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The Last Great Villain In Sports

Jerry Seinfeld said that the reason so many of us were drawn to the old James Bond movies is that you couldn’t help but like both the hero AND the villain. I agree completely. Auric Goldfinger? Dr. No? Ernst Stavro Blofeld? These were big characters, and the actors played them big. The same was true of Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor or Batman’s rival “The Joker” (whether played comically by Jack Nicholson or frighteningly by Heath Ledger), the same true of Jason and Freddy Krueger and Norman Bates, and of course, maybe the best bad guy in movie history, Darth Vader. Yes, we used to have big villains in the movies.

We used to have big villains in sports too. The villains lately have become, I don’t know, less substantial somehow. Less committed. LeBron James says he doesn’t care what people think, but I think he only says that only because he does care what people think. Tiger Woods doesn’t want to hear people boo him. Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski has been a solid bad guy but he’s been more henchman than villain, kind of the Oddjob of sports (and anyway now he’s trying to be a TV announcer). Mark Cuban has some good villain qualities — he’s someone you might see in the Die Hard movies — but he can’t quite pull it off. Many fans who say they don’t like Cuban still wish he owned their team. Jerry Jones showed great villain promise but, like his teams, he has sort of faded out. Dan Snyder’s a bad guy for all the wrong reasons. Even Barry Bonds, who could have been the great sports villain of his time, seemed oddly indifferent about the whole thing.

We live in a time when hockey goons like to show their sensitive side.

Al Davis was a great American sports villain, the best of his time, the best of all time. He was great, I think, because he played it big. Who else would design their team logo with an eyepatch? Think about that for a minute. Who else would say that the key to winning a football game is that “their quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard.” Who else would insist that the Raiders put “Commitment to Excellence” on all of their official materials after seven straight years of the team winning five games or less? Who else could be summed up with the three words he said more often than any other: “Just Win Baby!”

Who else? Nobody else. Davis lived through times of great sports villains — Steinbrenner, Butkus, Liston, Reggie, Laimbeer, Alzado, McEnroe, Tiger Williams, on and on — but nobody could touch him. You expected him every year to announce before the season began that he intended for the Raiders to win the Super Bowl AND steal the moon. I remain convinced that somewhere in the Oakland Coliseum there is a secret lair where sharks swim, where gas rises in a glass chamber, where a Marcus Allen voodoo doll rests with pins stuck in from all sides.

Davis grew up in Brooklyn, and he was a hustler for as far back as anyone can remember. Penn State coach Joe Paterno is one of the few who can remember all the way back, and he still tells the story of the time that Al Davis beat him out in recruiting. You know how people say that someone is such a good salesman, he could sell ice cubs to Eskimos? Al Davis was such a good recruiter, he beat Joe Paterno on an ITALIAN KID FROM NEW JERSEY, got him to come play at The Citadel in South Carolina. That’s not recruiting, that’s hypnosis. Davis might have been the first college recruiter to send recommendation cards to all the high school coaches, asking them not only to name the best players on their teams but also the best players they faced all year. He was so good at it, that after only four years he was hired by Southern California. After three years there, he was hired by old AFL Los Angeles Chargers, and after three years there he was hired as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

After three years as Raiders coach, he was named Commissioner of the AFL. It seems likely that if the AFL had survived, Al Davis would have spent three years as commissioner and then been named King of England.

He was bold. He was relentless. He was irresistible. He tried to hire Joe Paterno as an assistant coach, and when Paterno turned him down he called Joe’s wife Sue and told her that she was holding her husband back. Here’s a good one: Davis once flew into State College to get the Nittany Lions great linebacker Dave Robinson. He knew Paterno and so called to ask for his help. Unfortunately for Davis another Brooklyn guy named Vince Lombardi also knew Paterno and HE called to ask for his help to get Robinson to the Green Bay Packers. Paterno said he would stay out of it, but he would give each team 20 minutes to convince Robinson to sign.

They even had a coin toss to see who would go first, and Davis lost the toss and so had to make his presentation first. He did his best. Then the Packers guy — Lombardi had sent someone on his behalf — must have done a great job because he convinced Robinson to sign. And what followed was a quintessentially 1960s scene — Dave Robinson in the parking signing a Packers contract on the hood of a car while Al Davis raged at Joe Paterno for making him go first and for not giving him more time.

No one in NFL history was able to express their personality on a football field quite the way Al Davis did. His teams were tough, rowdy, mean and they threw long. They always led the league in penalties. Always. The Raiders teams of his imagination was a collection of cast-offs, outcasts, speedsters, rebels and various menaces to society. It’s amazing how often he was able to bring his imagination to the football field. Look at the names: Ken Stabler. Ben Davidson. Jack Tatum. John Matuszak. Otis Sistrunk didn’t play college football — he came right from the Marines. Ted Hendricks was called the Mad Stork. Lester Hayes put so much stick-um on his hands, that the NFL outlawed the stuff. Davis did not want his teams disliked. He wanted them hated. From 1967, when he became president of the Raiders, to 1986, his teams only had one losing record, they won three Super Bowls, and they won more games than any team in the NFL. And they did it his way. Just. Win. Baby.

And, of course, it was like that off the field too. He sued the NFL. He voted against his own league in the USFL suit. He had spectacular feuds with his own players (usually when they asked for more money), and he was outspoken about, well, everything (he was the one person that the impossibly genial Lamar Hunt could not abide). He moved his team around. He was by pretty much all accounts an absolute nightmare to work for, especially in the later years. One assistant coach and a friend told me a story — I don’t know if it’s true, but his stories check out — that he was once given a savage verbal beatdown by Davis, and it was about 10 minutes into it that my friend realized that Davis had mistaken him for another coach.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I took the beating,” the coach told me. “I figured that way the other guy wouldn’t have to hear it.”

Davis did not want anyone to misunderstand the message. He was the villain. He was the bad guy. End of story. Al Davis’ life was not so black. He quietly did many good things, charitable things, he helped friends and strangers, but he did not want anyone to know. He was entirely color blind. He hired the first Hispanic coach in the NFL (Tom Flores), and the first African American coach in the NFL (Art Shell). But he never grandstanded about it. I don’t’ think this was because he wanted to avoid credit. I think it’s because he did not want anyone to think he had a heart.

It’s been written before, there’s no scene in sports quite like the parking lot before an Oakland Raiders game. It really is like the bar scene in Star Wars. You have people dressed up like pirates, like hoodlums, like bikers, like Darth Vader, everyone wears black, and there’s a feeling of menace in the air. That parking lot, I always thought, was there personification of Al Davis. I remember years ago, I called up the Raiders and asked for an interview with Davis.

“What do you want to ask him about?” I was asked.

“I want to write about who Al Davis really is,” I said, or something naive like that.

They got back to me later to tell me that Al had declined my request. They said: “Mr. Davis says people already know who he is.” People didn’t really know, of course, but they knew enough. They knew he was the bad guy. And for Al Davis, that was enough.

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33 Responses to The Last Great Villain In Sports

  1. Clashfan says:

    Circle me, John Madden!

  2. Andy says:

    Thanks Joe. My memories of Davis’ Raiders are Lamonica to Biletnikoff vs. Dawson to Otis Taylor, with Dick Enberg announcing. And then I think of other Raider outlaws, like Jack Tatum and John Matuszak.

  3. rdcobb says:

    And yet do you think people ever widely disliked him? I don’t. To be a great villain, people need to despise you. Al Davis? Nah. He was just cool.

  4. Mark Daniel says:

    Al Davis may be the last of his breed – the raging a–hole leader. I would say Steinbrenner, Red Auerbach and Bobby Knight would be in this group. They rose to power in a different era where being an a–hole was accepted behavior. But I don’t think you can be this way in sports anymore, not with the entitled and brazenly confident players, with the intrusive media and with judgmental fans. I don’t think it would be tolerated.

  5. Pete Ridges says:

    In any sport, or any area of life, the first employer to break a given color boundary isn’t usually the one with a heart: it’s the one who wants to win, and who is a bit more intelligent than his competitors. It’s still a compliment, but it’s a different one.

  6. steak says:

    Eulogy “…a speech or writing in praise of a person or thing.”

    Does this blog entry count? I don’t know, but it was awesome either way.

  7. adam says:

    it was a “speaker for the dead” type eulogy.

  8. Mark says:

    Mark Daniel….hmm, interesting comparison. Steinbrenner was certainly an a–hole but even his most ardent defenders would concede he was hardly some kind of baseball genius. Al Davis WAS a football genius, until he went senile. Red Auerbach was certainly a basketball genius and he was an insufferable braggart but I don’t know if I would classify him as a true a–hole. After all, his players played hard for him year after year and his fellow GMs never stopped trading with him (and getting hosed). Davis, of course, was famous for alienating EVERYONE. And Davis rarely spoke to the press and I don’t recall him ever talking about himself.

    Bobby Knight of course was a huge a–hole (hell, he was psychopathic), but he was just a basketball coach. Not in the same universe as Davis as far as impact on his sport.

    Are there any Oakland historians among the BRs out there? How the hell did Davis get to be owner of the Raiders? How did he get in the club? He was hired by the Raiders as coach/gm, he took a brief detour as AFL commissioner, comes back as managing general partner, and then he is the full owner. Very murky. What happened?

  9. Scott says:

    “And yet do you think people ever widely disliked him? I don’t. To be a great villain, people need to despise you. Al Davis? “

    Are you joking? The most desipised figure in sports, by a country mile.

  10. says:

    Every time I look at the Mausoleum in Oakland I remember how much I hate Al Davis. He ruined a beautiful baseball stadium with his greed. Tear down Mt. Davis!

  11. Mark Coale says:

    Sean avery, matt cooke, terrell owens. Villains?

    I think the most hated people in sports in 2011 work for the four letter in bristol.

  12. Morten says:

    I was in the second grade when Davis moved the team down south. I can remember my dad, all puffy faced and red, teaching me about loyalty and betrayal as he carefully took all the Raiders posters down from my wall..
    I eventually became a 49er fan (48-3! are you kidding me?) and since he came back and destroyed my A’s home, I’ve been routinely saying that I wouldn’t root for The Raiders until Al Davis is dead and buried.
    Now that he’s gone, it seems like a really stupid and crass thing to have said, and even though I never really meant it.. It sure is nice to not have to hate the home team anymore..

  13. Morten says:

    Mark, check out, nice article there about Davis.

    Apparently when he came back from his commissioner job he got 10% of the team and then feuded with the majority owner until they sold out to him. Seems about right.

  14. Kansas City says:

    In the spirit of not speaking ill of the dead, I will relay a favorable story about Al Davis. I met a guy once who said he was formerly the manager of a fancy club in the LA area and Mr. Davis was a member when the Raiders were in LA. He said Mr. Davis was always nice to the help, and he gave them money when they encountered problems in their personal lives. RIP.

  15. NMark W says:

    Help me with something here…Two of the comments from BRs above speak to how Al Davis/Raiders ruined the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum for MLB. I don’t understand and/or take issue with these statements. The mult-purpose cookie-cutter sports stadiums designed and built in the US during the 1960s were normally horrific stadiums for baseball viewing/ambience and Oakland’s was maybe the worst of the bunch. There is so much foul territory for the A’s home field that a front row field level seat along either baseline is not a great location as compared to maybe every other MLB park in use today. Also, the stadium opened in 1966 for the Raiders, the A’s didn’t arrive and play there until 1968. It would seem that the Raiders were the chief tenant. As I understand it from Moneyball, the A’s rent office space for their meager front office staff in the nearby Oracle basketball arena.

    If I were an A’s fan and i felt the need to be mad at any person or entity in the Bay Area it would be the SF Giants – they’re the club that won’t give permission for the A’s to make a move to a possible new stadium in or near San Jose, no?

  16. nightflyblog says:

    I don’t know where I first heard the story, but the Raiders were often suspected of underhanded conduct. One visiting coach, convinced the locker room was bugged, finally raved at the light fixtures, “Dammit Al, I know you’re listening!”

    Told of it later, Davis is said to have replied, “Hell, they weren’t up there.”

  17. rdcobb says:

    “Are you joking? The most desipised figure in sports, by a country mile.”

    No, I’m not joking. Maybe he’s despised if you live in Oakland or LA. Maybe he’s despised if you’re from Denver, KC, or San Diego. In my entire life, excluding internet comments, I can’t remember meeting anyone that expressed a passionate dislike of Al Davis.

    He’s not even the most hated sports owner of his own time, much less athletic figure. George Steinbrenner was far more hated than Al Davis could ever imagine.

  18. Thanks, Joe, for telling it like it was. CBS played tinkly little piano music while talking about Davis today and I wanted to puke. I suspect Davis would have wanted to puke, too. He knew who he was and he was proud of every bit of it.

    The Oakland Coliseum was hardly a baseball palace, but Mt. Davis, built to attract the Raiders back from Los Angeles in 1995, added a huge number of seats and tons and tons of concrete into the outfield, where they are totally useless for baseball. As bad as the stadium was for baseball beforehand, the A’s had a nice tradition with four world’s championships until that time. Moneyball or no Moneyball, the don’t draw flies anymore, and the complete lack of ambiance in the stadium is part of it.

  19. Erik says:

    Always so well written. Well done as always, Joe.

  20. “Los Angeles Chargers” Has a nice ring to it! And yes i did feel sorry for the A’s when i visited.

  21. Dooblay says:

    Mark Danial, Im not sure where you get your info from, but your way off base. Red Auerbach was never considered an asshole. He was an innovator of the highest level. A genius like very few others. My guess is your a jealous Nicks or Lakers fan who took so many beatings growing up that you have become spiteful. You gotta let that stuff go. Putting him in the same low brow, classless group as Steinbrenner and Al Davis is irresponsible and disrespectful.

  22. brhalbleib says:

    “he intended for the Raiders to win the Super Bowl AND steal the moon.”

    My kids like “Despicable Me” as well Joe. Nice reference when referring to villians.

    As for Al Davis, at one time, growing up a Chiefs fan, I hated him and the Raiders. Then he became senile and just sad in his later years.

    Hopefully, he and Lamar can start their own upstart league in the EverAfter world now.

  23. Excellent as usual. Joe, I would love to hear your thoughts on how professional or unprofessional the Brewers antics on the field seem to you plus perhaps a poll of your many readers to get a pulse on how baseball lovers feel about them. The subject would seem to go in line with the anti-establishment part of the Al Davis legacy.

  24. says:

    NMark W,

    Before the return of the Raiders to Oakland from Los Angeles the Oakland Coliseum had a beautiful view of the Oakland Hills beyond centerfield. Mt. Davis permanently blocked that view and changed the park from a nice baseball experience into a football stadium where the A’s played.

  25. This is why I think Joe is one of the very best at what he does. Even Joe’s villains have redeemable traits.

  26. David says:

    Regarding the “last a-hole boss” question, I don’t think they’ll ever go away. It just depends on who has the leverage to force compliance, which these days is players. Tiger Woods? A-hole boss. Michael Jordan? Ditto, just ask Kwame Brown. That UFC owner comes to mind too.

  27. Rufus says:

    Joe, very nice post, as usual. I enjoy your attention to to good writing; the message always has a nice “ring” to it. The content is poignant but friendly, as if we’re all sitting around with a beer in our hands, discussing these topics among friends. How does one DO that in an essay? You are a master, kind sir.

  28. Dooblay, I don’t know how old you are, but if you actually watched Red Auerbach on the sideline, listened to him as a color commentator after he retired, and heard him interviewed, you would know that he was crude, arrogant and conceited – a major asshole. A genius, yes, a brilliant drafter and trader, maybe the greatest basketball mind of all time, and it’s even true that his players loved him, but that doesn’t preclude him from being an asshole.

  29. DaveR says:

    Al Davis was a brilliant visionary for 25 years and then Willie Mays in 1973 for the next 25 years. A fascinating contrast.

  30. Dinky says:

    Great article. One minor point: whenever anybody talks of Stickum, it was Fred Biletnikoff who taught the rookie Lester Hayes how to use the stuff. I always considered stickum’s banning to be more of an anti-Raiders thing than an anti-Hayes thing, even though Biletnikoff had retired by 1980.

  31. jamaa says:

    Joe! How could you fail cite the good ol’ NHL in your discussion of great villains of sports? I grew up watching football and baseball, but I can’t think of anyone in those sports who even comes close to rivaling the great villains of the NHL, especially back in the days of the Norris division. Al Secord, Willy Plett, etc… And is there any hockey player in the last 20 years who was more a dreaded and despised as a villain than Bob Probert in his prime? I am not an NHL historian, and I’m sure there were others that predate my time, but surely the NHL merits huge consideration in your search for greatest sports villains of all time.

  32. yoyodyne says:

    Al, like Red, was an incredibly smart and successful raging A-hole.

    As for the Great Villains, afaik, nobody’s yet topped the Broad Street Bullies. Back-to-back titles, would have won 3 straight if not for Dryden, and the only NHL team to beat the CCCP Red Army.

    And, the sold the most tickets of any visiting team, far and away above all others.

  33. mr. man says:

    i’m glad he’s dead.

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