Thursday, January 23, 2003

Al Davis may retire if Raiders win

The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO - Al Davis is a rebel with a subpoena, as anti-establishment an owner as any sport will find. He has bedeviled the NFL off the field like no one else over the last 40 years, and he has succeeded on the field like no one else. Now, at age 73 after a 19-year absence, he and his menacing Oakland Raiders are back in the Super Bowl for what some suspect might be his last time to "just win, baby," as Davis is famous for saying.

If they do, Davis will join the late Art Rooney of Pittsburgh with four Super Bowl victories, one behind Eddie DeBartolo of San Francisco, who has five. The Raiders already have the best winning percentage in pro football since 1963.

"He may even retire if we win this Super Bowl. I think that's a possibility," said Tim Brown, who has spent his entire 15-year NFL career with the Raiders. "He has done everything you can possibly do in this league. Everybody doubted him. It wouldn't surprise me to see him walk away from this game."

Don't ask Davis. For a high-profile owner, he avoids the spotlight. He gives few interviews, and when reporters do corner him, he just ignores any questions he doesn't want to answer. At a rare public appearance this week, for instance, he was asked if he was happy for Jon Gruden, who bolted Oakland after last season and now will coach Tampa Bay against the Silver and Black on Sunday. "I'm happy for the Raiders being here," Davis said.

Al Davis is hardly an NFL company man.

Not in the way he dresses - usually satin running suits, one white, one black, and the occasional black suit, black shirt and silver tie. Not in the way he wears his hair - slicked back with a '50s duck-tail. Not in the way he talks - Brooklynese with Southern inflection. Not in the way he does business - on his own terms, always on his own terms.

Davis was the first NFL owner in the modern era to hire a black coach (Art Shell in 1989) and the first to have a Hispanic coach (Tom Flores, 1979-1987). They also have the league's only female chief executive, Amy Trask.

There is no doubt, though, that Davis has the real power, and that can be difficult to deal with.

As the only NFL owner who was a head coach, he torments his coaches, whether it be hands-on at practice or occasionally sending orders down during games. "Get down on the field and tell Art to get Smith back in the game," he told an aide during a game in Denver when Shell was head coach.

When Gruden got frustrated by Davis' interference and left after four seasons, Davis - as usual - came out a winner. He got two first-round draft picks, two seconds and $8 million to let Gruden go.

Davis has been battling the NFL since the 1960s, first as a coach in the rival American Football League, then as AFL commissioner and finally as an NFL owner looking for lucrative markets in northern and southern California.

He sued when the league tried to block him from moving the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982.

Now he's suing not only for the city he left, but also the city he returned to. Even though he moved back to Oakland in 1995 after 13 seasons in Los Angeles, he still claims rights to the LA market and is seeking $1.2 billion in damages from the NFL in that case. He is suing Oakland for failing to deliver sellouts they promised to get the Raiders back.

Davis can joke about his reputation. At a dedication ceremony Tuesday at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, he recalled how the late Jack Murphy, sports editor of the San Diego Union, badgered him in the early '60s to get the AFL to move the Chargers from Los Angeles to San Diego.

"At that time, I said I thought it was a good idea," Davis said with a smile. "You know I'm for moving teams."

If other owners and league executives brand Davis a football renegade, friends and former players find him the epitome of loyalty.

When his wife, Carol, had a serious heart attack a quarter-century ago, he moved into her hospital room and lived there for more than a month. And when he hears that even a distant acquaintance is ill, he'll offer medical help without worrying about expense.

Always obsessed with illness and death, he has been preoccupied lately with the passing of several long-time friends - ex-Raider Dave Dalby, publicist Irv Kaze, sports writer Will McDonough and Davis' one-time coaching mentor, Sid Gillman.

"I can control most things, but I don't seem to be able to control death," Davis said in a recent conversation. "Everybody seems to be going on me."

Davis is most absorbed by winning championships, something his team hasn't done since beating Washington 38-9 in the Super Bowl in 1984 - in Tampa, of all places. The closest the Raiders have come since was a loss to Baltimore in the AFC title game two years ago.

The most valuable player in that 1984 game was Marcus Allen, a leading candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in voting that will take place Saturday.

But for all of Davis' loyalty, Allen is unlikely to go in as a Raider.

For reasons never made clear, Davis took a dislike to his star running back and ordered him benched for two seasons. He released him after the 1992 season, and Allen went to Kansas City.

Davis' only comment: "He was a cancer on the team."

The small incorporated city of Irwindale, 20 miles east of Los Angeles, learned an expensive lesson about dealing with Davis. The city gave the Raiders $10 million to show its good faith in 1988, but environmental issues, financing problems and regional opposition scuttled plans to turn a gravel pit into a $115 million, 65,000-seat stadium. The deposit was nonrefundable, and Irwindale never got a penny back.

Friendships come after football, too.

In the mid-1980s, Davis noted that the New York Giants, coached by close friend Bill Parcells, had lost a couple of cornerbacks to injury. So he called Parcells and said, in effect: "Have I got a deal for you!"

The deal: Davis sent cornerback Ted Watts, a one-time hot prospect, to the Giants for a draft choice. Watts had a damaged knee and did nothing for the Giants.

Davis kept the draft choice.

"With Al, it's just about winning," says John Madden, who coached the Raiders from 1969-78 before becoming football's most renowned television analyst.

"I don't think the other things are too important to him."

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