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.