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Al Davis' mixed legacy

October 05, 2008|Dave Goldberg | Associated Press

Two decades ago, Al Davis and Bill Parcells were chatting during an NFL owners meeting when Davis' new coach strolled by.

"I want you to meet Mike Shanahan," Davis told Parcells. "He's going to be a great head coach."

Shanahan, 35 at the time, has indeed distinguished himself, but not with Davis' Raiders. Twenty games into his tenure, he was fired, the same point that Davis fired Lane Kiffin this week.

So what happened to Kiffin isn't new. But it's sad.

Because given recent history, it's easy to overlook the many contributions Al Davis has made to the NFL.

They include moves that led to the AFL-NFL merger, making the league into the multibillion dollar corporation it is today.

They include significant contributions toward solving labor disputes, in part because of his closeness to the late Gene Upshaw, an ex-Raider who ran the union for 25 years.

They also include the hiring of the first black coach of the modern era -- Shanahan's successor, Art Shell -- and the first female CEO, Amy Trask, who, unfortunately seems to have been left out of the decision-making process in the latest fiasco. She's one of the few levelheaded people currently in Oakland's front office.

And the legacy also includes winning: three Super Bowls and a record from the late 1960s to the early 1980s that was as good as any team in pro sports.

That's why it's simplistic to characterize the 79-year-old Davis as an out-of-touch old man, the way he's been described for most of this decade as his once-proud organization has descended to the bottom of the NFL.

Davis always has been able to spot young coaching talent, including Parcells, whom he coached in a college all-star game in 1963 and later mentored.

But aside from John Madden, promoted from the assistant ranks in 1969 at age 32, Davis' overbearing manner and his penchant for coaching from the owner's box drove them away -- from Shanahan to Jon Gruden to Kiffin, the only one whose bona fides are not yet established.

Davis also alienated them. Just as he's refusing to pay the remainder of Kiffin's contract, he and Shanahan have been locked in a dispute for two decades over $300,000 that the Denver coach claims he's owed.

The normally humor-deprived Shanahan can now joke about it in a manner that demonstrates what many people around the NFL think of the chaos in Oakland.

"I'll be honest with you, I was a little disappointed," he said the day after Kiffin was fired. "When you take a look at it, I was there 582 days. Lane Kiffin was there 616 days. So what it really means is that Al Davis liked Lane more than he liked me. I really don't think it's fair. I won three more games and he got 34 more days of work. It just doesn't seem right."

Other than those youngsters, Davis' head coaching hires have either been ex-Raiders -- Shell and Tom Flores, who was the NFL's first Latino coach -- or coaches in little or no demand elsewhere. Tom Cable, the offensive line coach who became the interim head coach when Kiffin was fired, fits into the latter category.

This approach allows Davis to continue to "coach" because guys who are happy just to have one of 32 NFL jobs will take what goes with it. The youngsters with aspirations for long coaching careers (Shanahan, Gruden and Kiffin) bristle at it.

But it's been 43 years since Davis was a coach; he stepped down in 1965 to become part owner after turning around what was one of the worst teams in the old AFL.

The problem is Davis still wants to do it. During Tuesday's news conference, that was clear as he critiqued moves that Kiffin made in losses to Buffalo and San Diego. And he defended his pick of JaMarcus Russell with the first pick of the 2007 draft, a move he said Kiffin was against.

Russell could end up as a franchise QB -- he certainly has the physical tools. But it's also clear why Davis had fewer questions about him than Kiffin and other football people: Russell is a classic Al Davis quarterback, a recreation of Daryle Lamonica from the AFL days or Jim Plunkett from the early 1980s who can throw 40 or 50 or even 60 yards downfield. Think of another Davis mistake: Jay Schroeder, a mediocre QB with a huge arm who Davis thought could carry the team in the late '80s.

Still, Davis can adjust when he has to.

During the 1970s, the quarterback was Ken Stabler, who probably couldn't throw more than 30 yards but led a franchise that was 112-39-7 during the Madden years. The Raiders succeeded again in the early part of this decade with Rich Gannon, another quarterback with less than a power arm who took the team to an AFC title game after the 2000 season and a Super Bowl two years later.

That was in Gruden's version of the shorter-passing West Coast offense. But Davis was never really happy with that and his interference finally alienated Gruden, who left after the 2001 season for Tampa, taking with him Bruce Allen, the only GM the team has had.

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