By Len Pasquarelli, CBS Sports Columnist
OAKLAND (CBS Sports) — Since there are so many conflicted translations of the quote, we’ll paraphrase, and worry later about offering apologies to any remaining descendants of Aristotle. But the Greek philosopher, who died more than 2,300 years before Al Davis was even born, must have somehow had the late Oakland Raiders owner in mind when he noted that no great genius is without a requisite dose of madness.
To an entire generation of NFL fans, Davis, who passed away Saturday morning at age 82, was the enfeebled old guy dressed in a black and white sweatsuit who rambled on disjointedly at public appearances like the dismissal of former coach Lane Kiffin.
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Yeah, a mad man in every sense. But, make no mistake, Davis was a genius. And while some might suggest otherwise, the NFL almost certainly would not have risen to its stature of unchallenged professional sports preeminence without him.
Prickly he was, a nettlesome burr under the saddle of league commissioners and even some of his ownership brethren. Litigious? Well, his court record all but defines the term. Peripatetic, too, having yanked the Raiders out of Oakland in 1982, relocating to Los Angeles, only to return to the Bay Area 13 years later.
But Davis loved his Raiders. And, his various lawsuits against the league aside, he loved football. Beyond his family, wife Carol and son Mark, the game and the Raiders were Davis’ dual-yet-intertwined passions, and he spent most of his life pursuing the brilliance of both things.
Perhaps the NFL, as currently configured, might have existed without Davis, but it’s difficult to imagine. He essentially forced the AFL-NFL merger. And while most of his work was accomplished in the shadows, clearly fraught with the kind of mystery and intrigue that he preferred — can anyone even explain his obtuse title, “president of the general partner” — Davis had a profound effect on the history of the league.
For all intents and purposes, he was the Raiders, a franchise that won 15 division titles, four AFC championships and three Super Bowls under his stewardship.
Most people of this vintage know Davis as an irascible, feisty owner, perhaps even a gridiron martinet. But he was, in previous lives, an assistant coach, a head coach, a general manager and commissioner before becoming an owner. And his influence in all of those roles is still felt by the league today.
The latter-day critics who regard Davis as an anachronistic throwback to the days when owners were owners and not businessmen, and who suggest he was out of touch with the times, might do well to remember that he hired the first black coach of the modern era (Art Shell), the first Latino (Tom Flores) and elevated a woman (Amy Trask) to the prominent role of CEO in the Oakland organization.
The term “visionary” is thrown around far too haphazardly anymore. But it more than fits Davis.
Some people affix their stamp to an institution. Others build the press that prints the stamps. Davis was the latter and given his football acumen, his oversight, some might even say obsession, for the Raiders was seemingly appropriate.
An old friend who once worked for the Raiders related Saturday morning that the contracts drawn up by the team for front-office personnel and coaches contained no delineation of powers. Most franchises explicitly define responsibilities in contracts — who will select the players, who has sway over setting the roster, how it will be determined who makes cuts, and who plays — but it was understood by those who worked for the Raiders that Davis had final authority over all those issues.
Given that the Raiders haven’t posted a winning season since 2002, when the club took the AFC West with an 11-5 mark, it’s easy to ridicule Davis’ encompassing grip over the team. But Davis, enamored of speed and raw athleticism, always thought that he knew best. And even people who worked for him and chafed under his way of conducting the franchise’s affairs were impressed by his deep and continuing understanding of the game, even if Oakland’s performance suggested otherwise.
The same longtime friend cited earlier saw Davis a few months ago, and while allowing that the Raiders owner was physically fragile, marveled at the sharpness and football knowledge, history and otherwise, he still possessed.
Although not a selector at the time, I can recall when Davis was a candidate for the Hall of Fame in 1992, and how some old NFL loyalists, still harboring the grudge of the merger forced by the Oakland owner’s strong-arm tactics, lobbied against his inclusion in the Canton shrine. But to have denied Davis enshrinement not only would have been criminal, it also would have simply ignored his immense contributions.
Folks could hold a grudge back in ’92, but they couldn’t deny Davis’ imprint.
It’s hard to imagine the Raiders without Davis, no matter the team’s success or failure. He undeniably was the face (and the inimitable voice) of the franchise. Upon the phone call that informed us of his death, a good hour before the club confirmed his passing on its website, one question that immediately arose was who would now run the team. Davis’ shadow was so long, his stewardship so broad, it is a fair and appropriate question. But one that will be answered some other time.
That the Raiders have lost their unquestioned leader, that the NFL is without a man without whom the history of the league could not be authored, is enough for now.
For those who have covered the league for a while, whose tenure with reporting on all matters NFL overlapped with Davis, it was perhaps sobering to witness him with a walker or in a wheelchair the past several years.
Sure, Al Davis had become, to many, a caricature of himself. His often-ridiculed mantras — “Pride and Poise,” or “Just win, baby,” or “Commitment to Excellence” — had for many become outmoded and archaic. But those things were, until the end, Davis’ driving force.
In a league more fixed these days on profit-and-loss ledgers, he was about the game and its purity, its integrity. A cartoonish figure perhaps to this generation of NFL fanatics, it should be recalled that Davis’ brilliant legacy to the league is anything but trivial.
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