Al Davis, the irascible owner of the Oakland Raiders whose feuds with the N.F.L. reshaped professional football over the last half-century and helped spur its rise to pre-eminence in the landscape of American sports, died Saturday. He was 82.
The Raiders said he died at his home in Oakland.
Before there were owners like George Steinbrenner or Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban, there was Al Davis, an outspoken and successful irritant to the N.F.L., who fielded teams capable of championship-caliber play. Mr. Davis was hired by the Raiders to be the coach and general manager in 1963 and remained with the team almost continuously for nearly 50 years. He left briefly in 1966 to become the commissioner of the A.F.L., vowing to battle with the N.F.L. to sign the best players available. Many observers at the time believed that that attitude led N.F.L. owners to agree to play the A.F.L. in an annual championship game that would come to be called the Super Bowl. In 1970, the two leagues played a united schedule for the first time, creating the modern N.F.L.
Read full story after the jumpHe was also one of a dwindling number of N.F.L. owners whose riches came primarily from the business of football. There were no hedge funds or shipping companies in Mr. Davis’s background. He simply ran the Raiders — the team appeared in five Super Bowls under his ownership, winning three — and his business model could be summed up by the phrase that became his franchise’s mantra: “Just win, baby!”
“It’s tunnel vision, a tunnel life,” he once told People magazine. “I’m not really part of society.”
Mr. Davis opposed the N.F.L.-A.F.L. merger. But becoming part of the N.F.L. did not stop him from trying to change it. Mr. Davis became the symbol of a franchise that garnered a reputation for outlaw personalities and a kind of counterculture sensibility. The Raiders were the first franchise in the modern era to have a Latino head coach (Tom Flores), a black head coach (Art Shell) and a female chief executive (Amy Trask). He feuded for decades with the former commissioner Pete Rozelle, and he sued the N.F.L. in the early 1980s so that he could move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles. Then, 13 years later, he moved them back.
“He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the N.F.L.,” Roger Goodell, the league’s current commissioner, said in a statement Saturday.
Mr. Davis generally inspired deep loyalty from his players, though he had an ugly battle with one of his stars, running back Marcus Allen, and when he got along with his head coaches (not a given) — most notably John Madden, who led the Raiders from 1969 to 1978, perhaps their most successful decade — they spoke warmly of him. Wherever the team called home, Oakland or Los Angeles, Mr. Davis was a fan favorite — until he wasn’t.
In league circles, he was not always viewed fondly. Known for, or at least suspected of, underhanded ploys like bugging the visiting team’s clubhouse, he infuriated other owners with his relentless self-interest; Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers once called him a “lying creep.”
For his part, Mr. Davis once said of his fellow owners: “Not all of them are the brightest of human beings.”
Don Shula, the Hall of Fame coach, once said of Mr. Davis, reporting on a conversation they’d had: “Al thought it was a compliment to be considered devious.”
But he knew football. A shrewd judge of talent, especially early in his career, he became known for providing a home for gifted, wayward athletes, signing or trading for some players who were undervalued or given up on by other teams, like quarterbacks Daryle Lamonica, George Blanda and Jim Plunkett, and running back Billy Cannon and tight end Hewritt Dixon.
He rehabilitated others, like receiver Warren Wells, defensive linemen Lyle Alzado and John Matuszak, and quarterback Ken Stabler, whose reputations were sullied (either before or after they became Raiders) by allegations of criminal behavior, drug use, gambling or other transgressions.
The Raiders’ colors, silver and black, were chosen by Mr. Davis to intimidate. So was their insignia, a shield emblazoned with the image of a pirate in a football helmet in front of crossed sabers. The Raiders’ unofficial team motto — “Just win, baby!” — was reflected by the forceful style of play he encouraged, featuring brutal physicality on defense and speed and long passing on offense.