As Vegas waits, Raiders are betting Gruden can bring success back to Oakland

By all indications, Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden has banned two words from his vocabulary.

“Las” and “Vegas.”

The reasons are pretty obvious. Gruden wants his players focused on the now, and many of them won’t be on the roster anyway when the franchise relocates in two years. Still, Gruden sidesteps any references to the team’s future home with Barry Sanders-type elusiveness.

Michael Gehlken, who covers the team for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has kept a running count of how many times Gruden has mentioned that city in a formal setting. The grand total? Once. That came in his introductory news conference Jan. 9, when he said, “I’ll let Mark talk about Vegas.”


Mark is Raiders owner Mark Davis, whose club is building a domed, 65,000-seat stadium just across the freeway from the Las Vegas Strip. He’s wholeheartedly in favor of Gruden staying laser-focused on the present, with the team kicking off the regular season next Monday night at home against the Rams.

Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden calls to his team as he stands next to running back Ryan Yurachek before a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks on Aug. 30.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

“He doesn’t need to talk about Las Vegas right now,” Davis said in a recent interview with The Times. “We’re the Oakland Raiders right now, and we’re going to bring a championship here. That’s the mental aspect of what we’re doing. Whether we can or not, that’s a different story. But we’re going to do everything we can in our power to do it.”

A championship is a tall order for any franchise, but especially one that just traded away a generational talent. To the dismay of a huge chunk of their fanbase, the Raiders shipped All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack to Chicago on Saturday. The Raiders got two first-round picks in the deal, and the Bears promptly made Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, a pact that pays him an average of $23.5 million per season.

As for Davis, he’s unflaggingly confident that Gruden can coach the “Silver and Black” back to annual relevance. Davis said he spent the past six years courting the coach, before signing him to a 10-year, $100-million deal.

“I spent a lot of time in the Dallas airport, because American Airlines went from San Francisco to Dallas to Tampa,” the owner said. “For six years, I traveled back there to meet with him. I noticed through those six years, the passion was never gone. His study of football. I’d go back there to his office in that strip mall maybe 15 times” — a nondescript office space Gruden deemed the Fired Football Coaches Assn. — “and just sit there and talk. I knew that if he came back, he’d definitely be prepared and fired up for it.”

Like his late father, legendary Raiders owner Al Davis, Mark Davis is an avid student of history. It’s not lost on him that this is the 50-year anniversary of 1968, among the most turbulent years in U.S. history from the Vietnam War; to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; to riots in cities around the country; to Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith each raising a gloved fist in protest on the medal podium during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Davis, who was raised one freeway exit from the political hotbed of Berkeley, said that Olympics image was burned into his consciousness.

“I was 13 years old watching those Olympics on TV, the first time they were in color, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on that podium,” he recalled. “Black gloves, fists raised, and it was such a divergence from how most athletes had been acting at that time. It was always a watershed moment for me, always stood out.”

Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis stands on the field before a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks on Aug. 30.
(Stephen Brashear / Associated Press)

Two years ago, when the Raiders played a game in Mexico City, Davis reached out to Smith.

“I was thinking about who I’d have light the torch before the game, and it didn’t take but five seconds for me to think how I’d love to have Tommie Smith do it,” he said. “It would mean so much to me, and kind of bring everything full circle, not just for me but for Tommie. He agreed to do it, was happy to do it, and it just turned out to be a really special moment in my life.”

Among his many firsts, Al Davis hired the modern NFL’s first black head coach in Art Shell, its first Latino coach in Tom Flores, and its first female chief executive in Amy Trask.

“For him, it was always the person,” the younger Davis said of his father. “It wasn’t the color or gender or anything else. It was, can you do the job? That was the main thing. Can you help the Raiders win? That was the impetus for everything he did.”

Now, that responsibility is squarely in the hands of Mark Davis. Not surprisingly, some people have questioned whether Gruden, who spent the past nine years as an ESPN analyst in the “Monday Night Football” booth, is up to speed enough to step back into a coaching job and succeed.

“It’s just that he hasn’t been with one team, he’s been with the whole league,” Davis said. “He’s seen everything that all these coaches are doing.”

But will that make him a better coach?

“Well,” Davis said, “we’ll find out.”

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer