Overlooked former Raiders coach Tom Flores discusses his slow march toward the Hall of Fame
Tom Flores tried being a junior high teacher but the students were too out of control.
So he coached the Raiders instead.
“I’ll never do that again,” the two-time Super Bowl winning coach said of his stint as a substitute teacher. “Too many hormones going on on that campus. Holy Toledo.”
It was all part of his winding path that at long last has brought Flores to the doorstep of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he almost certainly will be enshrined next summer.
Flores, 83, is the lone coach named a finalist for the class of 2021. He was selected in August by the Hall’s coach committee and is in a good position to be approved by the required 80% of voters when the 48-member panel convenes at the Super Bowl.
“What am I going to do, pat myself on the back? No,” Flores said. “The pat on the back is when you see something that you developed and it worked. Like the end of a Super Bowl game when you’re ahead with two minutes left and they crack the champagne. What a great feeling that is.”
It isn’t just Raiders who applauded the Hall of Fame news. Opponents did too.
“I’m just so glad he’s going in,” said former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, now a CBS analyst. “It has to mean a lot to him. He just kind of gets washed away in the history of the game. Everybody else who wins two Super Bowls, '`Oh my god, they’ve won two. Put him in the Hall of Fame.’ But for some reason, his name never came up.”
Flores quarterbacked the Raiders during their inaugural 1960 season, beating out 10 others at training camp to do so. And when illness sidelined him for the 1962 season, he worked as a sportswriter, writing columns about the team for the Oakland Tribune.
A strong work ethic was never an issue for Flores, who grew up in the tiny Central California town of Sanger, and was the son of a sharecropper who arrived from Mexico at age 12.
“My dad was a quiet man, like I am,” he said. “My mom and dad wanted us to grow up speaking English, so that’s all we spoke at our home. The only time we spoke Spanish is when we went to see my grandparents, but all but one of them died by the time I was 5.”
Flores would go on to become an unassuming pioneer, the first Hispanic head coach in the NFL, Super Bowl winner, and later with the Seattle Seahawks, team president and general manager.
“Every time he and I cross paths, he takes the time to talk with me,” said Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera, who has a profound appreciation for the trail Flores blazed. “This goes back to from when I was playing until now. I’ve always admired him, who he is, and what he’s accomplished.”
After a football career at Fresno City College and College — now University — of the Pacific, Flores was ready to give up on football to become a teacher. But in 1960, an opportunity came along with the Oakland Raiders of the fledgling American Football League, and he decided to give it one last try.
“It was never an issue of, `'Oh no, what happens if this doesn’t make it,’” he said. “I figured I’d just move on and do something else.”
The Las Vegas Raiders and coach Jon Gruden have been fined a total $650,000 and docked a sixth-round draft pick for repeated violations of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols.
In the offseason, in fact, he did. He sold fireworks.
“I’d mainly sell to the Boy Scouts, the Kiwanis, the Boys and Girls Clubs,” he said. “There’s like a 1,000% markup on fireworks. You’d buy $100 worth and it would cost them a dollar.”
Like those pyrotechnics, Flores’ playing career almost went up in smoke in 1962 when he contracted tuberculosis.
“I was in isolation for 10 days,” he said. “Doctors didn’t know what I had. Finally, they discovered it was a form of tuberculosis and that I wasn’t infectious. We had no insurance in those days and twins who were a year old. But I wasn’t worried about surviving.”
When the Raiders needed a new coach in 1963, owner Wayne Valley asked Flores what he knew about a certain assistant coach of the San Diego Chargers, a young up-and-comer named Al Davis.
“I remember hearing about Al when I was at College of the Pacific and he was at USC,” Flores said. “Some of the things I heard were not very good. When Wayne Valley asked me about him, I said, `'What I’ve heard is he’s a different guy, a tough guy.’ I think Wayne liked that. That was the kind of guy he wanted, I guess.”
Davis would not only coach the Raiders, but would maneuver his way into becoming their controlling owner.
Flores coached wide receivers for the Raiders from 1972-78, winning a Super Bowl as part of John Madden’s staff in 1976, and taking over as head coach three years later.
Coaching the Raiders first in Oakland then in Los Angeles, Flores led his teams to Super Bowl victories at the end of the 1980 and ’83 seasons.
But his first Super Bowl ring came as backup quarterback for Kansas City in 1969. That was him on the Chiefs sideline, shrouded in a full-length coat, making sure Hank Stram didn’t get tangled in the phone lines. Flores makes a cameo in those famous NFL Films shots of a mic’d-up Stram bouncing down the sideline, urging his players to “matriculate” the ball down the field.
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For much of his career, Flores operated in the shadows of larger-than-life personalities. Few in sports attracted a brighter spotlight than Davis, who never let Flores feel too secure in his job – even during that championship 1980 season.
“There were rumors Al was going to fire me,” Flores said. “Al might have considered doing it. It was only my second year as a head coach. I had some serious meetings with him, then he kind of backed off and left me alone for a while to figure it out.”
The pressures of the job were not lost on his players.
“A lot of people want to give all the credit to Al,” said Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes, a defensive fixture on the 1983 Raiders. “But a lot of it was really Tom. How many coaches could really get along great with Al, somebody calling you at 2 o’clock in the morning? But it really didn’t affect Tom’s attitude. He knew how to manage his relationship with the players, knew how to manage his relationship with Mr. Davis, and I really think that’s why we won so many games.”
Perhaps most impressive in their out-of-nowhere rise were the 1980 Raiders. They lost starting quarterback Dan Pastorini to injury and replaced him with Jim Plunkett, got off to a 2-3 start, yet wound up the first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl.
“Little by little it kept getting better,” Flores said. “Our defense started to peak. By the time we got to the playoffs, we were on a roll, offense and defense. We were peaking at the right time.”
Among the legendary players on that Raiders defense were John Matuszak, Matt Millen, Lester Hayes, and a future Hall of Famer in linebacker Ted Hendricks.
“Hendricks was a dominating player,” Flores recalled. “He would be my pick as the best overall defensive player I coached. He would make a tackle for a sack, he’d block a punt, block a field goal, get an interception, knock down passes. And that’s all in one game.”
For Flores, an indelible memory from that Super Bowl came in the waning moments, when he was approached by Raiders offensive line coach Sam Boghosian, who had a similar humble background, having grown up in Fresno.
“Not bad for a couple of grape pickers, huh?” Boghosian said. “We’re world champions.”
Not bad at all.
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