Nothing illustrates the increasing stature of the American Football League quite so much as a question that is no longer asked: How long do you think it will last? In its fourth season the AFL already has outlasted quite a few of its critics. Attendance is up 80,000 over 1962, and television exposure is at least equal to the long-established NFL. Best of all, the new league has arrived at a balance of power that not even its dreamiest fans envisioned three years ago. This year San Diego has defeated Boston, which had already beaten New York; New York beat Oakland, Oakland beat Houston, Houston beat Buffalo, Buffalo beat Kansas City, Kansas City beat Denver and Denver completed the circle by beating San Diego.
There is no dominant team in the league. With the exception of San Diego, the leaders in the West, every team has lost at least three games and won no more than five And last week San Diego was upset by Oakland. The most improved team in the East is "the new New York Jets," as a character called Jet Set Janie reminded radio listeners a dozen times a day, but even the Jets have not improved as much as the Oakland Raiders. For two years the ugliest ugly ducklings in the AFL, the Raiders are ugly no more.
In Oakland everything has been beautiful since Al Davis came to town. Davis is the new coach of the Raiders, and while new coaches are an old story in Oakland—Davis is the fourth coach in four years—this one seems different. He sometimes wins, or at least the players he coaches win, and winning is completely foreign to anything the Oakland Raiders have ever done before.
Oh, Oakland's first season wasn't too bad, at least in the light of the next two. That first year the Raiders won six and lost eight, finishing third in the Western Division of the American Football League. But in 1961 Oakland was 2-12 and last year it was even worse, 1-13. During that two-year stretch the team lost 19 games in a row. Coaches came, turned gray and departed. The team itself was homeless, moving like a band of gypsies from stadium to stadium all over the Bay area, presumably at night. Late last season, when other cities—Portland (Ore.), New Orleans, Cincinnati and San Antonio—bid for the franchise, few people seemed to care whether the team stayed or left.
But now Al Davis has arrived, the Raiders have become a team, and people in Oakland do care. Davis is young and bright and aggressive. "Come on," he tells his players just before a game, "when you go out there, remember you're the Raiders of Oakland." He says it without the trace of a smile. "We've got to start building a tradition."
Oakland won its first two games this season, lost the next four and then battered the New York Jets 49-26. The three victories equaled Oakland's combined total for the past two years, and now, with the Raiders' fourth victory, the old men who talk football in the lobby of the Hotel Leamington in downtown Oakland are arguing whether the Raiders can win three more to finish at .500 for the first time in their brief, inglorious history—or even, the old men dream, go all the way. The little ticket office on Madison Street is actually crowded, and cars all over town have Raider stickers on their bumpers. Enthusiasm for the team has been swept across the Bay and into San Francisco. Recently an ad appeared in the Chronicle offering seats to 49er games in exchange for seats to Raider games.
The man responsible for this remarkable change, Al Davis, is 34, a tall, good-looking man with powerful arms and shoulders which he keeps hard by lifting weights in his cellar. He has white, shiny teeth and blond, wavy hair which, despite constant attention, is receding on either side of the middle. Stand him on a pedestal and there he is, Mr. America.
Before coming to Oakland, Davis was an assistant coach at San Diego. Some assistant coaches specialize in offense, some in defense. Davis did a little of both, but what he did best was sell. Davis is a super-duper recruiter with oak-leaf clusters, and the players he talked into playing at San Diego—Lance Al-worth, Ron Mix and Paul Lowe are three—are vital in making San Diego the AFL leader this year.
Davis, the salesman, speaks in a soft, persuasive voice, looking his listener smack in the eye. "Come in, sit down and let me tell you some lies," is one of his opening gambits. He often closes a conversation with, "Hey, give me your right hand." It is slick, but friendly and apparently genuine.
Davis has a habit of injecting into his sentences little phrases such as "if you follow me" and "you understand what I mean," but because he is usually in a hurry he seldom completes them. For instance: "I don't want people to get too excited about the team, you un..., because we're not that good yet, if you...." Such phrases, or half phrases, are a part of Davis' selling technique, acting as hooks to keep the listener attached and nodding automatically. In fact the word "sell" itself is active in Davis' vocabulary. "The owners sold me on the idea that they would spend more money for players," Davis said recently. And to his team: "This is what I'm trying to sell you on. Let them have the short gains."