Bill Belichick, obsessed football nerd, is the son of a football scout and teacher. Never is this more apparent than when he is asked about football history. Belichick’s latest Master’s class came before the Patriots-Raiders game when he delivered a 10-minute lecture on the various uses of blockers in the running game and how his Annapolis (Maryland) 8th-grade football team used the single wing. Current Patriots (and former U.S. Naval Academy) play-by-play voice Bob Socci credits this most recent history lesson to Steve Belichick, Sid Gillman and Al Davis, three towering influences on football history ‒ and on the Education of Bill Belichick.
When New England defeated Oakland two Sundays ago, it marked the first meeting between the franchises since the death of legendary Raider leader and AFL/NFL icon Al Davis. (And yes, I’m somewhat afraid of omitting the AFL from any recounting of his legacy, lest the ghost of Al Davis appear to cuss me out.)
Al Davis was a football genius, building the great Raider teams of the 60s, 70s and 80s personally, and with a style and philosophy all his own. “It’s tunnel vision, a tunnel life,” he once said. “I’m not really a part of society.”
Davis also spoke in slogans: Commitment to Excellence; Pride and Poise; Don’t worry about mistakes; Just win, baby. And win he did ‒ an AFL Championship (1967), three Super Bowl Titles (1976, 1980, 1983), five AFC Championships (1968, 1976, 1980, 1983, 2002), and 15 division crowns. For four decades, Davis’s Raiders were one of the most stable and consistent winners in football.
The Raiders built fierce rivalries with cheap shots and bent rules; Davis employed Jack Tatum, one of the dirtiest players in NFL history and the man responsible for the hit that paralyzed Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley in a 1978 preseason game. Players who ran afoul elsewhere often managed to revive their careers with the Raiders. Complementing that brawn with brains, Davis stayed on the cutting edge of football tactics as the esteemed Dave Anderson detailed in 2000:
When the Jets went to Oakland in 1968, that photo on the Raiders’ wall symbolized the rivalry as well as Coach Weeb Ewbank‘s distrust of Davis. Whenever a helicopter flew anywhere near a Jets practice the week before a game against the Raiders, Ewbank would look up and shake his fist. He just knew Davis had somebody spying on the Jets. On a trip to Oakland, he once suspected a spy as the Jets practiced near a junior college’s high-rise dorm.
”Weeb thought he saw the shape of a person’s head looking down at our practice from one of the windows high in the dorm,” recalled Frank Ramos, then as now the Jets’ public-relations director. ”Weeb sent somebody up there to check, and it turned out that what he thought was a person was really a lamp.”
Spying on practices? Employing the dirtiest player in the NFL? Taking chances on players who were trouble elsewhere? Earning criticism for arrogance? Right down to the sartorial choices of sportswear, Bill Belichick has studied Al Davis and found a lot to emulate.
However, Davis’s final decade has come to overshadow the previous four. In the years leading up to his death in October 2011, Davis became a punchline, widely ridiculed for not having the good grace to step aside amid criticism he had long ago lost his fastball. As the 2000s plodded along, his decisions became increasingly erratic and ill-considered while the Raiders’ record suffered, a malaise that persists today. Oakland has a .297 winning percentage over the past 11 seasons since their last playoff appearance in Super Bowl XXXVII. Davis presided over the mess that continues to discolor the team three seasons after his demise. However, as this thoroughly-researched piece from Matthew Marcantonio shows, the commonly-held belief that the Patriots-Raiders trades in the 2000s amounted to a fleecing by Belichick doesn’t stand up under analysis. Even at his nadir, Davis still had an eye for talent – even if that talent was aging (such as Richard Seymour, the then-30-year-old Patriots All-Pro acquired by Davis in 2009 for a first-round draft pick.)
Born in Brockton, Massachusetts on July 4, 1929, it was at Syracuse University that Al Davis became a football-obsessed crazy person. Biographer Mark Ribovsky describes how Davis, who was not on the school’s football team but habitually spied on their practices, was eventually asked by the head coach to stop and instead attend player-positional meetings held by the team’s assistant coaches. After college Davis served in the Army from 1952-54, during which he talked a general into letting him coach the base football squad; Davis even sold scouting notes on the base’s players to professional teams. In 1954 Davis began his NFL career as a freelance scout for the Baltimore Colts, then coached by Weeb Ewbank. (Belichick’s own pro career started as a personal assistant to Baltimore Colts head coach Ted Marchibroda in 1975.) After two seasons coaching college ball at The Citadel, Davis moved to USC where he met Sid Gillman.
Gillman hired Davis as a backfield coach with the Los Angeles (now San Diego) Chargers in 1960, where future Pittsburgh Steeler legend Chuck Noll was also on staff. While there, Davis helped define the swashbuckling style of the AFL. In the days before there was a united NFL, both leagues competed to sign the best college talent. Famously, Davis ran out onto the field as the clock expired on Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth’s college career, offering the newly-eligible starlet a contract under the goalposts; meanwhile a scout for the the San Francisco 49ers stood by helplessly, trapped in the crowd exiting the stadium.
To say the NFL and AFL were once bitter rivals is an understatement. Before merging, the two leagues competed for fans, players and, especially for Davis and the AFL, legitimacy. Much of the responsibility for the acrimonious, litigious, nasty and cantankerous history between the rival factions lies at the feet of Al Davis: The man fought for and over everything, all the time. As AFL commissioner, a post league owners appointed him to in April 1966, his aggressiveness and tenacity helped force the NFL to the negotiating table. Yes, Al Davis went from position coach to league commissioner in six years. An in-depth portrait of a truly remarkable character, Ribovsky’s biography of Davis is well worth the time; football fans will enjoy the outrageous and unbelievable acts of Al Davis as detailed over its several-hundred pages.
It really is little wonder Belichick was such a fan of Davis. The two had so much in common: They got started in the NFL in similar ways; They both had a martial influence; They were both defensive coaches. In 2011, Belichick told the story of his interview with Davis for the Raiders head coaching job in 1998:
“I told him when I got out there it really seemed like a waste of time because I felt pretty certain that he wouldn’t hire a defensive coach, because he hasn’t since Eddie Erdelatz in . It’s a parade of offensive coaches out there. He’s really a defensive coordinator and [always] has been. You kind of don’t want to give too much information because he’s running the defense. He wasn’t really too interested in talking about offensive football. He’s a great mind. It was unlike any other interview I’ve ever had with an owner because he was so in-depth, his interview was so in-depth really about football, about ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’ and strategy and use of personnel and acquisition of all the things really that a coach would talk about, that’s really what he talked about. That made it pretty unique.”
Belichick has also spoken about his admiration for the “Tradition of Excellence” that Davis promoted throughout his organization.
“I think it’s consistent and I’ve taken a lot from that. The personnel side of it, the way they look at certain things in the game and what their priorities are. I definitely have tried to look at those and incorporate some of them into what we do. We do things a little bit differently than they do, but that’s okay. You just want it to be consistent and you want it to finish at the end game where you want to be. That’s what everybody is trying to do. It’s well thought-out. I don’t think it’s a trial-and-error system. It’s a proven system, they believe in it and they’re going to follow it.”
And Belichick thinks the Raiders are still operated in a way that would make Davis proud.
“They’re big and they’re fast, at all of the positions. Not just on the offensive line, you can say that about the receivers, defensive backs, the team’s speed that they have at linebacker and in the secondary…all the guys they’ve drafted, Gabe Jackson is enormous, Carr is a big athletic quarterback. The defensive side of the ball, (Khalil) Mack and (T.J.) Carrie. Those guys, (Justin) Ellis, I mean they’re all big, explosive, physical, fast players. Athletic players. I think this team definitely has that trademark. They’ve got guys that can run are big and physical. It looks like an Al Davis team, sure does.”
After Davis’s death, which came six days after the Raiders lost 31-19 to the Patriots on October 2, 2011, Belichick said, “While I am saddened by the news of Mr. Davis’s passing, I will forever be heartened and enriched by the many personal interactions I had with him over the years. His winning, his football knowledge, his passion for his team and contributions to the league made him one of the all-time greats. By striving for the highest level of excellence with our respective teams and the game itself, we will be honoring the memory of Al Davis.” The first thing Belichick associates with Davis is “winning”. The need to install a clear vision of how to build a winning organization is something Belichick learned from Davis, including the most important part: the winning.
Davis’s final years tarnished a reputation that should be revered by football fans. He was a self-made man who had no vast personal fortune or inheritance with which to purchase an expensive bauble. Football was his life and his legacy should be viewed more favorably: over four decades, Davis kept the Raiders winning despite two franchise relocations, more lawsuits than you can shake a stick at, and the many changes in the game itself. Davis had no time for excuses, resulting in the greatest team motto in sports – “Just Win, Baby.”
Nothing summed up Al Davis better than those three words. He would do anything to win and, while he stumbled at the end, he deserves the respect of football fans for his enormous influence on football. Davis and the Raiders were always known for their high-scoring, deep passing offense and their aggressive, hard-hitting defense. In other words, exactly what every football fan wants their team to do. That is the legacy of Al Davis: an exciting, fun game. And helicopters.
Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.