Al Davis/Bill Walsh; Postseason baseball TV; Bad News A's, Lew Wolff/John Fisher; Cal TV
In a relatively short time, two Bay Area sports legends have died, Bill Walsh in June, 2007, and Al Davis last weekend.
The two men were quite different personalities, which was reflected in the way they worked. Davis was the ultimate loner. Walsh worked well with others, though with the 49ers, there was no question who was in charge. Davis liked to think he was close to Walsh, but Walsh often told me the main lesson he had learned from Davis was to be exactly the opposite. (That was told to me in confidence so I’ve never written that, but with both men dead, I’m no longer worried about breaking a confidence.) Davis often cut off people who crossed him in any way, but Walsh never burned bridges. When we were working on “Building a Champion” and Guy Benjamin was assisting, Guy and I often wanted him to be more critical of Eddie De Bartolo, but Walsh wouldn’t. He and Eddie later came together and had many cordial meetings.
His determination to be a loner often limited Davis’s influence on football. In NFL history, only George Halas had a similar background; Halas even played for the Chicago Bears before becoming a coach, general manager and owner. But Halas always worked within the NFL because he was trying to build a league, not just a sport. He was the first to propose a draft of college players, though the Bears at that time could have signed any player they wanted. By contrast, Davis was always trying to “win”, even if it hurt the league. His campaign to sign NFL quarterbacks brought about a truce with the AFL and one overall league, but that was not at all what Davis wanted. He wanted the AFL to defeat the NFL, though that was a totally unrealistic proposition. When that didn’t happen, he wanted to be the commissioner of the combined league. That was an equally unrealistic proposition. So, he went back to Oakland and relentlessly fought the league, finally moving the Raiders to Los Angeles without even asking permission of other owners – and winning the ensuing lawsuit. He also fought the league on other matters. It was common for something to gather the approval of other owners but not the Raiders. That practice continued right up to this spring when the Raiders abstained from approving the new Collective Bargaining Agreement for “philosophical reasons.”
Perhaps the one aspect of Davis which I most admired was the fact that he was color-blind when it came to making decisions, and gender-blind as well; to my knowledge, Amy Trask is still the only woman holding a major position in a pro spors front office.
Davis’s attitude helped build the Raiders originally, but I don’t believe that factored into his actions. He was truly repulsed by the racism in pro football at the time. A black player simply could not dispute a white coach or he’d be benched or released. A starting end for the Raiders on their first Super Bowl team, Ike Lassiter, came to the Raiders after being released by the Denver Broncos. Lassiter was a mild-mannered, gentle man – off the field, at least - but he had disputed a coaching order one time, which is all it took.
At that time, Davis also had friends around the country who acted as unofficial scouts – bird dogs, in the baseball phrase – and recommended players to him. That was especially helpful with players at black colleges, which were simply not scouted by pro teams at that time. There were fewer scouts and less money in scouting, and teams allocated their resources to the major colleges, which were becoming integrated but still had mostly white players. The Raiders got Art Shell, who became a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, and strong safety George Atkinson, who became part of what Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll would call the “criminal element” in the NFL in the late ‘70s.
Davis continued his ground-breaking with coaches. He was the first to hire a coach of Mexican descent, Tom Flores, who won two Super Bowls and is now on the broadcasting team for Raiders games, and Shell, the first black coach.
But because he was such a loner, Davis wasn’t followed by others. There wasn’t a rash of Latino coaches after Flores, nor black coaches in the wake of Shell’s appointment, though he was successful enough in his first stint to get the Raiders to the AFCchampionship game.
Walsh did it differently. He hired Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at Cal who had led the 1968 “Black Power” protest at the Olympics, to work with black athletes. Dr. Edwards is still working with the 49ers. He had black assistant coaches on his staff, and after his retirement from coaching, he worked with Roger Goodell, who has since become NFL commissioner, on developing programs that would help black assistant coaches get jobs as head coaches. He made videos which advised blacks how to interview, and he held seminars. I was at one at Stanford; Walsh, Lowell Cohn and I were the only white faces in the room. Edwards was the main speaker and, as usual, spell-binding. Mostly, though, it was the black coaches talking, debating what they could do to get head jobs.
Two weeks ago, I was on a Comcast “Chronicle Live” show, and one of the guests was Fitz Hill, once the coach at San Jose State and now president of a college in Arkansas. With San Jose Mercury columnist Mark Purdy, he’s written a book about the problems for blacks in getting college coaching jobs. Before the show, we talked about the fact that nearly one-quarter of the NFL coaches are now black. “Without Bill Walsh, that number would be zero,” Hill said. He never mentioned Davis’s hiring of Shell.
Davis and Walsh also approached life quite differently. Davis was focused on football to the exclusion of almost everything else. The only other thing that interested him was power politics – he raised eyebrows by seeming to praise Adolf Hitler in a magazine piece, because Hitler almost conquered the world. (He expressed it in profane terms; he was often that way in private conversation, as well.) Walsh had multiple interests, politics among them. Davis was friends only with those who agreed with him, while Walsh valued dissent because he felt that was the path to knowledge. Though he was a political liberal (as was Davis), one of Walsh’s best friends was Jack Kemp, a former quarterback who at one time was seen as a possible contender for the Republican nomination for President.
At Walsh’s self-designed memorial, for which he drew up the guest list (Ira Miller, Lowell Cohn and I were the only media, aside from Channel 7’s Mike Schumann, who was a former player for Walsh). Afterwards, it was amusing to see the groups gather outside, separate from each other. The only thing we had in common was Walsh.
The two were also very different in the way they treated players.
Walsh had been very tough on his players as a coach, often forcing them into retirement because he felt a younger player would be better. In his retirement, he thought he would get together with former players for lunch, a game of tennis or a round of golf. He was shocked to find that the players wanted nothing to do with him. So, he worked hard to mend fences and, as a result, he became close to several of them, most notably, Joe Montana, who had had a love/hate relationship with Walsh as a player.
Davis talked often about the “Raider family,” and the Raiders have many more former players working within the current organization than any other team in the NFL. But the ones who are have sworn unconditional loyalty to the Raiders, which always meant Davis. When I was working on “Just Win, Baby,” I found several players who didn’t buy into Davis’s philosophy. One of them was Todd Christensen, a very good tight end for the Raiders who had gone into broadcasting after his playing career. Christensen was bothered by the fact that Davis had ordered the benching of Marcus Allen. Christensen thought it was because Davis was jealous of the attention Allen got. Davis always wanted to be the face of the franchise, but he had no chance at that in Los Angeles after Allen had been the Heisman Trophy winner while at USC and then the MVP when the Raiders won the Super Bowl in January, 1984.
The move to Los Angeles was a big blow to an Oakland fan base that had been totally supportive of the Raiders with more than a dozen sold out seasons. Davis said he needed more seats and luxury boxes, without mentioning that the Raiders were fifth in the NFL in revenue because of those sellouts.
While John Madden was in Los Angeles negotiating with officials there, Davis held a press conference in Oakland blasting the Coliseum for not making a legitimate offer to keep the Raiders in Oakland, including luxury boxes for the Coliseum. An Oakland columnist who later portrayed himself as an implacable foe of Davis, then wrote a column criticizing the Coliseum for not dealing fairly with Davis and driving him away. This columnist had done no research. I had, so I could lay out the proposal that had been made to Davis for luxury boxes. The only condition was that he sign a 15-year contract, so hey could be amortized. Davis would only agree to five.
So, Davis moved the franchise. When the Haas family bought the A’s, they agreed to the plan for the luxury boxes at the Oakland Coliseum, which are still there. Davis had only a verbal promise that the luxury boxes would be built at the L.A. Coliseum and, guess what, they never were.
Eventually, the Raiders moved back to Oakland, but the magic was gone. With most franchises, when season ticket holders get older, their sons and daughters take their place, but Davis had broken the chain. The Raiders fan base was once a solid, middle-class group that cheered loudly for their team but didn’t act out. Now….well, you know what it is now.
It should be a great story, one man creating a dynasty in a city that otherwise gets little respect. But because Davis wanted to be a star in a bigger market, which was really what that move was about, he destroyed the dream. One of my readers called Davis a hero. Not to me.
BASEBALL POSTSEASON: I love it that the East Coast World Series that TV people were salivating over won’t happen. The Red Sox didn’t even make the playoffs, the Yankees and Phillies got beaten in the first round. It’s always good news when the Yankees get beat. I thought the Phillies were the best team in baseball. So did they, apparently, but they forgot they had to prove it on the field.
On a personal note, it’s also nice that Detroit, which has probably been hit harder by the recession than any other major city, now has the Tigers in the postseason and the Lions off to their best start since 1956. That doesn’t provide jobs or food for the table but it’s at least one bit of good news for people who haven’t had many.
The unexpected change in the postseason lineup has also provided us with one very interesting series: The Milwaukee Brewers vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. These two teams hate each other, which makes it even more interesting. I’m rooting for the Cardinals, partly because Tony La Russa has always been my favorite manager and partly because my wife’s family in Missouri and Tennessee is rooting for them.
Ideally, I’d like to see an all-midwest World Series, but I think the Texas Rangers will probably prevail in the American League.
BAD NEWS A’S: A friend who keeps old newspaper clippings reminded me that, in 2009, San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera threatened to sue major league baseball if they lifted the Giants territorial rights to San Jose. Herrera’s statement said that would cost San Francisco money because Giants revenues would be down. Not incidentally, that is also why the Giants don’t want to give up those rights. The Lew Wolff/John Fisher ownership can’t pay the Giants enough to make them give up those rights.
This is one of the reasons baseball commissioner Bud Selig hasn’t convened owners to vote on this. He’s had the report from his committee on his desk for, I’d guess, at least a year and a half, but Selig knows the realities of the situation.
Meanwhile, A’s fans suffer because of the neglect of Wolff/Fisher. In, the years 2000-2006, while making the playoffs five of the seven years, the A’s won 91, 102, 103, 96, 91, 88 and 93 games. The Wolff/Fisher group took over in 2006 and there was nothing they could do that year to stop the A’s, but they started to work their magic the next year. Here are the season records since: 76, 75, 75, 81, 74. One reader who likes these clowns, because he lives in San Jose and wants to see the team there, points out that the A’s were better than 10 other major league teams this year. Wow! There’s a selling campaign for you: “We suck, but 10 other teams suck even more. And ignore the 19 teams that were better.”
SIGN OF THE TIMES: A reunion of Daily Californian alumni will be held tomorrow night on campus, with a cocktail hour after which celebrants will watch the Cal-USC game on a big screen TV. That’s fitting, since this is strictly a made-for-TV game. The sellout by colleges continues. I don’t suppose it matters in the Southeast and Southwest, where it’s all about God and football, and God isn’t leading, but in this area, the colleges are insulting the alumni who are the bulk of their fan base. For Cal, which is tapping into alumni for big bucks for the stadium renovation, that should be a huge concern.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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