Al Davis is suffering an unlikely crisis of mystique. The sight of him striding a sideline, rigged out in his white bell-bottoms and shiny black shoes, no longer stirs a sense of dread. Davis's team, which has made four Super Bowl appearances over three decades, now loses as often as not. When his Raiders do win, it is with the same gentlemanly flair exhibited by every other team in the NFL. His players do not dominate, they do not inspire terror, they do not engage in the cartoonish, roughhouse tactics their logo promises. "Weak sisters," sniffs Lester Hayes, a rogue cornerback who got out before Silver and Blackdom, as he has forever named the franchise, turned into Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. For all we know, that pirate is winking behind his eye patch.
Strange times in Silver and Blackdom, huh? In recent years Davis, 60, watched a life's work, a testament to his will, crash down about him. Never mind the distracting years in court. The Raiders, who are 7-6 and fighting for a wild-card playoff berth in '89, missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, the longest the team has ever been out of the money.
Davis presides uneasily over this dormant dynasty. Never much of a loser, he now resorts to desperate measures. Hiring Mike Shanahan from the Denver Broncos in February 1988 to coach his Raiders was a wild departure from form. Davis admitted his mistake no later than Game 1 of the Shanahan era. Shanahan might be a good coach, Davis said, but he wasn't a Raider coach. Four games into the 1989 season Davis made that literally true, replacing Shanahan with Art Shell, the offensive line coach, who brought Raider heritage to the job. Davis had never fired a head coach in his life.
Strange times? Davis is considering hauling the franchise back to Oakland, having fought the NFL and the city for years so he could leave it. The attraction might be not so much that he would reap a relocation windfall but that the Raiders used to win in Oakland. It was in 1963 that rookie coach Davis turned a 1-13 team into a 10-4 contender, and the club enjoyed a mighty success for seasons to come. In Oakland. If Davis can work miracles only in one ZIP code, so be it.
These are, in fact, stranger times than you might know. The head buccaneer, who has always said he would rather be feared than respected, has allowed himself to be drawn into the gentleman's club of NFL owners, a sporting barony that previously represented nothing more to him than an opportunity for big-money litigation. Rival NFL owners paid Davis $18 million to settle the antitrust suit he brought against the league over its efforts to block him from moving the team to Los Angeles, but some of them now actually hail him as a force for reconciliation in league matters. He is practically Establishment.
You look at Davis's return to tradition, to respectability, perhaps even to Oakland, and you wonder. You hesitate to say his enormous self-confidence is slipping. But you do notice that Davis is suddenly hounded by defeat and mortality. He is not as defiant. Is it from turning 60? Is it from regular trips to Hall of Fame inductions at which the greatness of the Raiders is seen more as past than prologue? And all these people dying around him, friends and former players. Davis has taken a strange pride in his ability to breathe life into more than just franchises. He has nursed enough people back from the brink to hint at supernatural powers. "It's tough to dominate death," he said years ago, after helping to bring a Raider employee, Del Courtney, out of total paralysis. "But we got it done with Del." Just another Raider success story. But now they just...die.
This summer Davis lingered on the practice field and surprised a small group of writers by ticking off a number of recent deaths. There was Don McMahon, a high school buddy who died while pitching batting practice at Dodger Stadium. There was Don Clark, the USC coach who gave Davis his first big-time assistant's job. Former player John Matuszak, who embodied all things Raider, died, as did promising safety Stacey Toran.
"The football I'll get straight," Davis told the writers. "My biggest thing now is this death business. I've always been able to control the elements of my life, dominate my environment without hurting others. But this death business.... I can't beat it, I can't win." Strange talk in Silver and Blackdom. Had anybody ever heard this monumental force of personality express a doubt?
Al Davis does not suffer inspection needlessly. Most cross-examination, and he has had his share, is forbidden unless required by law. Pity the fool who presumes otherwise. Television reporters awaiting Davis after a recent meeting with the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission were advised they could neither film nor quote him. But they could continue to exist. Davis reacts to interview requests with a look of alarm; he actually pulls his pompadoured head back as if to put even more distance between himself and the public. "Oh, ah don't do those things," he says in that much-imitated Southern accent, eccentric in a Brooklyn boy.
He maintains a small circle of pals in journalism, trusted friends from his AFL days. That he speaks to them is testament to his loyalty and friendship, of course, yet it would not be cynical to note that these pals are strategically placed. At one point Davis had a confidant on each of the three network football shows. It is characteristic of his notion of public relations that Davis has always tried to maintain some control over the journalism that attends his every move. In the old days he rewarded reporters with Christmas gifts as well as bons mots. Those he felt did not properly reflect the Raider spirit would suffer freeze-outs or worse. Even today it is nothing for Davis to tell a beat reporter that he will speak to his editor, or publisher if necessary.