Less than a year ago, Hue Jackson was a journeyman coach. He was an offensive coordinator at yet another stop on his long, choppy resume. Now he is, for all purposes, in control of one of the NFL's 32 franchises.
It's an astonishing turn of events for Jackson, who happened to be the last man seated when Al Davis died last weekend. Davis' continuous game of musical coaches ended with Jackson.
Before Jackson collapsed to his knees, overcome with emotion at the end of the Raiders 25-20 victory over Houston -- making every highlight show in America -- he was relatively anonymous. Now he's the most important living Raider.
"I'm not going to say I'm going to do it alone, but I think I'm going to be the person that says 'Hey, let's make sure we take a peek at these things to make sure we're strengthening our team,'" Jackson said this week. "Trying to find a way to get our team the best we can be."
When one man controls everything in an organization -- as Davis did for almost half a century with the Raiders -- the loss of that man creates a vacuum. Right now, Jackson -- who will turn 46 later this month - is the man who will fill the Raiders black hole.
The Raiders have said they are not for sale. Davis' widow, Carol, and son, Mark, are the acting owners, but Mark hasn't been actively involved with the football operations of the team and has only recently been a visible representative. Team CEO Amy Trask will continue to handle the business side. But it looks as though the football team, for now, will be run by Jackson. If a general manager is eventually brought in -- a move that will have to happen, but not necessarily right away - it will surely be with Jackson's input.
From all indications, Davis felt his team was finally in the right hands, with a man he could trust to fulfill his vision and follow his wishes. Jackson is the Raiders seventh head coach in 11 years, but by all accounts, Davis and Jackson had formed a close bond. Jackson cleverly navigated the line between subservient underling and respected colleague. He exudes passion and enthusiasm and didn't chafe under Davis' iron-fisted rule, as so many of his predecessors did. And Jackson hadn't been around long enough to have yet fallen out of favor.
Jackson portrayed their relationship as one of give-and-take. "The communication piece was good," Jackson said. "We could go back and forth on a subject. I wasn't always agreeable and he wasn't always agreeable. But we always agreed when it was all said and done."
Jackson last spoke to Davis on Friday, the day before Davis died. He confirmed that Davis was breaking down film that day. "He was preparing for the Raiders to play Houston," Jackson said. "We were dialoguing back and forth and he was wishing me well to take the team to Houston. That was the last time I had an opportunity to talk to him."
Now the larger-than-life presence is gone. For years talk about the Raiders has revolved around the mysterious time "after Al goes." Now that time is here and it's up to Jackson to direct the team through this season and into the future.
This is not a challenge one could have predicted from Jackson's resume. He was born in Los Angeles, and was a quarterback at University of Pacific. That's where he started his coaching career as an assistant in 1987. From there he hop-scotched through teams: a year at Cal State Fullerton, four seasons at Arizona State, one at Cal under Steve Mariucci and four at USC. In 2001 he made the jump to the pros, coaching for the Redskins (three seasons), the Bengals (three seasons), the Falcons (one season) and the Ravens (two seasons). He was always considered a bright offensive mind, and was always on the move.
In 2010 Davis hired Jackson to be the offensive coordinator while Tom Cable remained coach, basically stripping Cable of play-calling duties and turning the offense over to Jackson.
At the time of his hiring, Jackson said, "Tom [Cable] and I have had some good conversations, but I spent most of my time talking with Mr. Davis. What a man. He's one of the guys in this profession that you would like to have an opportunity to sit down and talk with, let alone work for. My conversations with him led me there. Hopefully, things will work as planned, and I think we're capable of doing it."
Jackson clearly played his cards right. He knew there was an opportunity with the Raiders for the one thing that had eluded him: a head coaching position. Throughout the 2010 season, Jackson was viewed as the obvious successor when and if Davis ever got around on pulling the trigger on Cable, a move that seemed certain from the moment overmatched Cable ascended to the job after Lane Kiffin was fired.
Davis finally made the move last January. But Jackson still flew under the radar. His hiring press conference is remembered only for Davis using that moment to skewer Cable. There wasn't much extolling of Jackson's ability. Nor was there any mention that he was the second African-American man to coach the Raiders -- that barrier no longer was newsworthy, having been ripped down by Davis in the late 1980s, and his path since followed by the rest of the NFL.
Unlike others -- such as Cable - who stumbled into the Raiders head job, Jackson had already earned Davis' trust and the belief that he was the right man to lead the Raiders back to success. If Davis had died earlier, he would have left the team in the hands of Cable or Kiffin -- two men he came to despise.
Instead the team is headed by Jackson. He has the Raiders playing better than they have in almost a decade. He has brought enthusiasm and excitement into an organization that had suffered from inertia and gloom for years. Jackson seems capable of channeling the inevitable emotion that will surround the team in the coming weeks.
When he hired Jackson, Davis gave a predictably over-the-top endorsement. "The fire in Hue will set a flame that will burn for a long time in the hearts and minds of the Raider football team and the Raider Nation," Davis said.
Ten months later, it's Jackson's flame that will light the future path for the Raiders.