Shanahan Fired; Raiders Pick Shell : Promotion Makes Assistant First Black Coach Since ‘20s

Times Staff Writer

Al Davis made history Tuesday, terminating the short reign of Mike Shanahan, the first outsider he had ever hired who became the first coach he had ever fired, replacing him with Art Shell, who becomes the first black head coach in the modern era of the National Football League.

Shell, 42, a Raider assistant since 1983 was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame. Soft-spoken and popular with players, he was a Davis favorite but was considered head coach material by more irreverent Raiders, too.

Monday night when the Raiders play the New York Jets in the Meadowlands, Shell will become the second black NFL coach, the first since Fritz Pollard, who was player-coach of the Hammond (Ind.) Pros from 1923-25.


“It is a historic event and I understand the significance of it,” Shell said. “But the main thing is, I know who I am and I’m proud of it.

“But I’m also a Raider and I don’t believe the color of my skin entered into this decision. . . . If you know Al Davis and you know this organization, you’ll understand that.”

And if you didn’t know this organization . . .

Davis seemed displeased with Shanahan, almost from Feb. 29, 1987, the day he hired the 35-year-old Denver Bronco offensive coordinator.

How long had he been thinking of firing Shanahan?

“It’s an unfair question,” Davis said.

Davis actually started broadcasting his doubts about Shanahan’s style, play-calling and scheme--he thought they were overwrought and over-cerebral--after the ’88 opener, Shanahan’s first game.

Shanahan told friends that he heard about it later, and secondhand. He wondered why Davis hadn’t said something in camp, since the whole offense had been installed then and practiced with Davis watching.

When the Raiders started 2-4, Davis confided his doubts to friends all around the league. By the start of this season, Shanahan’s standing was already shaky. After an 0-4 exhibition record, CBS’ Will McDonough, a Davis confidant, reported that Shanahan had almost been fired before opening day.


The Raiders started 1-3 and more Davis complaints surfaced: Running traps when a power dive would do; lining up in a shotgun on third-and-two; not throwing deep often enough to Willie Gault.

Monday morning, he told Shanahan he might be let go and told Shell he might replace him.

Tuesday morning--”about 6 o’clock,” Davis said--he made the decision.

“When I originally made the determination to hire Mike Shanahan,” Davis said, “it was predicated on the feeling that I thought our organization needed a fresh implementation of ideas to go along with what we were doing, to add to it. I felt that what was happening at this time was going in the direction of total change.

“I make these points to you. In the last nine Super Bowls, seven of them were won by teams that didn’t use the shotgun. That’s one example. I could make a lot of points to you about power winning the big games. . . .

“All I can say to you is, I believe in matchups. We believe in matchups. We don’t believe in scheme.

“I’ll tell you what concerned me the most, the first time I really started to be concerned. In January, right after the season, there was an interest in letting go of about seven to eight of our (assistant) coaches--I hope to God this can be taken in the spirit it’s intended.

“First of all, I couldn’t do it. I just wouldn’t do it. It’s not me. My life is here. These guys have given their lives to this organization. There are so many people who count on us, who have worn the uniform or wanted to. I just couldn’t do it.”

The assistant coach snafu became a scandal. Shanahan had brought only three assistants with him and had encountered resistance from Raider holdovers. He clearly wanted to clean house, and did fire Tom Walsh and Joe Scannella.

When Davis found out about it, he told Walsh and Scannella they weren’t going anywhere and reversed the decision.

Shell, to the contrary, takes the stage secure in his Raider standing, as Shanahan never was or could be.

“What I don’t want to do is stand here and talk about Mike or demean anything that he has done,” Shell said. “He said there were some things he wanted to do to give us direction. He did things his way. And being a coach, you have to want to do things your own way.

“Our direction has to be one of regaining our identity. The identity of power, explosion, simplicity.

“We don’t care if you know where we are on the field. We don’t care about that. We also know where you are. We want to keep things simple here, put our players in a position to win.”

Shell’s promotion, may be a significant moment in Raider history, but it is a watershed in the social history of the NFL.

“I played next to Art for 15 years and he was always a student of the game and wanted to be a head coach . . . but until today a head coaching job in the NFL was out of reach,” Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., said in a news release. “However, I always felt that Al Davis would hire the first black head coach in NFL history.”

History wasn’t lost on Davis.

“The greatness of bringing Jackie (Robinson) into baseball wasn’t bringing Jackie into baseball,” he said. “It was the great success that Jackie had when he got into baseball.

“I told Art that last night. I said, ‘You know, all the great things you’ve done as a player can be lost if we’re not successful.’

“That’s the important thing to me, that he succeeds, that we give him every opportunity to be successful.

“If this is a historic occasion--and I realize who he is and what’s happening here, I’m not lost on that--it’s only meaningful and historic if he’s a great success. And that’s the thing we have to achieve.”

Thus Art Shell dons the silver-and-black headset and steps into history.

“The pressure will always be there for me as a head coach,” Shell said. “But even if I was coaching at a high school, the same pressure would always be there.

“We’re about winning. We’re going to put the players in a position to win. We’ve had great players here, great coaches. And I plan on following in that tradition of being a great coach.”