He was quiet, modest, unassuming, quite unlike almost any football coach you ever saw. He never raised his voice, threw his weight around. All he did was win.
People who came around the team camp for the first time thought he was the trainer. Or, at best, an assistant in charge of the kicking teams.
He won two Super Bowls, four division championships and two conference championships. He never had a nickname such as Hoss or Bull or Grizzly. No one ever called him Genius. In fact, few called him Coach. He was just Tom. And he left the job rather unceremoniously after only the second losing season of his career.
No, Tom Flores.
I don’t think there’s any doubt Tom Flores was the most underrated football coach of all time.
You see, the problem with being the coach of the Raiders is Al Davis. If it is true an institution is but the lengthened shadow of one man, then the Raiders are the lengthened shadow of Al Davis.
But someone has to translate those X’s and O’s off the drawing boards and into the end zone. No Raider coach did this any better than Tom Flores.
If the public perception of him was that of a complicated foreman, that was all right with Tom. He had less trouble with his ego than any coach you will ever meet.
His was the only wild-card team that ever won a Super Bowl. When he went to New Orleans in 1981, the Raiders were widely held to be just a bunch of league renegades, thugs who played the game the way their eye-patched pirate logo suggested, outside the law.
Flores was so low-key, it was hard to believe he was the leader of this cutthroat crew. It was freely predicted that he would be outsmarted by the cerebral boy wonder of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV, Coach Dick Vermeil.
It wasn’t even a contest. Flores’ Raiders played a mistake-free, impeccable game and thrashed the Eagles thoroughly and professionally.
Success didn’t spoil Tom Flores. The victory went to the team’s head--the Raiders were 7-9 the next season--not his.
Two seasons later, he was back in the Super Bowl again, this time against the canny Joe Gibbs, supposedly the next Lombardi. Once again, Flores was, if anything, undermatched. The Raiders won in the worst wipeout to that date in Super Bowl history, 38-9. It was, incidentally, the last Super Bowl won by the AFC.
If there was one thing a Tom Flores team wasn’t, it was over-coached. The Raiders were a quick-striking, take-no-prisoners force, and their philosophy was to get the other team into a looking-over-both-shoulders-at-once mode with a My-God-they’re-coming-in-the-windows! frame of mind.
To do this, you need a quarterback and the Raiders were fresh out in 1978 when Flores, then an assistant coach, was sent to check out a supposedly burned-out San Francisco reject, Jim Plunkett.
Plunkett was universally believed to have lost his confidence and maybe throwing ability at the time but Flores, a one-time quarterback himself, couldn’t believe what he found. Not only was Plunkett’s all-league arm intact, so were his competitive instincts. Flores urged that he be signed.
“Just keep the pass rush off him and he’ll hit a gnat in the eye,” Flores promised.
The Raiders signed Plunkett as a free agent, the biggest bargain since Alaska.
When Flores became head coach a year later, he handed the ball to Plunkett and some of the Raiders’ finest hours began. The team went 9-7, 11-5, 7-9, 8-1, 12-4, 11-5, 12-4 and then 8-8 and 5-10. They got in two Super Bowls, missed another by three points and made the playoffs five seasons.
Tom Flores left the Raiders after the ’87 season. He insists it was his own idea, but there is no evidence management put up much of a fight.
“I was physically exhausted,” Flores says. “It was not burnout as such, but it got so I hated to go to work. I had told Al (Davis) the year before that I was looking at only a 10-year commitment and this was nine years.
“I knew the team needed rebuilding and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to go through it. Usually, you end a season physically and emotionally exhausted, but you recharge during the off-season. I didn’t recharge.
“What’s wrong with the Raiders? Well, I actually feel the strike in ’87 sort of took the personality out of the team. I know it drained me. You had the vets outside picketing and you had the heart of your team--or maybe the soul--torn apart. I don’t think any of us, coaches or players, got back on the same page after that.”
Flores made the news again last week by announcing that he is coming back into football. He is to be the president and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks, a franchise purchased by a longtime friend from his days in the Bay Area.
Tom also is going to be honored Friday night at the Sheraton Grand hotel by the Salesian Boys (and Girls) Club of East Los Angeles. This is another franchise in need of rebuilding. The earthquake of ’87 damaged the gymnasium and swimming pool, and this 1,500-youth facility that seeks to provide an alternative to street gangs is in dire need of funds.
Flores will gets the Merit of Excellence Award--along with Jaime Escalante, the famed schoolteacher of the film “Stand and Deliver.”
The word macho needs re-defining. It doesn’t mean a guy on horseback with a fierce mustache and banderillas and a mocking laugh. It can mean a quiet, patient, somber guy who just beats your brains out without getting particularly excited about it, who will help you up when he’s through.
It can mean Tom Flores.