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THE MAVERICK wanted a game changer. Al Davis had watched his Raiders get repeatedly poked in their one good pirate's eye by cooler opponents and knew Oakland's menacing fan base was losing its sneer. He craved a fresh image to update his reputation as a visionary, to avoid being seen as an owner sealed in a time capsule with warmup suits, mood rings and Skylab debris. His vitality was in question. His relevance was in doubt. So 21 months ago Davis searched for a new face to front his beleaguered franchise, someone charismatic and young and without a lick of pro coaching experience. Someone who didn't blink when Davis asked him to join in reenergizing fans who had lost their desire to wear spiked collars on Sundays. Someone who could wink.
And this is how Lane Kiffin became Davis's Sarah Palin. Davis wanted arm candy, a personable coach who could stand on the sideline and say you betcha as he carried out the owner's antiquated vertical-passing schemes. All was well until the 31-year-old Kiffin started to depart from the script, with his smiling displays of ambition and crazy thoughts of expanding his power. Kiffin said he wanted the defensive coordinator fired and opposed signing the free agents Davis held dear. Then for the past year Kiffin vented his frustration as the Raiders failed to deliver victories.
In addition to losing 15 of 20 games, Kiffin spewed "propaganda" and "lies," as Davis put it last week during a surreal 45-minute press conference that screamed TMI. It was awkward, like hearing divorce tales from the airplane passenger in the middle seat. At 79, with his strands of hair slicked back and his frail frame swallowed in a Raiders jacket, Davis let the dirt fly in explaining why he had just fired his fifth coach in seven years. "I didn't hire the person I thought I was hiring," said Davis, angry at how he was suckered into believing the dynamic Kiffin was like-minded only to find out that he was basically Reese Witherspoon in Election. "I think he conned me like he conned all you people," Davis added.
This wasn't so much a con perpetrated by Kiffin as self-delusion perpetuated by Davis. In an attempt to prove he wasn't dead yet—his mother lived to 103, he reminded everyone—Davis spoke with the stamina of a telethon host but could not mask his tiresome ideology rooted in outdated precepts. Back in the era of George Halas, with friends like Red Auerbach, sharing the sports scene with George Steinbrenner, Davis was the whiz of "Just win, baby" fame, able to assemble champions from junkyard parts, before free agency made loyalty pass� and the salary cap homogenized team identities. Here's what Davis failed to notice: The cult of personality has largely shifted from the owner to the coach. It's Bill Belichick in the ubiquitous hoodie, Tony Dungy as a bestselling author, Eric Mangini in a scene as Mangenius in The Sopranos .
The coach is the all-powerful Oz in a league where it takes a brain trust of IT junkies to raise a champion. It's been this way for a while, certainly when Kiffin was teething on leather laces at USC as a twentysomething assistant coach. No wonder he felt free to disagree with Davis on draft picks, coaching hires and issues of reverence. "I couldn't get him to feel toward ex-Raiders the way I wanted him to feel," Davis said. Odd he would say that when a lineup of former Oakland players from Rich Gannon to Warren Sapp emerged last week to assert what was already apparent: Davis still sees the world through a lava lamp.
It's a disturbing paradox. Davis can be a refreshing progressive—he installed the first Hispanic coach in the NFL ( Tom Flores), the first black coach of the modern era (Art Shell) and the first female CEO ( Amy Trask)—yet his mind remains largely closed to new football ideas. Roger Goodell was among the rubberneckers watching on the NFL Network as Davis eviscerated Kiffin during a daytime hour when most melodramatic death scenes are reserved for soap operas. What's a commissioner to do when one of his owners starts dropping his clown pants in public? He should channel David Stern when New York Knicks owner James Dolan—a serial feud-maker with coaches, too—let his control issues sabotage a celebrated franchise. Behind the scenes, Stern helped nudge Dolan to the background while he supported the hiring of adults to reshape the roster.
This is a different context—Davis knows football; Dolan knows a basketball is round—but with Goodell's push, a similar move toward organizational peace may occur in Oakland. This doesn't mean Davis has to surrender his outcast persona, but he can update his style by being more inclusive of a strong-willed coach, by deciding not to take fliers on sexy hires to prove he's still got it.