Al Davis: the Machiavelli of football

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

An hour before the game, Al Davis stands at the 50-yard line of the silent Coliseum, surveying the field through his sunglasses darkly, as if the world’s fate were to be decided upon it.

His bodyguards, two off-duty Los Angeles policemen dressed like assistant coaches, watch from a discreet distance. A small retinue of close friends from Oakland, who fly down faithfully for games, walks up to shake hands. Sometimes, Sam Bercovich, a kindly, spindly 73-year-old retired furniture dealer, actually runs onto the field for warmups with the defensive backs, a commitment to excellence in the geriatric extreme.

Davis stands in the same place every game, and the opposing players have to run right by. Sometimes he jokes with them. Usually, he stares past them. Let ‘em see a living legend up close and know fear.


PHOTOS: Al Davis | 1929-2011

Fear cuts both ways. Within the hour, he is sitting in his box at the Coliseum or the press box on the road, drawing Xs and Os on scraps of paper. He emits cries, whispers and curses, often second-guessing his coaches’ play calls. Reporters sitting on the level below his Coliseum box can hear him pound the tabletop when a play fails. In dire circumstances, he may order a substitution, as in Minnesota in 1987, when his assistant, Al LoCasale, seated next to the Orange County Register’s Jay Lawrence, telephoned the sideline to inform Coach Tom Flores’ staff: “Mr. Davis wants a new quarterback.” Flores immediately made the switch, although he claimed later it had been his decision.

However paternally Davis may regard his coaches, on Sundays they are corks bobbing on the sea of his rage, win or lose. A few weeks before Flores resigned, Davis was overheard in his box during a loss to Cleveland yelling, “This coach has had it!” Glenn Dickey, who covered the Raiders for the San Francisco Chronicle, remembers walking up and down a Miami airport concourse with Davis after a 1970 loss to the Dolphins, with Davis wondering out loud if he should fire then-coach John Madden.

Madden was three games into his second season, with a 12-3-2 record. He went on to coach nine more seasons, none of them relaxed.

Mere triumph occasions little jubilation for Davis. After any game, be it a walkover or rout, he wanders the dressing room, grieving over any injury, down to a sprained ankle, his focus already on next week’s opponents.

The spirit of Davis’ organization is unabashedly martial, dovetailing with Davis’ fascination with military history; at the end of every Raider itinerary are typed the words: “Let’s go to war!” This may be a livelihood for his players, a day in the sun for the fans, but for the 62-year-old managing general partner of the Los Angeles Raiders, all that’s at risk is his self-worth. All that is being tested is his will. All that is on the line is his being.

Unlike other owners throughout sports, few of whom ever rose from coaching ranks, Davis runs his team from the ground up. He makes or approves all personnel decisions and hires the assistant coaches, normally the head coach’s prerogative. When Mike Shanahan arrived as new coach from Denver in 1988, he was allowed to name only three of his 12 assistants. Davis, proud of a system that would yield three Super Bowl victories and 14 Western Division titles in 28 years, once told player Tom Keating that he controls the Raider organization down to the wastebaskets.

Even in a workaholic subculture of younger men, Davis’ monastic routine is remarkable. He lives alone year-round in a condo overlooking Marina del Rey, an attractive but modest home for a 27.5% owner of a $100-million enterprise. His wife, Carol, stays in their East Bay house in Piedmont, flying down for games.

He spends all day at the team’s Spartan El Segundo base, a converted junior high school. A man of ingrained and idiosyncratic habits, he has a huge desk but works off a TV tray. He watches afternoon practices, standing by himself on the sideline for two hours, perhaps 20 yards away from everyone, giving off “stay away” vibes. He may make a stray comment to a player, but he doesn’t talk to his coaches during the session. His concentration is total, and fearsome to behold.

Around 6 p.m., when the players have gone and the coaches are breaking for dinner, Davis holds his own solitary workout, running laps and lifting weights. He returns to his office to work a few more hours, then dines late, often alone at a restaurant on the Westside such as Matteo’s, where he gets a telephone at his table.

He watches game films into the night. Mike Madden, the 28-year-old Harvard-educated son of Davis’ former coach and a former front-office employee, guesses that Davis watches films 350 days a year, grading players and trying to solve problems--how to deal with a troubling foe such as Denver quarterback John Elway, for example.

Social activities and vacations center around Raider games and league meetings. For a change of pace, he may go to a basketball game. Friends say he never went to Europe until his team played an exhibition game in London last fall.

Determinedly private, Davis grants few extensive interviews and none to reporters outside a handful of trusted confidants. He stopped baring his heart after a profile by Gary Smith for Inside Sports in 1981 in which Davis, who is Jewish discussed his fascination with Adolf Hitler: “I didn’t hate Hitler. He captivated me. I knew he had to be stopped. . . . He tried to take on the whole world, the (expletive).”

Smith had been vouched for by Davis’ close friend Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder. The Greek later told an Inside Sports editor, Ted Beitchman, that Davis was furious that his obscenities had appeared in quotes and wouldn’t talk to him for months. The Greek said that Davis was upset because Davis’ mother hadn’t liked the off-color language.

Now Davis is even more elusive. Three books have been published about him in a year, but he refused to see any of his biographers. Nor would he be interviewed for this story. I was The Times’ Raider beat writer from 1985 to 1989 and fought a futile battle to forge a relationship with Davis. In our first conversation, he informed me that my paper “has done more to undermine our move (from Oakland) than any other institution except the NFL.” (Davis hadn’t liked The Times’ questioning of his deal with the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission.) He said he would look me over but if I wasn’t acceptable, “maybe we’ll ask The Times not to cover us, even if it means not appearing in the biggest paper in Southern California.” In five years, despite repeated requests, I never interviewed him. Many of those around him, both friends and enemies, are reluctant to discuss him, fearing his displeasure.

Despite his reticence, or partly because of it, Davis remains a towering figure, a man who has stamped his imprint on the NFL--not to mention its map, which he threatened to redraw annually, announcing franchise shifts to Irwindale, Oakland and then back to Los Angeles in the space of four years. In 1963, as a rookie coach with the Raiders in Oakland, he turned a woebegone franchise around in one season. His aggressive tactics as boy commissioner of the fledgling American Football League in the mid-'60s helped force a merger with the established National Football League within months after he took office. As managing partner, he built the Raiders into an enduring powerhouse.

“Al is almost bigger than life,” says ex-Raider Matt Millen, now a Washington Redskin. “Not only to the players, but to the other coaches in the league. And I’ve found that out since I’ve been gone. Nobody trusts him, but everybody respects him. They don’t know what to expect. It’s like a fear of the unknown.”

Bill Walsh, once a Raider assistant, later a three-time Super Bowl winner as the San Francisco 49ers coach and now a TV commentator, says: “I think he’s the singular most dynamic man in the game. He has just sharpened everyone else’s wits, gotten everyone else mobilized to deal with the intensity and the fervor he approaches his work with. Especially early on, Al would just steamroller people by being much more aggressive, much more detailed and, I think, much more creative.

“Traditionally, before Al’s presence, there was a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere (in pro football). There were the Vince Lombardis and the Paul Browns (the hard-driving coaches) of the world, but typically, it was an inbred kind of thing. The coaches were often former teammates whose lifestyle certainly wasn’t one of continuing effort in search of improvement. When Al joined the AFL, it just changed the entire work ethic.”

“He thinks of things other people don’t think of,” says Mike Madden, who now works in real estate in the Bay Area. “He prides himself on that. You know when Dallas drafted Herschel Walker, a star halfback in the United States Football League, using a low-round pick, Al was kicking himself: ‘That’s never going to happen again, that’s something I do.’ ”

A year later, Davis showed the Cowboys how the game is played. Late in the player draft, the seventh round, he picked Bo Jackson--despite the fact that Jackson was playing major league baseball. Then he stunned the world by luring Jackson into a double career, a wrinkle that raised Bo beyond mere superstardom to demi-legend status.

“It was an unbelievable move,” Madden says. “Let him play baseball, don’t ask him to decide? Who else would have thought of that? The answer is one man. His mind works that way. His mind knows no boundaries.”

Given Davis’ impact on the game, his omission from the Hall of Fame remains curious, to say the least. An owner such as the late George Preston Marshall, who resisted racially integrating his Redskins, is enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Meanwhile, Davis, who broke another NFL color barrier by hiring Art Shell as head coach in 1989, pays the price for his maverick ways before a selection committee as establishmentarian as a parole board. A hard-core panel of longtime NFL writers that makes the nominations resents Davis’ AFL roots and blocks his selection, though he is a perennial nominee. Says one more supportive elector: “Some of these old NFL guys will have to get hit by a bus before he makes it.”

This is Al Davis, so this is how it must be. Having sown the wind, he’ll have to reap the whirlwind a few more years.

Understanding the paradoxical Davis would be a challenge for chess masters. Friends describe him as warm and humorous, even to the point of making jokes at his own expense. He is capable of great caring. When his wife lapsed into a coma in 1979 after a heart attack, he moved into the hospital and spent 17 days at her bedside before she awoke. He has maintained vigils for stricken Raider employees and even people he didn’t know, such as baseball player Tony Conigliaro. He grieved publicly and at length over the recent deaths of friends such as baseball player Don McMahon and his old USC boss, Coach Don Clark. He has often lamented his inability to “dominate death.”

He can be winsomely charming, a gentleman from the old school, inquiring after one’s health, the wife and the kids. As a college recruiter he was legendary for seducing big-time players to football never-never lands such as The Citadel, a South Carolina military school. He can be intensely loyal to former players such as Jim Otto and Art Shell, both Hall of Fame linemen who revere him like a father, or to a more pedestrian talent with no less devotion such as guard Mickey Marvin, who crossed picket lines in two players’ strikes to come to work.

Yet his fits of pique are the stuff of Raider legend. A year ago, Davis demoted starting quarterback Steve Beuerlein after a routine contract holdout, refusing to let him even put a uniform on game days and replacing him not only with Jay Schroeder but with Vince Evans, who’d been out of football for two years before the 1987 strike.

The past decade has been marked by Davis’ running feud with halfback Marcus Allen, the greatest L.A. Raider of them all, so revered by teammates that they voted him their most valuable player for four straight seasons, three of which he limped through with various injuries. No one is sure what started it. Allen’s popularity? His effrontery in confronting Davis to ask to carry the ball more?

“If I had to boil it down to one single sentence,” says an ex-Raider executive, “Al is upset because Marcus can’t run fast enough. Never could. Never will. Of all the silly damn things. Marcus will be in the Hall of Fame and Al will say, ‘Yeah but he could only run 4.7 (in the 40-yard dash).’ ”

In all affairs, Davis answers to no one. Ask Pete Rozelle, the former NFL commissioner, whose triumphant administration foundered when he tried to keep Davis in Oakland.

Davis lifts up the little ones and beheads the big ones according to his preference. This is Al Davis, a mystery wrapped in an enigma outfitted in silver and black. For him, obsession is a lifestyle, domination the only worthwhile goal.

He was born Arthur Allen Davis on July 4, 1929. His father was a prosperous clothing manufacturer and an anomaly in their Brooklyn neighborhood, a hard-driving Taft Republican among the Stevenson Democrats.

In later years Davis would ask companions which was the most important: love, power, glory, achievement or money.

“Some men say ‘love,’ ” he told Inside Sports’ Smith in 1981. “It’s the least important of the five to me. I’m amazed when men say love. I only want to be loved by certain people--my players, the people I live with. No, not by humanity. I push it away because I don’t need it. . . .

“My parents . . . didn’t give me a lot of love. They didn’t know how. I don’t regret it. They paved the way. I’d rather have what I have than the love.”

Allen, the younger of two sons, was a reserve on the basketball team at Erasmus Hall High and was voted the most popular boy in his senior class. He lived for sports but topped out quickly as an athlete. At Syracuse University, he studied English and ran with varsity jocks but was cut from the football team. He played with the junior varsity, a fact he tried to edit later. His yearbook bios in his jobs as an assistant coach at The Citadel and USC said he was a three-sport letterman; he lettered in none.

Since he was cut off as a player, he set out to coach. He began soaking up strategy by taking copious notes at Syracuse practices until Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder noticed him there and did what any football man--and especially the latter-day Davis--would: He had the offender removed.

Davis’ early career is marked by the modesty of its origins and the swiftness of his ascent. He was so hot, he sizzled. He spun off new ideas as fast as he could borrow and modify them. His “racehorse football” at The Citadel, an early version of today’s no-huddle offenses, owed a lot to Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson, while his current “vertical game” of long passing came from Sid Gillman, his mentor in San Diego.

He could charm the birds from the sky, and his chutzpah was incalculable. Turned down for an assistant’s post, weeks out of college, by the athletic director at Adelphi College, he dropped in on the school president and talked his way into the job. He made a name on the football clinic circuit, the intense young man with all the ideas. He published X-and-O treatises in Scholastic Coach, a magazine of football theory.

His first article was followed by this note: “Perhaps the youngest college football coach in America, 22-year-old Al Davis is already in his second year of coaching at Adelphi College (Garden City, Long Island, N.Y.). A brilliant student of the game, Al . . . has made many command appearances before outstanding coaches, and their enthusiasm for his brainchild augurs widespread popularity for it.”

Years later, helping a friend with a book project, the magazine’s editor, Herman Masin, circled the passage and wrote: “Composed, directed, orchestrated and choreographed by the author! Do you wonder why he loves me?”

Davis was going somewhere fast. In 12 years, he moved from coaching staffs at Adelphi to Ft. Belvoir, to The Citadel to USC to the then-Los Angeles Chargers to his first head coaching job with the Raiders.

By 1966, four years after he arrived in Oakland, he had revitalized the franchise, become AFL commissioner, spurred the NFL to merge by raiding its players from the older league and returned to the Raiders as part-owner.

By the mid-'70s, Davis had acquired sole control of the team. After co-owner Wayne Valley let Davis buy a small share at a bargain-basement rate, the two men had a falling out. Davis then got the other co-owner, Ed McGah, to offer him a contract giving him total authority. Valley, recognizing the sunset when he saw it, sold out.

By 1981, the Raiders were two-time Super Bowl winners, famous for their swashbuckling image. Players such as Ken Stabler and John Matuszak led them in a rowdy conga line through life. Fullback Marv Hubbard used to smash the same picture window in Jack London Square after every victory. Raiders used bizarre techniques everywhere. Cornerback Lester Hayes smeared his uniform with Stickum to help him catch the ball, and he practiced in regalia worthy of Cinderella. Only later did Davis recognize that many of his players were in trouble with drugs and alcohol; in the ‘80s he took steps to clean up their act, detailing an assistant coach to monitor off-field activity. Still, tragedies occurred. Defensive end Lyle Alzado, admitting to having used human growth hormone, contracted cancer. Defensive back Stacey Toran died in a car crash; tests showed a high level of alcohol in his blood. Matuszak died of an overdose of Darvocet, a prescription painkiller.

By the mid-'80s, he had squabbled with Bay Area politicians over renovating the Oakland Coliseum, defied Rozelle and moved to Los Angeles, and beaten the league in court when it challenged his right to do so. In 1984, Rozelle, by now under fire from owners for squandering millions in legal fees fighting Davis, had to paste on a smile before a national TV audience and present Davis, now perched proudly in Los Angeles, the Lombardi Trophy after the Raiders’ third Super Bowl victory.

Davis’ name was synonymous with brilliance, an idea he fostered. When Davis was named AFL commissioner, Look magazine’s Leonard Schechter wrote, he turned to the publicist who was typing the announcement and penciled in two words, asking “Think you can work these in?” The words were dynamic and genius .

One of the Radiers’ legion of former publicists says Davis once told him, “The key to our organization is disorganization.”

Welcome to the finest disorganization in professional sports.

Davis’ stripped-down front office staff is divided into “generalists” with titles such as “senior administrator,” whose duties--and powers--shift daily. At least on paper, there are no vice presidents, no public relations staff. Everyone ultimately reports to Davis, looks up to him--and learns how stern a father figure he can be.

One man who felt Davis’ wrath in the ‘80s was the noblest Raider of them all, “Little Al” LoCasale, his diminutive executive assistant. A personnel man trained by Cleveland Browns Coach Paul Brown, whip smart, tenacious, unafraid of the confrontations Davis prefers to delegate and utterly devoted (“Lokie’s weakness is, if Al says jump off a bridge, he’ll jump off a bridge,” says an ex-colleague), LoCasale remains a faithful terrier attacking the ankles of Davis’ enemies.

LoCasale lived in a hotel near the Raider facility, commuting to Oakland to see his family on weekends. The last of the front-office old guard, he had perhaps the greatest burden of any Raider--he had to suffer Raider travail and Davis, too.

When the Raiders arrived in Los Angeles in 1982, it fell to LoCasale to allocate season ticket locations, reconciling them with local bigwigs and friendly politicos who were to be accommodated in style. When the new fans protested their inferior seat locations, brandishing their dated order receipts, the affair became a scandal. LoCasale worked himself into a hospital with exhaustion, but Davis held him responsible for the embarrassment.

Insiders say LoCasale’s influence waned and was limited to the business office. At one point, LoCasale, who once sat at the right hand of “Big Al,” was stripped of his automatic access to the football building at the Raider facility and forced to sign himself in with every gofer, sportswriter and sandwich-truck driver. Reportedly, he has never fully recouped his position as No. 1 confidant.

Other team officials on the hook for failed projects took similar falls.

“You become a non-person,” says the former Raider executive from Oakland. “There were only a few people Al didn’t do that to. He would go through stages with people. If there was something you did that was really good, you could be the fair-haired boy. Like John Herrera,” the executive who set up the since-aborted Irwindale deal. “ ‘John did this. John did that.’ Now Al doesn’t talk to John. John’s in the freezer. His time is past.

"(Promotions director) Mike Ornstein went through the same thing something awful. People look for love, but Al as a father figure is really tough because he doesn’t dish it out very steadily. That’s the killer.

“For a while, you think, ‘Gee, what a great guy, he did this for me and he really likes me and I’m doing good.’ And all of a sudden, you’re not that person. You haven’t changed but something has.

“He believes in this. This is part of his philosophy. He believes in turmoil. And he’ll say it. He doesn’t want things to be smooth. He likes a little conflict between this person and that person. Controversy and conflict don’t upset him as much as they upset the people he’s dealing with.”

The colorful Ornstein crashed and burned in 1989. The living embodiment of Raider swagger, he threw CBS’ Irv Cross off the Raider sideline while Cross was on the air at the ’84 Super Bowl. CBS had sponsored the old-line NFL in the AFL days and was network non grata to Davis.

Ornstein idolized Davis, attending practice daily, watching every snap intently just as Davis did several yards away. “I wish,” Ornstein once said, “that just one time he wouldn’t give me that, ‘What the ... are you doing here?’ look.”

Ornstein won’t talk about his Raider days, since ended. Desperate to escape the Raiders’ emotional roller coaster, he asked Rams general manager John Shaw for a job. Davis heard about it and fired Ornstein--who now works for the NFL.

Many of Davis’ top lieutenants left in the late ‘80s when domination turned to mediocrity and the Raider swagger acquired a limp, but Davis’ direction never wavered. The front office existed to promote the “greatness of the Raiders,” a phrase he demanded to see in all press releases.

At the end of each season, junior officials wrote feature stories about the young Raider players and mailed them to newspapers, says the ex-publicist. Each story was supposed to start: “Over the last three memorable decades, the Raiders have had the greatest players, the greatest coaches, played in the greatest games.” Of course, no newspapers were interested in such overt cheerleading.

Once, the former publicist changed the formula and actually got his work published in a small-town newspaper. At a subsequent meeting, Davis asked who the author had been. Glowing with pride, the young man raised his hand.

“A.D. says, ‘They’re really not written the way I like them,’ Then he takes me upstairs to his office and says, ‘I want you to read this.’ It was a speech he had given to present (Raiders’ Hall of Fame center) Jim Otto. I’m reading this thing: ‘Over the past three memorable decades, the Raiders have had the greatest players, the greatest coaches, greatest teams. . . .’ And he says, ‘You know, I like all the stories to start this way.’

“Then we’re walking back,” the publicist said, “and (Davis) says, ‘When you’ve done all the stories, give them to my secretary. That way we’ll have them, just in case you’re not with us anymore.’ ”

DAVIS HAS A SPECIAL feeling for players. His payroll is always among the highest in the league and, until recently, he signed his players quickly, getting along with the prickliest of agents, whom other teams despised.

For many players, he acts as an employer of last resort. He’s often carried veterans for a last season on injured reserve, giving them a year’s severance pay, unheard-of generosity in the NFL. Receiver Cliff Branch, the ultimate Davis favorite, got two years on injured reserve.

Even Lester Hayes got one year--worth $725,000--while sniping at backfield coach Willie Brown, whom Hayes thought had it in for him. Hayes says he’s on the outs with the Raiders these days but blames his differences on Raider officials, not Davis. “Al Davis is one of the fairest owners in the NFL,” says Hayes. “I love Al Davis. Al Davis and (high-paying 49er owner) Eddie DeBartolo are the most beloved owners by players in the NFL.”

On the other hand, players know they aren’t to cross Davis directly. A year ago, Davis dumped the aging Vann McElroy, a two-time Pro Bowl safety, after a bitter holdout in which Davis dropped his offer $50,000 a week, then had McElroy barred from the El Segundo facility when he tried to report.

“I understand the business aspects of it,” says McElroy, now a Seattle Seahawk. “You want to make a change, OK. But you shouldn’t rub someone’s face in the dirt. All the stuff I had heard and seen previously--that he (Davis) takes care of the guys that perform--that’s what you go on there.

“Nothing against those guys. Nothing against the coaches. ‘Cause the coaches really don’t have any pull. I was a guy who had given all he had--shot up everything in his body to get out there Sundays to play at my top level. . . . To sit here and say Al’s a jerk, I don’t think it serves any purpose. I lost a lot of respect for him after he did that to me. I’ll admit that in a second.”

It’s not only players who pay for crossing Davis. A year ago, ex-Raider Todd Christensen, of NBC, broadcast his suspicion that Davis had orchestrated quarterback Beuerlein’s holdout with low-ball offers to keep him out of camp until Schroeder--whom Davis had traded for--could cement his hold on the starting job. Beuerlein had been a popular player, and the suspicion was shared by several Raider players.

The Raiders complained to the head of NBC Sports, demanding that Christensen cover no more of their games. Davis’ high-powered lawyer, former San Francisco Mayor Joseph L. Alioto, wrote NBC and Christensen letters of protest.

Christensen won’t discuss it, but sources say that when he accompanied an NBC crew to the Raider facility three months later, the team’s hierarchy shunned him. Shell, an ex-teammate, was obliged to tell Christensen he wasn’t welcome.

“Al is stuck in his ways,” says former cornerback Hayes, otherwise an admirer of the man. “It’s either Al’s way or the highway. Ask Steve Beuerlein. If you have thoughts in El Segundo, you can’t speak up or speak out, or you’re exiled to Dallas.”

Among the Raiders, news management is a priority. Only the head coach is supposed to be quoted. A writer asking an assistant coach a question can be accused of fomenting trouble by making it appear as if the staff is split.

Davis has well-placed confidants such as Walsh (NBC), Howard Cosell (ex-ABC), Jimmy the Greek (ex-CBS), Will McDonough (NBC) and Paul McGuire (NBC). But even intimates can fall from grace.

Davis was never closer to a journalist than to former Oakland Tribune sports editor George Ross. They frequently ate together. Their families saw each other socially. But in 1976, Ross reported that co-owner Ed McGah hadn’t even read the contract he offered Davis, suggesting that Davis had set the whole coup up. Davis cut all ties with Ross.

They haven’t talked since. When they met in a hallway five years later, Ross said hello; he says Davis only nodded.

“Al was selectively charming,” says Ross, now retired and living in Northern California. “Al had a stratification personality. He was only friendly to those he considered of the strata. He had little time for others. He could be extremely friendly and helpful. But if he saw no reason to do that, maybe you didn’t exist.”

WHEN IRWINDALE OFfered to build him a place to play in 1986, Davis said he’d name it Raider Stadium--he said he wasn’t the type to put his name on it. Of course, his name would have been superfluous, like a neon sign flashing “Tutankhamen” on a pyramid. Davis is the Raiders. They are a monument he has built to himself to stand the test of time. Each year, the Raiders brandish updated records showing their winning percentage under Davis to be better than any baseball, basketball or hockey teams, making theirs “the most successful organization in all of the major professional sports world.”

Of course, this assumes their .674 winning percentage in the regular-season, plus their three Super Bowl victories, eclipse the Steelers’ four Super Bowls in the ‘70s, the 49ers’ four in the ‘80s, the Celtics’ 10 championships in that span and the Canadiens’ 11 Stanley Cups.

Among the Raiders, self-promotion goes to bizarre extremes. When Davis hired Shanahan as coach in 1988, he told a press conference that Shanahan “said something to me that was really touching. He told me when he was growing up in Chicago, he used to watch on TV and the mystique and the image of the Raiders, some of the players. . . . He had always admired it. Quite frankly, he implied that he loved it.”

Then Davis grinned: “I don’t know if he was conning me or not. Someday we’ll find out.”

Shanahan later told me that Davis made up the story, telling him beforehand so he wouldn’t be surprised.

Self-promotion couldn’t help Davis dominate the problematic late ‘80s, when events began to turn on him. After his deals with Los Angeles, Irwindale and Oakland collapsed, he finally struck a deal for a renovated Coliseum, but 10 years after his arrival in Los Angeles, construction has yet to begin. Current plans are for the renovation to start after the 1992 season.

His hiring and firing of Shanahan in 1988-89 was a circus, with Shanahan firing two old Raider assistants and Davis hiring them back within days. From 1986 to 1989, the Raiders established a new nadir, four straight seasons out of the playoffs.

Rebuilding has been problematic. Home attendance remains mediocre, down more than 90,000 from totals in the mid-'80s. Shell went 12-4 last season, his first full year as coach, and came within a game of the Super Bowl. But Bo Jackson’s career ended with his injury in the playoffs. A week later, the Raiders were humiliated, 51-3, in the American Conference finals at Buffalo.

This season started slowly before the team dug itself out with a midseason winning streak. Even as prospects improved, however, Schroeder struggled at a level under his 1990 peak. Beuerlein was in Dallas, where Davis had sent him in a trade.

The struggle continues. In his biography of Davis, “Just Win, Baby,” Glenn Dickey sees him as a man whose ambition no longer becomes him, a man alone, a man unable to devise a way to dominate Los Angeles as he once did Oakland, “a man who had lost his way.”

On the other hand, Davis isn’t through devising. Intimates agree Davis loves his routine. He loves the game, the challenge and the power.

So what’s a little anguish on the side?

OK, a lot of anguish.

“He’s not the hawkish person he once was,” Bill Walsh says. “He’s more mellow and brings more stability and maturity to the game than he once did. ... He’s more philosophical. He has more patience with others. He can acknowledge a less-than-superb effort and not feel that that person failed.”

On the other hand, you wouldn’t want to fall too far below superb.

“Everybody has a different definition of happiness,” Mike Madden says. “Some people are happy when they can take a vacation four months a year. There are some people who are only happy, I mean truly happy, when they’re achieving things. There’s also people out there who aren’t truly happy unless they’re miserable, and I’m not saying he’s one. He’s obviously not the guy who takes four months of vacation. I think he’s happy. He’s happy being Al Davis.”

Another kickoff approaches.

Davis paces the sideline, edgy as a tiger, peering over the horizon for a glimpse of the opponent he’s waited his whole life for.

If he can just win today and next week and the week after and never, ever lose ...