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Al Davis: the Machiavelli of football

With cleverness and stealth and attention to every last detail, Al Davis runs the Raiders like no other sports franchise in America.

December 15, 1991|By Mark Heisler | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Associated Press
Associated Press (64916876.jpg )

An hour before the game, Al Davis stands at the 50-yard line of the silent Coliseum, surveying the field through his sunglasses darkly, as if the world's fate were to be decided upon it.

His bodyguards, two off-duty Los Angeles policemen dressed like assistant coaches, watch from a discreet distance. A small retinue of close friends from Oakland, who fly down faithfully for games, walks up to shake hands. Sometimes, Sam Bercovich, a kindly, spindly 73-year-old retired furniture dealer, actually runs onto the field for warmups with the defensive backs, a commitment to excellence in the geriatric extreme.

Davis stands in the same place every game, and the opposing players have to run right by. Sometimes he jokes with them. Usually, he stares past them. Let 'em see a living legend up close and know fear.

PHOTOS: Al Davis | 1929-2011

Fear cuts both ways. Within the hour, he is sitting in his box at the Coliseum or the press box on the road, drawing Xs and Os on scraps of paper. He emits cries, whispers and curses, often second-guessing his coaches' play calls. Reporters sitting on the level below his Coliseum box can hear him pound the tabletop when a play fails. In dire circumstances, he may order a substitution, as in Minnesota in 1987, when his assistant, Al LoCasale, seated next to the Orange County Register's Jay Lawrence, telephoned the sideline to inform Coach Tom Flores' staff: "Mr. Davis wants a new quarterback." Flores immediately made the switch, although he claimed later it had been his decision.

However paternally Davis may regard his coaches, on Sundays they are corks bobbing on the sea of his rage, win or lose. A few weeks before Flores resigned, Davis was overheard in his box during a loss to Cleveland yelling, "This coach has had it!" Glenn Dickey, who covered the Raiders for the San Francisco Chronicle, remembers walking up and down a Miami airport concourse with Davis after a 1970 loss to the Dolphins, with Davis wondering out loud if he should fire then-coach John Madden.

Madden was three games into his second season, with a 12-3-2 record. He went on to coach nine more seasons, none of them relaxed.

Mere triumph occasions little jubilation for Davis. After any game, be it a walkover or rout, he wanders the dressing room, grieving over any injury, down to a sprained ankle, his focus already on next week's opponents.

The spirit of Davis' organization is unabashedly martial, dovetailing with Davis' fascination with military history; at the end of every Raider itinerary are typed the words: "Let's go to war!" This may be a livelihood for his players, a day in the sun for the fans, but for the 62-year-old managing general partner of the Los Angeles Raiders, all that's at risk is his self-worth. All that is being tested is his will. All that is on the line is his being.

Unlike other owners throughout sports, few of whom ever rose from coaching ranks, Davis runs his team from the ground up. He makes or approves all personnel decisions and hires the assistant coaches, normally the head coach's prerogative. When Mike Shanahan arrived as new coach from Denver in 1988, he was allowed to name only three of his 12 assistants. Davis, proud of a system that would yield three Super Bowl victories and 14 Western Division titles in 28 years, once told player Tom Keating that he controls the Raider organization down to the wastebaskets.

Even in a workaholic subculture of younger men, Davis' monastic routine is remarkable. He lives alone year-round in a condo overlooking Marina del Rey, an attractive but modest home for a 27.5% owner of a $100-million enterprise. His wife, Carol, stays in their East Bay house in Piedmont, flying down for games.

He spends all day at the team's Spartan El Segundo base, a converted junior high school. A man of ingrained and idiosyncratic habits, he has a huge desk but works off a TV tray. He watches afternoon practices, standing by himself on the sideline for two hours, perhaps 20 yards away from everyone, giving off "stay away" vibes. He may make a stray comment to a player, but he doesn't talk to his coaches during the session. His concentration is total, and fearsome to behold.

Around 6 p.m., when the players have gone and the coaches are breaking for dinner, Davis holds his own solitary workout, running laps and lifting weights. He returns to his office to work a few more hours, then dines late, often alone at a restaurant on the Westside such as Matteo's, where he gets a telephone at his table.

He watches game films into the night. Mike Madden, the 28-year-old Harvard-educated son of Davis' former coach and a former front-office employee, guesses that Davis watches films 350 days a year, grading players and trying to solve problems--how to deal with a troubling foe such as Denver quarterback John Elway, for example.

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