Nothing illustrates the increasing stature of the American Football League quite so much as a question that is no longer asked: How long do you think it will last? In its fourth season the AFL already has outlasted quite a few of its critics. Attendance is up 80,000 over 1962, and television exposure is at least equal to the long-established NFL. Best of all, the new league has arrived at a balance of power that not even its dreamiest fans envisioned three years ago. This year San Diego has defeated Boston, which had already beaten New York; New York beat Oakland, Oakland beat Houston, Houston beat Buffalo, Buffalo beat Kansas City, Kansas City beat Denver and Denver completed the circle by beating San Diego.
There is no dominant team in the league. With the exception of San Diego, the leaders in the West, every team has lost at least three games and won no more than five And last week San Diego was upset by Oakland. The most improved team in the East is "the new New York Jets," as a character called Jet Set Janie reminded radio listeners a dozen times a day, but even the Jets have not improved as much as the Oakland Raiders. For two years the ugliest ugly ducklings in the AFL, the Raiders are ugly no more.
In Oakland everything has been beautiful since Al Davis came to town. Davis is the new coach of the Raiders, and while new coaches are an old story in Oakland—Davis is the fourth coach in four years—this one seems different. He sometimes wins, or at least the players he coaches win, and winning is completely foreign to anything the Oakland Raiders have ever done before.
Oh, Oakland's first season wasn't too bad, at least in the light of the next two. That first year the Raiders won six and lost eight, finishing third in the Western Division of the American Football League. But in 1961 Oakland was 2-12 and last year it was even worse, 1-13. During that two-year stretch the team lost 19 games in a row. Coaches came, turned gray and departed. The team itself was homeless, moving like a band of gypsies from stadium to stadium all over the Bay area, presumably at night. Late last season, when other cities—Portland (Ore.), New Orleans, Cincinnati and San Antonio—bid for the franchise, few people seemed to care whether the team stayed or left.
But now Al Davis has arrived, the Raiders have become a team, and people in Oakland do care. Davis is young and bright and aggressive. "Come on," he tells his players just before a game, "when you go out there, remember you're the Raiders of Oakland." He says it without the trace of a smile. "We've got to start building a tradition."
Oakland won its first two games this season, lost the next four and then battered the New York Jets 49-26. The three victories equaled Oakland's combined total for the past two years, and now, with the Raiders' fourth victory, the old men who talk football in the lobby of the Hotel Leamington in downtown Oakland are arguing whether the Raiders can win three more to finish at .500 for the first time in their brief, inglorious history—or even, the old men dream, go all the way. The little ticket office on Madison Street is actually crowded, and cars all over town have Raider stickers on their bumpers. Enthusiasm for the team has been swept across the Bay and into San Francisco. Recently an ad appeared in the Chronicle offering seats to 49er games in exchange for seats to Raider games.
The man responsible for this remarkable change, Al Davis, is 34, a tall, good-looking man with powerful arms and shoulders which he keeps hard by lifting weights in his cellar. He has white, shiny teeth and blond, wavy hair which, despite constant attention, is receding on either side of the middle. Stand him on a pedestal and there he is, Mr. America.
Before coming to Oakland, Davis was an assistant coach at San Diego. Some assistant coaches specialize in offense, some in defense. Davis did a little of both, but what he did best was sell. Davis is a super-duper recruiter with oak-leaf clusters, and the players he talked into playing at San Diego—Lance Al-worth, Ron Mix and Paul Lowe are three—are vital in making San Diego the AFL leader this year.
Davis, the salesman, speaks in a soft, persuasive voice, looking his listener smack in the eye. "Come in, sit down and let me tell you some lies," is one of his opening gambits. He often closes a conversation with, "Hey, give me your right hand." It is slick, but friendly and apparently genuine.
Davis has a habit of injecting into his sentences little phrases such as "if you follow me" and "you understand what I mean," but because he is usually in a hurry he seldom completes them. For instance: "I don't want people to get too excited about the team, you un..., because we're not that good yet, if you...." Such phrases, or half phrases, are a part of Davis' selling technique, acting as hooks to keep the listener attached and nodding automatically. In fact the word "sell" itself is active in Davis' vocabulary. "The owners sold me on the idea that they would spend more money for players," Davis said recently. And to his team: "This is what I'm trying to sell you on. Let them have the short gains."
Davis' salesmanship has been instrumental in putting 19 new players on this year's Oakland roster. He inherited a few good men, it is true, players like Jim Otto, the All-League center, Clem Daniels, the closest thing to Jim Brown in the AFL, and two quarterbacks, Cotton Davidson and Tom Flores, whom Davis likes to alternate. But most of the other players who have been a help to the team followed Davis to town. Art Powell, the finest end in professional football according to Davis, was a free agent, having played out his option with the New York Titans, now Jets. Powell had offers from many teams in both leagues, but chose Oakland and Davis. "He convinced me that his ideas on what an end can do jibed with mine," Powell says. "He allows me more flexibility. I think I can reach my peak under him." In Oakland's first eight games this season, Powell caught 43 passes, six of them for touchdowns.
One of the first moves Davis made when he took over as coach in January was to trade for Archie Matsos, a very good middle linebacker. Davis sent Buffalo three players, none of whom made the team. Matsos, a garrulous young man of Greek extraction, has been wonderful. "He lets me call the defensive signals," says Matsos. "It's the first time I've ever been allowed to do that. No hand signals from the side or anything."
Not all of Davis' player changes have required salesmanship. A week before the opening game against Houston it was clear that Davis would have to cut one offensive tackle from the squad. The Raiders had two experienced offensive tackles who had looked miserable during the exhibition season. Everyone wondered which would go and which would stay. Davis aggressively released both and signed on Frank Youso, a former New York Giant who had just been cut by Minnesota. "That really jolted the team," says an Oakland official. "It made them realize that no one's job was secure. It was a dangerous move to make, bringing in a new man just before our first game. If Youso hadn't worked out, Al might have lost the confidence of the team." But Youso did work out, and the team has come to look upon Davis as some sort of miracle man.
Although Al Davis is a young man, he has been coaching for 14 years. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that Davis has been coaching since he was a boy, playing stickball on the streets of Brooklyn. "I don't want to give the feeling I'm above and beyond," Davis says, "but I've always had the perception to understand these games. Do you follow me? I was the organizer."
Davis graduated from Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, then went to Syracuse University. "I really wasn't much of an athlete," he insists. "I played a little football and baseball, but it would be inaccurate to say I starred or anything like that." Davis had a restless college career. "I didn't get along too well with coaches—you follow me. I didn't feel that I was understood." After a year at Syracuse he shifted to Wittenberg in Ohio for a semester. He thought he would like Wittenberg's athletic program, didn't, and moved on to a small college called Hartwick in upper New York state. He stayed there two weeks before returning to Syracuse, where he graduated. "I majored in English," he says, "but it was pointless. I remember thinking, what am I studying English for when all I want to do is coach."
Davis began his official coaching career in 1950 at Adelphi College on Long Island. He was 21. He was there two years, then went into the Army and, as a private, coached a powerful Fort Belvoir football team. Out of the Army, Davis became an assistant with the Baltimore Colts, moved on to The Citadel as line coach, then out to Southern California as an assistant in 1957. Davis' recruiting provided the Trojans with much of the manpower that made them last year's national champions.
When the American Football League was formed in 1960, Davis traveled down the California coast to San Diego. Then, last winter, Wayne Valley and Ed McGah, the principal owners of the Raiders, having decided to stick it out in Oakland for at least another season, hired Davis. Or at least they tried to hire him. Davis refused the first offer. And the second. "I didn't care for the setup," Davis explains. "This organization hadn't given anything. Besides, I didn't need the job. I still don't." It was only when the owners agreed to give Davis a three-year contract as coach and general manager that he accepted.
Davis can afford to be independent, partly because he is in demand and partly because he is a wealthy man. How wealthy he will not divulge. It has been reported that when his father died a couple of years ago Al inherited three-quarters of a million dollars. Davis scoffs at the figure, saying it is way too high, yet he drops little hints that indicate money is no problem with him. One day a waitress was trying to figure out the cost of a concoction Davis likes to drink. It consists of milk, two raw eggs and a few splashes of chocolate syrup. Impatient, Davis said: "I don't care what you make it. I don't need money, I need points."
Not a bad-looking kid
Discussing how he met his wife, a tall, beautiful New York girl named Carol, Al says, "A friend introduced us when I was coaching at Adelphi. He thought she could handle me. You know, I wasn't a bad-looking kid and not a poor boy."
Because of the nature of Al's career, the Davises always live in rented homes. "Carol doesn't want to feel tied down," Davis says. He is away from the house much of the time. The family dog, a schnauzer, doesn't exactly growl when Davis comes in at night, but it is true that Al is still unfamiliar with his current home, a modern house high in the hills above Oakland. While showing a guest about the place the other day, Davis opened a door: "This is the den, I think," he said.
Carol is long since used to his absences. "He warned me what it would be like," she says. "But you know what it's like when you're getting married." One of Carol's major victories was getting an unlisted phone number. Anyone calling Al must do so through an answering service. "What a relief," says Carol. "We were always getting calls from players at 5 a.m. 'Coach,' they'd say, T just got into town. Where should I go?' Boy, I'd like to tell them where to go."
"She's a good girl," says Davis fondly. "I swear somebody's going to steal her sometime. She worries that I don't spend enough time with our son, Mark. I tell her I didn't spend an awful lot of time with my daddy, but we were close. I really loved my daddy. It's not how much time you spend, it's what you do with the time you've got."
It took Mark Davis quite a while to convert from a San Diego to an Oakland rooter. "He couldn't believe it when I took the job," says Davis. "He looked at me as if I'd sold out. You know how kids' loyalties are."
But now, after a few victories, Mark Davis is a Raider rooter, and so are more and more people in Oakland. The Raiders set an attendance record for their first home game this season, drawing 17,568. It was a modest record, to be sure, but near capacity. The Raiders play their home games in a quaint little park called Frank Youell Field, which belongs to the Oakland Recreation Department. Someday, perhaps as soon as 1965, there will be a new municipal stadium to house the Raiders and, maybe, a major league baseball team, but for the time being Frank Youell Field is it.
Before a game, Davis works at building up the confidence of his team. "O.K., kickoff team," he will say, "start dedicating yourself." Then, to the whole squad: "Listen up. One thing I want to sell you on is poise. Win or lose, keep your poise. We can make adjustments, we can come back, no matter what happens. Just keep your poise. O.K., now you have 30 seconds on your own."
During a game Davis almost never loses his own poise. The Raiders can fumble or complete an 80-yard pass for a touchdown, Davis remains in virtually the same pose, one hand on his chin, the other on the opposite elbow. His expression of intense concentration rarely changes. Only occasionally is he overcome by anger. One such instance occurred in the second game of the season when Buffalo scored on the final play of the first half. Back in the dressing room, Davis was seething.
"Where the hell do you go on an Oklahoma defense?" he yelled at a player.
"Straight back," said the man.
"Straight back, hell," roared Davis. "You go into the slot."
"Yeah, that's where I was, in the slot," the player said.
"Well, that's right where the ball was thrown." Davis stalked off. A few minutes later, under control, Davis spoke to the team. "It was my mistake going into the Oklahoma," he said softly. "We'll go back to dogging. They're tough, but we can beat them." Then, his voice rising, he said, "Now let's remember who we are out there. We're Raiders." Later, at a restaurant, Davis asked a friend: "How did that sound? Did it sound foolish?" At the time it sounded grand.
"You see, I'm trying to build a tradition," Davis said. "When my players go home at the end of the season and people ask them what team they play for, I don't want them to say 'Oakland Raiders.' " Davis whispered the words and lowered his eyes. "I want them to say 'OAKLAND RAIDERS.' " Davis threw out his chest. "But it's going to take a while and people will just have to be patient." Al Davis does not have to sell Oakland rooters. They are already sold.