The Most Hated Winner In Football: Al Davis In 1969S

Originally published in the Nov. 18, 1969, issue of Look magazine. Image by Sam Woolley.

The day in 1966 when Al Davis, who now runs the Oakland Raiders with a small, iron fist, was appointed commissioner of the American Football League, he leaned over the shoulder of the young publicist who was typing the announcement and penciled two words atop the paper. "Think you can work these in?" Davis asked. The words were 1. Dynamic. 2. Genius.

Al Davis's immodest assessment of himself is not precisely mirrored in the world of professional football, where winning, by whatever means, is usually the only measure of a man. Indeed, even though Commissioner Al Davis's slashing attack on the National Football League helped the upstart AFL force a merger, even though his Oakland Raiders won 25 of 28 games in the last two seasons, not including two division titles and a league championship, even though the Raiders are favored to take another championship this season, Al Davis is the most hated man in professional football.

In his dedicated, single-minded pursuit of pro-football's only goal, Al Davis has, his legion of detractors say, lied, cheated, manipulated, maneuvered, and, wearing spikes, marched up and down the backs of his hired hands. And last season, lady football columnist Elinor Kaine elected him "Super Rat of the Year."

To all of this, dynamic Al Davis, 40-year-old football genius, tanned, fiat-bellied, with blond hair that is disappearing in front and hanging shaggily over his collar in back, bats his big blue eyes, smiles a large-toothed Bugs Bunny smile and says, "I want to win. That's it, all of it."

Growing up in Brooklyn helped turn Al Davis into a gut fighter. ("When your gang met my gang, and I got out in front to fight the other guy, I had to win," he says.) He had openmouthed admiration for the success of the Yankees, the ruthless methods of Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown. In the end, he was able to slam the savage dogmas of athletic success right back into the teeth of the men who practiced them best. "We knocked hell out of the NFL," Al Davis says of his reign as AFL commissioner. "Al Davis will do anything to win," football establishment people were saying, not without admiration. This admiration turned to howls of anguish though, when they found Davis stomping around on their toes.

Winning is all Al Davis knows and is probably the only thing he enjoys. A humorless man, he laughs only at conquest. "Tell him a joke," says a man who used to work for him, "and you'll get a blank look. But if a general manager on another club calls him up and congratulates him on some fast deal he put over, he'll laugh like hell."

Davis's sense of competition is so finely honed that he was bitterly disappointed when peace was declared between the warring AFL and NFL. And not only because he thought the terms, under which the AFL had to pay some $20 million in reparations, were too harsh ("We didn't have to give 'em nothin'," he says, the Southern accent he cultivates—because it's easier to "tahk" Southern to football players—evaporating under the stress of emotion), but because he hadn't had time to implement his elaborate schemes to humiliate the NFL even further.

One of them involved the infiltration of NFL baby-sitters—the men who guarded college football players during the draft to make sure they would be available for signing—so that he could, with one masterstroke, send them all traveling to the wrong place at the wrong time. "All of a sudden, they would have all found themselves in Hawaii," Davis said. He laughed.

That's Al Davis and big think. Al Davis and small think involves his firing employees for largely imagined disloyalty. A secretary in the commissioner's office got it because Davis decided she had given one of his Oakland players information about whether his name appeared on a waiver list. Then there was the publicity man (Davis is hell on publicity men) who innocently told Don Klosterman, Houston GM, that a player he had conditionally traded to Oakland was doing very well indeed. This led Klosterman to demand a player in payment and Davis to can his publicity man as a spy.

So working for Davis can be a grinding experience. "I used to go to work every morning with a knot in my stomach," says a man who has escaped the Davis salt mine. "I never knew when the next attack was coming."

"Davis's theory is that people are motivated by fear," says Bob Bestor, who resigned as Raider business manager to do publicity for the Oakland Seals hockey team. "He thinks people perform better if they're afraid."

Davis admits it. Sitting in his cold, impersonal office, which is decorated in black and silver, the team colors, Davis pointed a finger and said, "What do I mean by fear? People in an organization have to have the feeling that there's someone there who, if they don't move in the right direction, will chop. Are you with me?"

It's all perfectly clear, of course, although it should be noted that Davis is something of a semantic escape artist. He has, for example, described himself as a top assistant or next under Weeb Ewbank in Baltimore at age 24. What Ewbank, now coach of the New York Jets, says is: "He was in my scout group. We had 40 scouts."

This sort of thing inspires a good deal of the scorn that is heaped upon Davis. He is charged with trying to make himself larger than life. He says that he played basketball, football and baseball at Syracuse University, where he took his degree in English. Yet the Varsity Club at Syracuse has no record that Davis lettered in any sport.

Another example. Davis gives his height as 6-foot-½ and his weight as 200. "He is no more than 5-11 and 190," says Lee Grosscup, author, former quarterback and another Davis ex-publicity man. "He wants to be thought of as an athlete. But he isn't even particularly well-coordinated. And he may have the skinniest pair of wheels in America, which is why he never takes off his pants where anyone can see. Then there's the Al Davis handshake. It's done with the fingers held apart and rigid so his little hand will seem bigger. Also notice the way he dresses. He still wears those suits with the big padded shoulders. The players call him 'El Bago.'"

Finally, there's the matter of his odd title, managing general partner. Dictator would be more apt. "In order to run an efficient organization," Davis says, "there has to be a dictator." Despite the record of dictators all over, he is quite serious. But he is not precisely a general partner.

Wayne Valley, who with E. W. McGah is a general partner (there are 23 limited partners), says Davis will own "less than 15 percent" of the club if he remains at his post for ten years, which means he has seven to go. "He wanted to be an owner," Valley says. "Davis is very image conscious. He felt being an owner was a step up from being commissioner. Anything else would have been a step down."

Although it may be easy to ridicule some of Al Davis's mannerisms, he doesn't take any steps down. Valley, a large, tough, self-made real estate and construction millionaire, who in his own way is probably as hard to work for as Davis, makes the point when he says, "If I said Al Davis is lovable, I'd be a liar. But you don't have to love him; just turn him loose."

The first time Al Davis was unleashed on pro football, he pulled off an extraordinary turnabout. Appointed coach and general manager of the Raiders in 1963, Davis took a team that had won three out of 28 games, and in a single season came in with a 10–4 record. If the New York Mets had won a pennant in their third season, it would have been no greater upset.

Says Jim Otto, the All-League center who was there at the start, "It was terrible. We practiced on lots with rocks and broken glass. There was no organization, no leadership. Then Davis came in, and he went out and got it done, all of it, the whole shebang."

Long-haired, modly dressed Grosscup, who is making a living as a model and college-football color man on TV, is hardly a Davis booster. Yet when it comes to the game of football, Grosscup rates Davis highly. "He has developed a brilliantly conceived offense that is so complex and so effective it's frightening," Grosscup says.

Daryle Lamonica, the Oakland quarterback, agrees. "His knowledge of the game is shocking," Lamonica says. "This is my third year as a starter, and I'm just beginning to grasp the overall picture. I'm throwing to at least four men, often five. This means our whole offensive line has to be involved. Every lineman has to know what every back is doing. It's a terrific offense."

It is in this area that Davis apparently feels he can afford modesty. Sitting in one of his black-plastic office chairs, wearing a bulky sweater, he succeeds in looking large and rather boyish: "Let me say this. Football is complex, but you don't have to be smart to understand it. You just have to have that kind of mind."

The Most Hated Winner In Football: Al Davis In 1969

Asked when he knew he going to run a football team for a living, Davis says, "When I was six." This could well be, for his life has gone in a straight line in that direction. The son of a successful garment manufacturer, Al Davis was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, moved to Brooklyn and talks about his early life with great reluctance. "Al's a complex guy," says Don Klosterman, who worked with Davis for the Los Angeles, later the San Diego, Chargers. "It's hard to figure out what he's thinking. His mind is a labyrinth. One minute, he's very concerned about his image. The next, he doesn't seem to care." (The kind of thing that probably throws Klosterman is Davis saying this: "I don't want this in the story. I really wish you wouldn't print it. You follow me? But when I got out of public school, I won the American Legion medal for all-around kid.")

Davis's first job was assistant coach in football and head coach in baseball at Adelphi College on Long Island, New York. It was while he was there that he met and married Carol (he calls her Ca-ROL-ee) Segall. They have a redheaded son Mark, 14, named after General Mark Clark. Davis didn't meet the general until he went to The Citadel some years later, but it was shortly after he was drafted in 1952 that Davis sort of took over the army. Assigned to special services at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where the commandant wanted to build a football team, Davis waded in with his customary vigor.

He took over two barracks, and in one of them he had his own room with a sign over the door that read "Off Limits To Players." He was a private, but he had a car and driver, and was the only enlisted man who always wore an officer-type, peaked hat. Everywhere he went, recruits scrambled to salute him. "He had a good deal, but so did his players," a man who served with him recalls. "They slept until noon and ate the best food on the base. He built a hell of a football team."

When Davis left Fort Belvoir, it was only a step ahead of a congressional investigation into the coddling of athletes. When he remembers this, he laughs. "You know how generals are," he said. "They want to win. This general gave me carte blanche. I also had very good contacts in the Pentagon that could move people. You follow me?"

After his stint as a scout in Baltimore, Davis went to The Citadel as an assistant (for which he apologizes—"What was I, 25?") and recruiter. With Davis beating through Pennsylvania for young talent, The Citadel promptly chalked up its best record in 13 years. The University of Southern California was the next stop, and several Citadel football players went with him. This was noticed by the NCAA, which put USC on probation. It did not prevent USC from winning.

The negative effects of college recruiting have never intruded upon Davis's moral sense. "Recruiting isn't the worst of it," Davis said when the subject came up over a glass of ice water in an Italian restaurant in Oakland. (Davis drinks little, smokes not at all, eats no breakfast, works out with weights in a black-and-silver office gym every day, and substitutes water for tea and coffee.) "Fifty percent of All-Americans are on the downgrade in their third year because they're failures. They can't go home because they've reached a peak too early."

An odd look crossed Davis's face as he said this, a strangely empty look. "And how about if you're 40 and you own the goddam team? And you're not sure what you want to do?"

If Davis has time for a problem, this seems to be it, a recurring doubt about where he goes from here. He would be lost if he weren't leading something. Even his leisure reading is devoted to things military, and he sprinkles his conversation with references to obscure battles. ("Did you know we were blobbered at Archangel?") And once he was asked if he would have liked to be President. "No," he said. "I'm not interested in inflation. I'm interested in the power behind the scenes. Secretary of State."

The Most Hated Winner In Football: Al Davis In 1969S

Davis went from USC to the Chargers, where he was soon tearing at the NFL. Among the college stars Davis lured into the AFL fold despite NFL blandishments was Lance Alworth. "Lance and I became close friends," Davis said. "That's the first thing you do. Anytime you're selling, there's got to be warmth. My father had died a week before I went to see Lance, and he's very dose with his father, and somehow there was a lot of warmth."

In 1963, when Davis was 33 he was asked to come to Oakland as general manager and coach. Oakland had no stadium. There was bickering among the owners. The team was demoralized. It did not seem like a very good job. Davis leaped to take it. With one condition. He demanded absolute control. ''I'm not running a school to teach owners football," Davis told them.

As his success mounted, Davis began to use a lot of words Vince Lombardi used in Green Bay before he defected to Washington. "Pride," Davis says, "and a little poise. Dedication and loyalty. Sacrifice. And yeah, love."

What helped the Raiders a lot more than rhetoric was Davis's knack for picking up players other teams didn't want and getting good performances from them. The Jets let Art Powell play out his option, and he was an All-League end for Davis in 1963. "Powell was a bad guy," Davis said with only a slight snarl. "He got into the end zone for us. He helped build our new stadium. A real bad guy.

"Ben Davidson was with three clubs. They said he was a dog. I picked Ike Lassiter up off the street. Bad guys. All they could do was win." (Lassiter: "I told Davis I could play if the coaches didn't jump on my back all the time. They left me alone and I played.")

Another Davis strong point is a talent for spotting a player in the wrong position. Billy Cannon was switched from the backfield to tight end and made a major contribution. Hewritt Dixon was a tight end for Denver until Davis turned him into a fine running back. "Davis can turn an ordinary player into a great one by making a few adjustments," Lamonica says.

Not that Davis overlooks the rewards of small think here too. He rejoices in spreading misinformation about injuries to his players. He employs a network of spies so that if a linebacker in Boston has a boil on his tail or a tackle in Denver is angry with the line coach, Al Davis knows. He has, for some time now, been scouting the NFL teams involved in the merger, but when they tried to scout Oakland, Davis barred them from his field. If there's an edge, Davis will have it.

"Edge? Me?" Al Davis said before a Jets-Raider exhibition this summer. ''I don't look for an edge. If I did, before this game with the Jets, I'd have arranged a ceremony, the city of Oakland giving the Jets a thank-you trophy for winning the Super Bowl. Then I'd have had one of the guys on our team say, 'Those bastards are collecting our trophy.'" Al Davis laughed.

Then there was the shelter caper. At five o'clock on the frigid morning the Raiders were playing the Jets for the AFL championship in Shea Stadium, a work crew talked its way onto the field and erected a weather shelter over the Oakland bench. "We'll build one for the Jets later," they said as they left. Only the fact that it blocked the view of fans in the stands prevented Davis from getting away with it.

There is a delicious duplicity to this stunt, which is why many people count Davis a charming rogue. Others don't find him that charming.

"It was a high school trick," snarls Weeb Ewbank, in a relatively mild reaction compared to, say, Sid Gillman, the San Diego general manager, who screams that Davis coaches offensive holding. "I never listen to anything Al Davis says," Gillman says.

Still, Davis did turn Oakland's fortunes around—the club is beginning to make some real money in its new stadium—and this was so impressive that when Wayne Valley proposed him as the man to do battle with the NFL while the war was at its peak in 1966, there were no demurrals. The only question about Davis's four-month regime as commissioner—for which he is still collecting on a reported $250,000, five-year contract—is just how influential he was in bringing about the quick settlement. There are those, including Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who insist that peace was near even before Davis became commissioner. Indeed, there had been talks, but there was no action until Davis waded in, went to top NFL stars, shoved money at them, and induced them to play out their options and jump to AFL clubs.

Among the defectors were Roman Gabriel and John Brodie, quarterbacks for Los Angeles and San Francisco. A lot more were preparing to jump. "One of these days Pete Rozelle [then commissioner only of the NFL] is going to wake up in the morning and reach for his drawers—and they will be gone," wrote Larry Merchant in the New York Post of the Davis modus operandi. Sure enough, Rozelle woke up one morning and found the leagues merged—with himself as commissioner.

"I didn't want to be commissioner," Davis says. "No way. It's a desk job."

"He thought he ought to have it," says Valley, who calls Davis The Genius. "He felt hurt. But the guy is in the right place, running a shop."

Davis came back as managing general partner and ran the shop with a vengeance. Losing to Green Bay in the Super Bowl and to the Jets last season for the AFL championship were his only two serious defeats. And one other. The noisy resignation of John Rauch, his coach.

"Al always said he didn't want the owners telling him how to run the club,'' Valley recalls. "When he came back, I kidded him about it. I said I suppose you want your coach to have the same right. He didn't laugh. Al hasn't much of a sense of humor."

The only surprise about Rauch's departure was that it was so long in coming. Dictator Davis does everything but take tickets, and a coach is almost certain to resent the hot breath on his neck. "Davis is a hard worker, and he'll do anything to win," says Rauch, who is now coach of the Buffalo club. "I respect him for that. But I don't think he is the greatest coach in the world. I mean here we were preparing for a championship game and a Super Bowl game, and he's got 15 reasons why I'm not a good coach. All he wanted was to run the show himself from behind his desk."

The Most Hated Winner In Football: Al Davis In 1969S

Wayne Valley isn't sure that's the right way to do it. "Who are the geniuses in this game?" he says. "Lombardi. Brown. How can you tell? They put their guts on the line. They're judged as coaches."

Davis disagrees. He believes that Lombardi, who had one year as a losing general manager at Green Bay, could have had better results if only he had paid more attention. "Instead, he let his coach run the team and he played golf." Al Davis doesn't play golf.

In fact, he is bugged that he failed to keep Rauch pacified. He went to great lengths to do so.

Lee Grosscup tells of the time the Raiders played in Miami, and a columnist wrote a kind piece on Davis.

"Does he flatter me too much, Bob?" Davis said to Bob Bestor.

"He lays it on you, but it's a good column."

"Well, listen. Don't you think it makes the coach look bad?"

"He doesn't even mention him."

"I know. Listen, that's what I'm worried about. I tell you what. Why don't you go down to the lobby and buy all the papers so the coach can't get one. And let's send Grosscup out to the airport to buy them up there."

"And that's what I did," Grosscup said. "There I was, athlete, author, big man, lugging 25 newspapers under each arm just to please The Genius."

It is possible that Rauch would have been better off if he had fought Davis less and listened to him more. At least this is the policy of John Madden, the 33-year-old assistant Davis has elevated to head coach. Lowering his 260-pound bulk into a chair too small for him, Madden explained how he feels about working with Davis.

''I'd say he comes to about 50 percent of the practices," Madden said. "But you don't say, 'Oh, hell, here he comes.' It's a pleasure to see him. If I have an idea I want to use, I have to sell it. It's the same way with Al. He doesn't tell me, he sells me."

In which case Davis must sell football a lot better than he does himself. He'd have a terrible time working up a list of people who were anything more than acquaintances. "You're not talking to any of my friends," he complained to a reporter recently.

"All right," the reporter said. "Who are your friends?" The pause was long enough to be embarrassing, Finally, Davis said, "George Ross. Why don't you talk to him?"

Ross is sports editor of the Oakland Tribune. He likes Al Davis, believes he's a football genius, and that he's responsible for bringing big-time sports to the city that was counted as a mere doppelganger to the real city across the bay, San Francisco.

Among the legion of people Davis could not put on his list of friends are some of his players. "My ambition is to tell Al Davis, 'Sorry, I can't afford to play for you,'" says Ben Davidson. At least one Davis-Davidson contretemps has broken into print. It had to do with a commercial Davidson filmed largely for the benefit of the AFL Players Association. When Davis discovered that the Raider emblem was visible on Davidson's helmet in the spot, he demanded and received a large fee. As an upshot of this ploy, there were no visible team emblems in the AFL All-Star Game. "Instead of getting good public relations for the teams," Davidson says, "we were individual football players out for themselves."

Then there's Tom Keating, the defensive tackle with the leprechaun face. Keating injured his Achilles tendon in the 1967 title game with Houston. In the All-Star Game that followed, he snapped it altogether and was out for the 1968 season. "Davis said he was under no obligation to pay me for the season, but he would give me half," Keating says. "Later on, he said two-thirds. I told him if he wanted to release me he could, but if he didn't I wanted full pay. Not only that, but nobody had paid my hospital bill. I was even getting dunned for a TV set I'd rented there. My credit rating was going all to hell. They were threatening to take my wife and sell her into white slavery. The whole thing.

"Davis's point was that he felt the league was responsible for paying me, and I said he should pay and then get it back from the league. I had to threaten to sue. Eventually, I got the money from the league, and I don't know how much of it he paid."

This was the case that led Elinor Kaine to elect Davis Super Rat.

"I don't really dislike the guy," Keating says. "He's hard to like sometimes but, well, it's like he's talking to you, telling you a lie and you know it, but you want to believe it. He's like the movie mogul in The Bad and the Beautiful. Kirk Douglas played the part. This guy really used people. But in the end, when he's down and out, those very people are willing to like him again."

Despite Davis's apparent penury in the business of football, he often shows great personal generosity. It's said that the bash he threw for his son's Bar Mitzvah was one of the most lavish in the history of Oakland. Keating, who counts himself as something of a gourmet, was one of the 500 invited guests, and with beluga caviar in one hand, Piper Heidsieck in the other, he was heard to remark, "Kill me now, this is the way I want to die."

There is no fun in Davis, though, when it comes to football. Football is not an entertainment to him, it's a "vicious battle." Which is why, when other people make out an itinerary for their players, it might read "2 p.m. Game Time," Davis's itineraries read "2 p.m. WE GO TO WAR!"

He can't help it if he means it.


Leonard Shecter was one of the "Chipmunks," a gang of '60s-era sportswriters known for their wise-ass, iconoclastic prose. He wrote for the New York Post and a number of magazines, including Esquire, where in 1967 he published a notoriously brutal profile of Vince Lombardi. Shecter's most lasting contribution to the genre was Jim Bouton's Ball Four, which he edited. He died in 1974, at 47.

The Stacks is Deadspin's living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter's Alex Belth. Check out some of our favorites so far. Follow us on Twitter, @DeadspinStacks, or email us at thestacks@deadspin.com.