Al Davis Passes Away: Was the Legend an NFL Villain or Hero?

John HickeyContributor IIOctober 8, 2011

Al Davis, Raiders
Al Davis, RaidersJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

There will be those who will praise the legacy of Al Davis, the longtime face of the Oakland Raiders who reportedly died today at the age of 82.

There will more than a few others who won’t.

It was hard to be neutral on the subject of Al Davis. He was all about the Oakland Raiders to the exclusion of virtually everything else.

To those who were his friends, he showed fierce, unquenchable loyalty. There are dozens of stories of the time when Davis stepped up financially and emotionally when someone close to him suffered a personal loss through injury or illness.

To those of whom he took a dislike, he never relented. Just ask Marcus Allen, the Hall of Fame running back who was essentially benched for two years with the Raiders on Davis’ orders. Allen played well for half a decade after leaving the Raiders for Kansas City, that coming after Davis’ suggestion that Allen was a cancer on the team.

In Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area, Davis was a polarizing figure. His teams in the 1960s and 1970s had a huge fan following based on huge successes including Super Bowl XI and XV wins.

But after a few years of playing Northern California against Southern California, Davis took the team to Los Angeles to start the 1982 season. The grass turned out to be no greener, and the Los Angeles Coliseum didn’t fill up, so Davis brought the Raiders back north to start the 1995 season with the promise of a remodeled Oakland Coliseum and guaranteed sellouts.

Al Davis, Raiders, in 1984
Al Davis, Raiders, in 1984Getty Images/Getty Images

Both moves were money makers for the Raiders, but it cost Northern California dearly to lure Davis back. The sellouts didn’t happen, and the City of Oakland and Alameda County taxpayers had to pay for all those empty seats.

The Oakland Coliseum, once a decent place to play baseball but only average as a football venue, was remodeled for football. The new towering stands were derisively dubbed "Mount Davis," and while the facility became marginally better as a football venue, its viability as a home for Major League Baseball waned, and the Oakland A’s have been looking to relocate ever since.

There was never a time when Davis, himself a former player and coach, didn’t try to coach from the managing general partner’s box. In the early days John Rauch, John Madden and Tom Flores had long-term security with the club and generally had success, but after the five-and-a-half-year reign of Art Shell ended in 1994, Davis seemed to run through coaches as quickly as anyone in the NFL.

He had public disputes with coaches like Lane Kiffin and Tom Cable, and Davis' public image gradually became more and more one of a man who was getting too old for his job.

He's passed along now, and we're left to ponder his legacy. While he often came off as a villainous figure, no doubt in part due to the Raiders skull-and-crossbones-esque pirate logo and black mystique, Al Davis should ultimately be remembered as a bold man who did things his own way and helped make the NFL what it is today. 

After all, he hired Art Shell in 1989 to be the first African-American NFL head coach since Fritz Pollard in 1925, and he made Amy Trask the only female CEO of the NFL when he promoted her in 1997. Sounds like the actions of a hero. For that and his dedication to "just winning" in particular, we should remember him fondly today.