'Just win, baby'
Davis still going strong as Raiders return to title game
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Way back in 1988, Al Davis' Raiders made up a 24-point deficit to tie the Broncos at the end of regulation.
"It doesn't matter unless we win," Davis snarled as the game went into overtime.
They did, 30-27, making him happy for ... oh, all of 10 minutes.
Some things never change, especially when it comes to the owner of the Silver and Black.
Davis gives the impression that having the Raiders in the AFC championship game for the first time since 1990 (they lost to the Bills, ouch, 51-3) means nothing to him unless they win the Super Bowl.
By that standard, Davis hasn't really been happy about his team since 1984, when the then-Los Angeles Raiders beat Washington 38-9 to win their last Super Bowl.
From 1983 until 1999 the Raiders were a so-so 133-122. Worse, they were 35-45 since returning to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995, upsetting fans already alienated by the move to Los Angeles in 1982.
But with a 13-4 record this season and home-field advantage in the championship game, the fans now are so loyal (and rowdy) that they make the Oakland Coliseum one of the NFL's toughest places for opponents.
Now that's something Davis can be happy about.
"He's loving it because we're right here where we should be all along," says Willie Brown, who joined the Raiders as a cornerback in 1967 and hasn't left since.
Brown, an assistant coach since retiring in 1978, is part of the "family" Davis has nurtured with the Raiders for nearly 40 years.
"You don't see him smile too often, but once in a while you catch a smile," Brown says. "That's because we're winning."
Al Davis has always been the NFL's maverick.
If it were up to him, the league would have merged in 1966 into the American Football League, of which he was the commissioner, rather than the other way around. But Pete Rozelle remained commissioner of the merged league and Davis went back to the Raiders, abstaining or voting "no" on most issues that faced the league.
But that's only part of Davis.
Consider a 71-year-old man, born in Brooklyn and raised on the streets of Flatbush.
He talks with a southern drawl mixed with Brooklynese, styles his hair in a '50s pompadour (thinning), and walks around almost constantly in a Raiders' sweat suit -- white or black (more often white). He always has a hand-held purse and still travels with weights, which he uses constantly.
And, despite the recent mediocrity, he established what's still known as the Raiders' Mystique.
"His single-minded, steely eyed commitment to winning, for the game, has been a part of the Raiders forever," says Ravens coach Brian Billick, who will face Davis' Raiders in Sunday's AFC title game. "Yes, that's a mystique as much as anything in the league."
Davis had been a journeyman assistant coach until 1963, when he took over a barely solvent AFL franchise playing at a former high school stadium alongside the Nimitz Freeway. He coached for three years, compiling a 23-16-3 record with a team that was 9-33 before he arrived.
Then, having bought into the franchise, he stepped down to become the AFL commissioner in 1966, not knowing that Kansas City's Lamar Hunt and other AFL owners were about to begin merger talks. When they were sprung on him, Davis believed that he, not Rozelle, should have been the commissioner.
After Davis gave up his coaching duties, the Raiders continued to win under John Rauch, John Madden and Tom Flores. They won Super Bowls in 1976, '81 and '84, the last after moving to Los Angeles in 1982 following a lengthy court battle that further alienated Davis from his fellow owners.
Those victories were largely attributed to Davis, who was known to send runners from the owners' box to the bench to tell his coaches what plays to call or what players to substitute.
Rauch, Madden and Flores were all considered surrogate coaches, to the extent that Madden, whose .730 winning percentage over 10 years is the best of the modern era, is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I got there in 1967 and I knew right away who was in charge," says Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard who now heads the NFL Players Association. "It was Al."
Upshaw was one of Davis' many good draft picks. But he also stocked the team with talented misfits who had failed with other teams -- much like current running back Tyrone Wheatley, a first-round bust with the Giants who has thrived in Oakland.
"If a player has talent, I'll always take a look," he said years ago after the Raiders turned Ethan Horton, a failure as a running back in Kansas City into a serviceable tight end.
In 1988, Davis went out of the "family" to hire Mike Shanahan. At the league meeting that year, he escorted Shanahan up to Bill Parcells and introduced him, saying, "This young man will be a great coach."
He was right. Shanahan won Super Bowls in Denver in 1998 and '99.
But Shanahan lasted just 20 games with the Raiders, going 8-12. He was fired four games into the 1989 season, primarily because he didn't want constant orders from the boss.
Davis went back to the family, elevating Art Shell to become the first black head coach of the modern era. The owner claimed at the time he wasn't trailblazing, but keep in mind that the Raiders' current CEO is Amy Trask, the first woman not related to the owner to run an NFL team.
Shell went 56-41, was fired after the 1994 season and the Raiders continued to decline under Mike White and Joe Bugel until Davis hired Jon Gruden three years ago.
After two 8-8 years, Gruden has the team a game from the Super Bowl -- with a short-passing West Coast offense in place of Davis' preferred long-passing attack.
"Gruden was given an opportunity to succeed," says Tim Brown, a Raider since 1988. "I don't think White or Bugel had a serious chance. They were trying to portray that they were running the show and everybody knew they weren't."
But Gruden installed his own offense without complaint from above.
He deflects questions on how he deals with Davis, who has been reluctant to talk to the media leading up to the championship game. But people around the Raiders say Davis has stepped back because Gruden is winning and he views the baby-faced, 37-year-old coach in his own image -- as a street-wise tough guy.
Not necessarily, Upshaw says.
"I think a lot of that stuff about Al coaching was overrated," he says. "You can do things your way and install your own system. All Al cares about is winning."
That, indeed was one of the many slogans: "Just win, baby."
It's worked this year and kept Davis smiling.
Quietly, of course.