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SHANAHAN'S SHENANIGAN : Young Coach Comes In and Changes the Raiders' Looks

August 04, 1988|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

OXNARD — Something stirs beneath the silver and black ashes of a 5-10 season. It isn't like last summer's premature self-congratulations, nor does anyone confuse it with anything that will take the place of actual performance on an actual football field, but as young Mike Shanahan gets set to lead his own team down the runway for the first time, a feeling pervades his first camp:

This could actually work.

The Raider camp fairly hums with industry. The practice tempo is brisk, about double the old pace, interrupted every so often for a little blood-curdling instruction by the new line coach, Alex Gibbs, whom Shanahan brought along from Denver:

"Newt Harrell! Rev your damn motor up!"

No one ever used to yell at Raiders. And Raiders can't sit on their helmets between plays anymore, a ban akin to telling lions in the zoo they can't lie down. Once, this team ran the most relaxed drills in pro ball, but that's over.

The veterans are scrimmaged against each other, too, another precedent-buster. The old philosophy was, "We're the Raiders, we'd just hurt each other. We'll save the blood-letting for Sunday." But Shanahan, the X-and-O wonder, the ex-Bronco assistant coach and gimmick king, wants his players to get into that good, old-fashioned hitting, so they do.

Surprise, they aren't complaining.

Grizzled Raider vets call Shanahan a players' coach. In Denver, he is credited with relieving the tense situation that existed between Coach Dan Reeves and quarterback John Elway.

Shanahan got to know Elway and got him to start lifting weights by lifting with him, every morning at 8. Shanahan, the head coach, asks Raider players for input. He works at putting everyone at ease, chatting up stars and insignificant players alike.

"Nice practice," he tells Greg Knapp, a perennial camp quarterback from Cal State Sacramento with coaching aspirations, laughing. "Your coaching career may have to wait."

Shanahan draws reporters out and asks about their families. He talks to fans who'd have settled for an autograph.

How about his own ease?

Let's not forget this is supposed to be Mission: Impossible. The first Raider head coach brought in from outside since Al Davis himself, Shanahan has to find a quarterback, fashion a line to protect him, integrate six new starters on offense and three No. 1 picks onto the squad, not to mention satisfy one hungry employer.

Having just begun his career as an endangered species, he acts as if his state of mind isn't an issue. He looks as serene as the surface of a landlocked lake on a quiet evening.

If you want to know how he impressed enough people to go from a graduate assistantship at mighty Eastern Illinois University and a part-time assistantship at Oklahoma and his first full-time paid job--at Northern Arizona--to coach of the Raiders in little more than 10 years, you have only to watch him.

Said Dick Steinberg, the respected New England player personnel director: "Every NFL team has to have a ready list of possible coaches, college and pro, and it's never a crowded list.

"Shanahan is a guy people were watching. I think the guy's a very, very bright football coach. It's always interesting to see if a guy who has never been a head coach is ready, but you never know that.

"I remember seeing him in college (at Florida, where Shanahan, age 28-31, was offensive coordinator in 1980-83). His offenses were imaginative and sound. We don't go there to look at the teams, we're there to see the players, but right from the start, he caught your eye as a guy who was a good teacher, a motivator. If it's a clever scheme, you can't help but notice it."

Shanahan was offensive coordinator for one season at Minnesota, and the Gophers averaged 373 yards a game, including 500 against Ohio State in the opener. His last Florida team went for 412 a game and Wayne Peace set the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. record by completing 70.7% of his passes.

At 31, Shanahan was hired by Reeves as coach of the backs and receivers, then was given the quarterbacks even before his first season and was made offensive coordinator before his second.

At 35, he was as certified a whiz kid as Davis could find.

Let's put it this way: It won't hurt if he lives up to his billing. Tom Flores lasted nine years and won two Super Bowls, and John Madden lasted 10 and won one, but among the Raiders continuity isn't everything.

When Shanahan was hired, Madden was asked if that 10-year commitment wasn't comforting.

Well, Madden said, it isn't necessarily a 10-year commitment. It is if you win.


There are three teams that have won two Super Bowls in the '80s--the Redskins, the 49ers and the Raiders.

I don't know what the future holds in store, but we're not ready to give up the '80s as yet as something that belongs to anybody else. --AL DAVIS, announcing Shanahan's hiring.

Shanahan is five years younger than the next youngest head coach in the National Football League, but Davis knows from youth.

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