By Adrian Gutierrez (AdrianGutierrez@KitchenisDads)
The Allegiant Stadium, which has a shell that is as black as the dark side of the moon, stands out in a city that is known for its bright lights, blazing sun, and iconic casino architecture. In name, it is the official home of the Las Vegas Raiders, but for Raider Nation the world over, it is a long time coming.
It is the structural offspring of a man who fought like Genghis Khan for a team of outsiders & has-beens, misfits & men of color. A man who didn’t care where they came from, or what they looked like as long as they played great individually and collectively, to win. Winning was all that mattered, which brings us to a new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary by Ken Rodgers, “Al Davis vs. The NFL” which focused on the decades-long rivalry between Al Davis and Pete Rozelle, former Commissioner of the NFL, that would eventually lead to this brand new state of the art Raider Mecca.
This purpose of this post is to commend Ken Rodgers for recognizing the great contributions Al Davis gave to the NFL, but to add emphasis on the actions of an icon. Al Davis was notoriously combative for the team he built, the AFL he once led, and for the players and personnel he cultivated and promoted.
He led the charge when it came to hiring people of color and sex to key player, management, and personnel positions. In 2021, minority representation is still a topic of contention, but it was Davis who was establishing precedent decades ago.
He was the brainchild of creating a new stadium that would raise the team’s profile in order to recruit the best players, with the luxury suites subsidizing the salaries. He was the Coach who emphasized stretching the field and “going vertical” not on 3rd down, but on 1st down in an era of the power sweep through the alley.
When it comes to PR and branding, he embodied it. His slogans, “Commitment to Excellence,” or “Just Win, Baby,” became mantras for the organization, all the while he only wore Raider colors: silver, black and white. Few men have ever left such a legacy, contentious as it was, and we will reflect on it.
In a documentary first, Ken Rodgers utilized “deepfake” technology to bring Davis and Rozelle to life to give the documentary a narrative. He used actors to imitate the voices, while 3D technology was super imposed on the faces.
Since Rodgers is the modern-day Steve Sabol, he has access to all the glorious NFL archives at his disposal to properly deliver the characteristics and nuances of Al Davis and Pete Rozelle. If you haven’t seen this documentary, please do see it, it’s well done and offers unique authenticity.
The deep fake actors tell their respective stories from the inside of the new Allegiant stadium as friendly rivals, sharing war stories. Which it was to Al, it was war. The Raiders were the most litigious franchise in the NFL, perhaps in all of the American sports.
From the East Coast to the West Coast
Born in Brooklyn, Al Davis, is the only NFL coach to become an NFL Owner. He was a former scout, assistant coach at USC, assistant wide receivers coach to NFL legend Sid Gilman in San Diego.
As a debut head coach of an Oakland Raiders team, he took them from an irrelevant 1-13 record to a winning 10-4 record the very next year at 33 years of age. He was coach of the year and winning was everything to him.
According to one legend as a scout, he once pretended to be a journalist just so he could interview the opposing team’s coach and get a description of a key offensive play. Machiavellian as always.
“At Syracuse, I vowed to be a chooser …. You can take what they can give you for you can fight.” He went on to say, “Power was important to me. Power to control my own destiny.” Ironically, he was not a great athlete or a good football player.
His ferocious drive and his vision are what set him apart. “We’re gonna take what we want.” The first thing he did for the Oakland Raiders was rebrand the team. Borrowing from the graphic schemes of the collegiate Army at that time, he changed the colors to silver and black. Striking colors that could be noticed from afar on tall linesmen.
Offensively, he drew from Sid Gilman in going “Vertical.” The big bomb, the big play on first down. Defensively it was about power and intimidation. “Within the first 5 plays of the game, the other team’s quarterback must go down. And he must go down hard.”
Then in 1966, Al Davis became the commissioner of the AFL. The AFL was the underdog league at the time but it set itself apart in its recruitment of players, namely Black players in key positions, such as quarterback and middle linebacker.
When the NFL broke the unwritten rule of poaching a kicker recruited by the Bills, the AFL led by Al Davis went after NFL recruits in mass. It was war. The bidding ensued and it eventually led to the merging of the two leagues.
To give an example of how combative Al Davis was, Lamar Hunt, who was the founder of the AFL and who had recruited Al Davis as AFL Commissioner, purposely kept him out of all merger meetings. Al Davis was furious at the merger not because he was against it, but because he truly thought that the AFL could succeed without succumbing to NFL negotiations. He wanted the NFL to be fully defeated before coming to the bargaining table. Hells Bells.
We do need to give Pete Rozelle, the great salesman, and first NFL Commissioner his due. He secured the TV rights and kept the league together through some tumultuous decades as it became the preeminent American sport. The NFL has become a Goliath. The marriage of the NFL and broadcast television secured them a day of the week, and by all respective measures, an unofficial national holiday with the Super Bowl.
Pete Rozelle brought the product of the NFL to all the living rooms and bars in America, but it was the Al Davis style of play that kept them tuned in for more. Every great statesman must have a nemesis and Rozelle’s nemesis resided in un-glamorous Oakland.
Al Davis, the Progressive
Al Davis happily returned to his Oakland Raiders as General Manager, then Owner. As owner, he made some benchmark decisions that were unprecedented in his time, in his personnel choices. He hired, back then, the youngest coach ever and future hall of famer, John Madden, to lead his franchise that became one of the greatest teams of the 1970s, including one Super Bowl title in 1976.
John Madden’s assistant, Tom Flores, would then become the head coach of the Raiders in 1979 when Madden retired. Tom Flores was the first Latino head coach of an NFL football team and lead the Raiders to two super bowl victories in 1980 and 1983. Tom Flores, just a few days ago, was named to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this coming August.
In 1989, he named Art Shell, a former hall of fame Raider tackle, to be the head coach of the L.A. Raiders. To Al Davis, it didn’t matter that Art Shell was Black, it mattered that he was a Raider. It would be years before there was another Black head coach in the NFL. And in 1997, Al Davis named Amy Trask, the CEO of his team. She was involved in all non-football business matters and operations for the team, plus she was the representative at all league meetings. “The Princess of Darkness,” she served as Raider CEO from 1997 to 2013. She remains as the only female to serve as an NFL team CEO.
The Raiders vs The NFL
Despite his maverick decisions, it was his desire for a new stadium that renewed his contention with the NFL, and directly challenged Pete Rozelle. Al Davis foresaw the upcoming economics. He knew that in order to recruit better talent, he had to create a better home for them to want to come play in.
In order to do so, he knew that luxury boxes could raise the premium of the stadium, which could help pay the salaries of marquee playmakers. This is all commonplace now, but it was not practiced then.
In 1980, Los Angeles via letter of agreement, told Al Davis that they could update the antiquated, but large, L.A. Coliseum with luxury boxes. Tom Bradley was welcoming them.
Al Davis wanted to move but Pete Rozelle intervened and said he could only move if Davis were to obtain league permission to move outside of Oakland. War ensued.
Al Davis zeroed in on Pete Rozelle and took him and the NFL to court in 1980. There were two trials, the first one was filled with drama and hi-jinks which led to a mistrial.
In the meanwhile, the Raiders become the first wild card team to win the Superbowl and Pete Rozelle has to swallow his pride and hand over the Lombardi trophy to Al Davis after the victory.
In 1982, there was a retrial and an all-women jury took six hours to render a verdict that the NFL violated anti-trust laws in blocking the Raiders move to L.A. Al Davis wins, and to the victor go the spoils, the NFL is ordered to pay $49 million dollars to the Raiders.
Fully moved in 1983, in their second season in L.A., the Raiders go to the Superbowl 18 against the Washington Redskins, the defending champions and back then, the highest scoring team in history.
The Raiders trounce them by 29 points. Once again Pete Rozelle in chagrin, has to present the Lombardi Trophy to Al Davis. Rozelle is cropped out of the presentation as soon as the trophy is awarded. “Just Win Baby.”
The Al Davis Godfather effect: teams move for better deals. The NY Jets moved to the Meadowlands. The Baltimore Colts uproot and moved like thieves in the middle of the night, to Indianapolis. The St. Louis Cardinals moved to Phoenix. The L.A. Rams moved to St. Louis. The Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee. What worried Pete Rozelle – that cities would bid for teams, happened. Yet, the franchises made more money, they were able to afford higher salaries and fan bases grew. Of course, Al Davis eagerly takes the credit for all this.
In 1987, the Raiders sued the L.A. Coliseum because it did not deliver on its promise to renovate the stadium and provide luxury boxes. They would return to Oakland in 1995, but Al Davis always had an eye on a brand new stadium. Their stay there was by no means permanent.
In the meanwhile, the state of the art stadiums were being designed and constructed. Hollywood Park in Los Angeles becomes a potential sight with one caveat: a new L.A. stadium would have to be shared with another NFL franchise. Al Davis, sharing the Raiders limelight was not going to happen, you might as well ask him to change his color scheme.
The Flame Illuminates
In 1989, Pete Rozelle would announce his retirement at an owners meeting in Palm Springs, California. The tears in his eyes formed when he announced it. The normally cool at the podium salesman, broke character, and of all people to offer empathy, it was Al Davis. Al Davis understood that for health reasons, Rozelle had to retire. The two rivals would lay down their guard and shake hands. Pete Rozelle would subsequently die of brain cancer in 1996. Al Davis died in 2011 at 82 years of age.
At the front center of the Allegiant stadium is an iconic torch. “The flame that will burn brightest here is the will to win,” said Al Davis. The flame lives on. The actors make their way out of the stadium passing it. The Raiders and the NFL are seeing success because of Al Davis and Pete Rozelle, but it’s Al Davis who is the legend and will forever be remembered as the man who went to war with the NFL, and won.