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Scott Ostler

Rozelle Tries to Put Al Davis on the Spot

February 04, 1988|Scott Ostler

Just when you think some kind of cease-fire is in effect, the deepest, dirtiest, costliest and most sincere feud in sports resumes.

Al and Pete are back at each other's throats, where they belong.

Pete Rozelle made a subtle lunge at Al Davis last Friday, and here we go again.

You could say these two guys never learn, but what Rozelle did to Davis this time isn't likely to cost the National Football League several billion dollars in legal fees and judgments, so Pete obviously is learning.

This incident was a small one, actually, unless you happen to be a black football coach who aspires to a head coaching job in the NFL. Then it becomes interesting.

Before getting into that, though, you have to understand that Super Week was not a super week for Davis, the Raiders' chief, due to at least four items.

Item 1, Al's Raiders were not in San Diego playing in the Super Bowl. They were all out filming TV pilots, getting facials and doing the soul-robbing Hollywood things that have brought the franchise to its knees. At least that's as sound a theory as any yet offered for the Raiders' two-year slump.

Item 2, it was Davis' sad duty last week to inform six loyal silver-and-black assistant coaches that their future with the firm is not bright.

Item 3, a group of sportswriters meeting to choose Pro Football Hall of Fame nominees argued about Al Davis for two hours before leaving him off their list of finalists.

Item 4, the star of Super Week and the game itself was Doug Williams, a quarterback the Raiders allegedly could have had for a song at one time. Doug showed himself to be the ideal Raider quarterback--a strong, long, poised, courageous and an unwanted (until now) misfit.

OK, now let's flash back to Rozelle's state-of-the-NFL address last Friday in San Diego, where Pete brushed aside the league's drug problems and wiped away the 1987 player strike.

Rozelle responded to a question about the league's all-white lineup of head coaches, and the Raiders' current opening.

"That's one area (the need to eventually break the barrier) where Al is on board with the other 27 members," Rozelle said. "I'm sure Al will hire a man who he thinks will win for the Raiders. I'd like to see it be a black."

A cynic would interpret this as gamesmanship.

During Rozelle's long tenure as commissioner, no NFL team has hired a black coach. Yet this is the first time Rozelle has singled out one team as his pick to hire a black.

This statement worked well for Rozelle. It made him appear deeply concerned and eager for change.

Also, if Davis does hire a black coach now and someone says to Rozelle, "Say, Pete, didn't you urge Davis to do that?", Pete can smile shyly and shrug.

If Al does not hire a black coach, he becomes the league's central bigot and Pete says, "Hey, what can I do? I practically beg 'em . . . "

Now Rozelle can't lose and Davis can't win.

Davis basically doesn't want to talk about it, although he said Wednesday morning, "This guy's (Rozelle's) record in dealing with minorities is atrocious."

So Davis simmers. It has been said that in order for a black coach to be hired, some NFL owner will have to be colorblind. Actually, the opposite is true. Owners who ignore color hire white guys, because white guys dominate the coaching network.

The first black coach will probably be hired by an owner who is glaringly aware of skin color and the history of racial discrimination, and is willing to stick out his neck just a teensy to make the hiring breakthrough.

Davis seems like such a guy. Ask him who he admires most in sports, he'll surely tell you Jackie Robinson. Davis sees himself as an enlightened man, a champion of the underdog.

I doubt that Davis is willing to risk losing a season, or even one game, by placing skin color above coaching aptitude when he hires his new man. But you know he had to be thinking how sweet it would be to upstage Rozelle and break down a big sociological barrier, all in one simple move.

Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers have signed Lindy Infante as their new coach. Infante is white. Rozelle offered no personal guidance in that hiring, at least not publicly.

In a TV interview, Rozelle once explained the no-blacks situation by noting that most pro teams hire their head coaches from the college ranks, where there are few blacks. Blame the colleges.

This week, the University of Illinois hired John Mackovic, who was fired by the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago after a 30-35 record. Tampa Bay's Ray Perkins was hired from Alabama, which had hired him from the New York Giants. And so on.

Now you know where coaches come from. There is no waiting line, just a vicious circle.

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