickey, in 1968), the first (and still only) female to head the front office (CEO Amy Trask). He also believed in young people, hiring some of the youngest coaches ever at the time, such as a 33-year-old John Madden in 1967, a 34-year-old John Gruden in 1998, and a 31-year-old Lane Kiffen in 2008 (that didn't work out as well as Madden and Gruden).


But his reputation as a football genius took a big blow over the last decade as the Raiders became a perennially lousy team, owing to poor drafts and the fact that a lot of good young coaches (like Sean Payton) did not want to work under him. The last great Raider coach, Jon Gruden(1998-2002), had a great run, but chafed working under Davis, and was ultimately traded to the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2003, where of course he led his team the next year to beat Davis' Raiders in the January 2003 Super Bowl.


Al Davis was larger than life. Despite the heartbreak he brought to Oakland in the 1980s, he was classic. Like his friend, the equally controversial George Steinbrenner, he was born on the 4th of July. A truly American original character, warts and all.

  • Al Davis in 1980

I'm not sure when American journalists started doing this, but now when any American icon passes on, his or her achievements are triumphed, and any of their controversies are virtually dismissed, even though most people's lives contain some bad along with the positive. It's called living a full life.

Nobody wants to be disrespectful, but when the full picture doesn't come out when the spotlight is the brightest on someone of note, it can be hard to get people to believe that the person deified made mistakes.

The greatest example of this in recent times was the passing of Ronald Reagan back in 2004. The Gipper, you might recall, passed away on a Saturday, and up until his funeral the following Friday, seldom was heard a discouraging word, despite the fact that he was one of the most controversial presidents ever, and some thought might have been impeached after the IranContra scandal broke in November of 1986.

But now with the death of Steve Jobs, we heard blogger Jeff Jarvis say on CNN's Reliable Sources on Sunday that it was okay not to bring up anything negative about Jobs or Apple corporation - not now anyway.

And we're seeing the same thing happen now with the passing of NFL icon Al Davis, who died on Saturday. If you're not familiar with the now former Oakland Raider owner, there are plenty of good
obituaries all over the Internet for your consumption.

As any fan knows, Davis was loved, mostly by Raider fans (which I've been since 1972), and very much loathed by lots of other people around the league, mainly for his roguish ways of doing things.

Again as a Raider fan, I celebrate that rogue behavior — up to a point. But it would be inexcusable to gloss over one truly bad thing he did while at the height of his career.

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