Across Bay, Davis was legend in his own time

Since there are so many conflicted translations about the quote, we'll paraphrase, and worry later about offering apologies to any remaining descendants of Aristotle: But the Greek philosopher, who died more than 2,300 years before Al Davis was even born, must have somehow had the late Oakland Raiders owner in mind when he noted that no great genius is without a requisite dose of madness.

To an entire generation of NFL fans, Davis, who passed away Saturday morning at age 82, was the enfeebled old guy who dressed in a black and white sweat suit or jump suit, and who rambled on disjointedly at public appearances, like he did during the dismissal of former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin.

Yeah, a mad man, in every sense of the words. But, make no mistake, Davis was a genius, and he cast a formidable football shadow across the San Francisco Bay over the past five decades, even while the 49ers were building a NFL dynasty in their own right.

Along with 49ers patriarch Bill Walsh, who battled with Davis for regional supremacy during a memorable decade of Bay Area pro football in the 1980s, nobody had a greater impact in shaping the local NFL landscape than Davis.

The man was a legend in his own time.

And while some might suggest otherwise, the NFL almost certainly would not have risen to its stature of unchallenged professional sports preeminence without him.

"The Bay Area and NFL communities have lost a true pioneer in Al Davis," 49ers owner John York said Saturday. "The significant contributions that he made to the game of football at every level spoke volumes about his commitment to excellence. We enjoyed working with Al at the league level on the development and growth of our game, and at the team level we appreciated the competition between the 49ers and his Raiders. Al Davis commanded great respect from those he worked alongside and all he competed against."

Prickly, he was, a nettlesome burr under the saddle of league commissioners and even some of his owner brethren. Litigious? Well, his court record all but defines the term. Peripatetic, too, having yanked the Raiders out of Oakland in 1982, relocating to Los Angeles, only to return to the Bay Area 13 years later.

But Davis loved his Raiders. And, his various lawsuits against the league aside, he loved football. Beyond his family, wife Carol and son Mark, the game and the Raiders were Davis' dual-yet-intertwined passions, and he spent most of his life pursuing the brilliance of both things.

"Al Davis's passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary. He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Saturday. "The respect he commanded was evident in the way that people listened carefully every time he spoke. He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the NFL.''

Perhaps the NFL, as currently configured, might have existed without Davis, but it's difficult to imagine.

He essentially forced the AFL-NFL merger. And while most of his work was accomplished in the shadows, clearly fraught with the kind of mystery and intrigue that he preferred – can anyone even explain his obtuse title, "president of the general partner" – Davis had a profound effect on the history of the league.

For all intents and purposes, he was the Raiders, a franchise that won 15 division titles, four AFC championships, and three Super Bowls under his stewardship.

Most people of this vintage know Davis as an irascible, feisty owner, perhaps even a gridiron martinet. But he was, in previous lives, an assistant coach, a head coach, a general manager and commissioner, before becoming an owner. And his influence in all of those roles is still felt by the league today.

The latter-day critics who regard Davis as an anachronistic throwback to the days when sports owners were owners and not businessmen, and who suggest he was out of touch with the times, might do well to remember that he hired the first black coach of the modern era (Art Shell), the first Latino (Tom Flores) and elevated a woman (Amy Trask) to the prominent role of CEO in the Oakland organization.

The term "visionary" is thrown around far too haphazardly anymore. But it more than fits Davis.

"Anybody who enjoys the game of football owes a tip of the cap to Al Davis," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. "The numerous contributions that Mr. Davis made to the development and growth of the NFL played an integral role in making the game as great as it is today. Although this is a very sad day in the NFL and the Bay Area, it is a great time to reflect on what Mr. Davis has meant to this sport as well as our community."

Some people affix their stamp to an institution. Others build the press that prints the stamps. Davis was the latter and, given his degree of football acumen, his oversight, some might even say obsession, for the Raiders was seemingly appropriate.

An old friend who once worked for the Raiders related Saturday morning that the contracts drawn up by the team for front office personnel and coaches contained no delineation of powers. Most franchises explicitly define responsibilities in contracts – who will select the players, who has sway over setting the roster, how it will be determined who makes cuts, and who plays – but it was understood by those who worked for the Raiders that Davis had final authority over all those issues.

Given that the Raiders haven't posted a winning season since 2002, when the club took the AFC West with an 11-5 mark, it's easy to ridicule Davis' encompassing grip over the team.

But Davis, enamored of speed and raw athleticism, always thought that he knew best. And even people who worked for him and chafed under his way of conducting the franchise's affairs, were impressed by his deep and continuing understanding of the game, even if Oakland's performance suggested otherwise.

The same longtime friend cited earlier saw Davis a few months ago, and while allowing that the Raiders' owner was physically fragile, marveled at the sharpness and football knowledge, history and otherwise, he still possessed.

Although not a selector at the time, I can recall when Davis was a candidate for the Hall of Fame in 1992, and how some old NFL loyalists, still harboring the grudge of the merger forced by the Oakland owner's strong-hand tactics, lobbied against his inclusion in the Canton shrine.

But to have denied Davis enshrinement not only would have been criminal, but would have simply ignored all of his immense contributions to the game.

Folks could hold a grudge back in '92, but they couldn't deny Davis' imprint.

It's hard to imagine the Raiders without Davis, who no matter the team's success or failures, was undeniably the face (and the inimitable voice) of the franchise.

Upon the phone call that informed us of his death, a good hour before the club confirmed his passing on its website, one question that immediately arose was who would now run the team. Davis' shadow was so long, his stewardship so broad, it is a fair and appropriate question. But one that will be answered some other time.

That the Raiders have lost their unquestioned leader, that the NFL is without a man without whom the history of the league could not be authored, is enough for now.

For those who have covered the league for a while, whose tenure with reporting on all matters NFL overlapped with Davis, it was perhaps sobering to witness him with a walker or in a wheel chair the past several years.

Sure, Al Davis had become to many a caricature of himself. His often ridiculed mantras – "Pride and Poise," or "Just win, baby," or "Commitment to Excellence" – had for many become outmoded and archaic. But those things, were, until the end, Davis' driving force.

In a league more fixed these days on profit-and-loss statements or ledger sheets, he was about the game and its purity, its integrity. A cartoonish figure perhaps to this generation of NFL fanatics, it should be recalled that Davis' brilliant legacy to the league is anything but trivial.

"Mr. Davis is a titan and pillar of the game," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I had the pleasure and honor to know him and to work for him. And to me, he is the greatest. The autumn wind will always be a Raider."

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