Recalls former Raider fullback Mark van Eeghen, "Art had extremely high standards. He prided himself in keeping his guy off [quarterback! Kenny Stabler; a sack hurt Art more than it did Kenny. In an exhibition game in Atlanta, the Falcons' John Zook hit Kenny late. There was absolutely no need for it. Art grabbed Zook by the shoulder pads, picked him off the ground and looked him straight in the eye, as if to say, Don't you ever do that again."
Each game, Shell went through his Mr. Nice Guy routine before the start of the Raiders' first offensive series. With those big brown eyes and an extra-wide smile, he cordially greeted his opponent across the line and inquired about his family and health. "Art would kill you with kindness," says former Raider defensive end Lyle Alzado, who faced Shell when he played with the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns earlier in his career. "The first time we played, he smiled and said, 'How you doing, Lyle?' I thought, 'What the hell is this?' Then he proceeded to drive me off the ground, drop me on my back and run over me. I never had a good game the week after I faced Art, because he was so physical. And I used to beat up guys! Art was impossible to rattle. I'd talk about his mother, sister and brothers. He'd ignore me. I hated Art Shell."
When Alzado joined the Raiders in 1982, he decided it might be time to give Shell a break and maybe even become his friend. Playing for the same team, Alzado thought, they could afford to be nice to each other. "I looked at Art across the line the first day, laughed and said, 'We've done this before, haven't we, buddy?' " says Alzado. "Art just smiled, and then he knocked the crap out of me."
Besides being ferocious, Shell was an intelligent player, who constantly scribbled notes in his playbook. In team meetings he asked questions about strategy. Night after night, he studied game films in his den. He made it his business to learn what every offensive player's assignment was on every play. In 1972, John Madden, the Raider coach at the time, told Shell, who was in his fifth pro season, that he would make a good offensive line coach.
A few seasons later Shell asked Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, how to prepare for a coaching job with the team. For the time being, Davis advised, concentrate on playing football, and we'll discuss this coaching idea toward the end of your career. Davis was true to his word. With Davis's help, Shell landed a job as a volunteer assistant coach with Cal in the springs of 1981 and '82. In 1983, Shell became the Raiders' offensive line coach, a position he held until he replaced head coach Mike Shanahan.
As a player and as an assistant coach, Shell's most impressive trait was his habit of close observation. While Upshaw chatted endlessly to the press after games, Shell listened to his teammates' conversations. He watched his coaches carefully. He never said much, but he soaked up a lot of information.
" John Madden taught me about the game of people," says Shell, who at 42 is the youngest head coach in the NFL. "I learned that you have to understand each individual, when to push his buttons and when not to. From Tom Flores [who coached the Raiders from 1979 to '87] I learned patience. He was a quiet, stoic leader. Mike Shanahan was one of the most organized people I ever met."
Shanahan might have approached his job in an organized manner, but his regime with the Raiders was chaotic. Young, bright and ambitious, Shanahan, who had been the Broncos' offensive coordinator, wanted the job so badly that he promised to work closely with Davis and to retain all of Flores's assistants. Davis, who had never hired a head coach from outside the organization in his 26 years with the Raiders, brought Shanahan aboard in February 1988, and it soon became evident that it would be a dreadful marriage. Shanahan believed in a finesse game; Davis loved explosive running complemented by the deep pass. Shanahan ran the team like a boys' camp counselor, instituting silly rules: no sitting on helmets during practice, no eating sunflower seeds in the locker room. Davis, who had always run a loose ship, seethed, and the veterans did a slow burn. When the team finished the season 7-9, Shanahan decided to clean house. He fired two assistants, Willie Brown and Charlie Sumner. Enraged, Davis hired Brown back as an administrative assistant.
Tension grew between Shell and Nick Nicolau, a receivers coach Shanahan had brought with him from Denver. "Why are you hanging around in this job?" Nicolau asked Shell one day toward the end of last season. Shell, who had been sharing his fine duties with Alex Gibbs, another Shanahan disciple from the Broncos, was stunned.
"That remark hurt Art deeply," says his wife, Janice. "I said, 'Art, why didn't you pop the hell out of him?' "