Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders whose legendary battles with the National Football League and shrewd negotiations with city officials from Oakland, Sacramento and Southern California gave him a maverick and outlaw image to match the silver-and-black pirate logo he introduced to the team, died Saturday morning. He was 82.
The Raiders announced his death on their website, without providing details.
Davis, whose "Just win, baby!" motto served him equally well on the football field, in his court battles with the league and in his negotiations with city officials, is perhaps best known for leading his team to three Super Bowls and successfully suing the NFL to relocate his team from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982, then abruptly moving it back to Oakland in 1995.
But decades earlier, he briefly served as commissioner of the American Football League and using shrewd tactics to lure away unhappy NFL star quarterbacks helped force an NFL-AFL merger that set the stage for the richest and most popular league in the history of American professional sports.
"Over the years, the guy who could represent the owners, the players, the coaches and the game as it's played on the field, he did that," Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who led the Raiders to their first Super Bowl victory after the 1976 season, told the Los Angeles Times. "He had a real passion for the game."
Before moving the team back to Oakland, Davis briefly flirted with officials in Sacramento in 1989 and then Irwindale a few years later about moving the Raiders to one of those cities. Critics later asserted Davis was merely using Sacramento and Irwindale to negotiate a better deal with Oakland.
The Sacramento City Council had pledged to pay Davis a a publicly funded $50 million "franchise fee" if his team came to town. To cover most of the bill, the city borrowed $40 million through a bond issue in November 1989.
In the end, Davis declined the offer and the city used the borrowed funds for an array of other civic uses: buying park land, renovating Memorial Auditorium and paying for design work to expand the Convention Center, building a new library, shoring up river levees to help prevent flooding, and building a new animal-control shelter, among other projects.
At the time the Raiders deal fell through, some Sacramento officials considered returning the borrowed money to the bond investors. But because the interest rates were considered low at the time 5.9 percent to 6.8 percent and the city would have had to pay for the alternative projects anyhow, the council decided to keep the funds and spend them elsewhere.
"I am much happier with the uses we found for that money," then-Mayor Anne Rudin said in 1992. "It has gone for things far more necessary to the community than giving Al Davis a bribe."
The public-financing plan came together in August 1989 when Sacramento Sports Association head and Kings owner Gregg Lukenbill worked with City Manager Walter Slipe to draw up the proposal.
At the time, Sacramento sports fans were thrilled by the thought of seeing the Raiders play in a stadium in North Natomas. And many city leaders believed the team could bring a huge boost to the local economy and elevate Sacramento's status.
Not everyone thought the public gift was a good idea.
At a City Council hearing on Sept. 12, 1989, The Bee reported the council moved its meeting to the Convention Center to accommodate the more than 1,000 people who showed up. Some residents said the city should spend its money on other things such as fighting drugs or providing shelter for the homeless. But much of the crowd voiced support for luring the Raiders, and while several members of the City Council, including Rudin, voiced reservations, in the end the nine members voted unanimously to provide the relocation fee to the Raiders.
Unhappy with the outdated Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, by 1995 Davis had shifted his sights to Hollywood Park, where a $250 million privately financed stadium was to be built. However, Davis balked when the league demanded that the Raiders would have to share the stadium with another NFL franchise for "a limited amount of time" in exchange for hosting two future Super Bowls. Davis unexpectedly moved the team back to Oakland, saying there were no "adequate and already existing" stadiums in Los Angeles.
The NFL said the Raiders abandoned Los Angeles simply because they thought they had found a better deal in Oakland; Davis asserted the league forced him to retreat to Oakland by interfering with his attempt to secure a modern stadium with luxury boxes and other amenities.
He insisted the Raiders retained the territorial rights to the nation's second-largest TV market and, if the league tried to place another team in Los Angeles, it would have to buy the rights back from the Raiders.
In 2001, Davis lost his $1.2 billion lawsuit against the league in Los Angeles Superior Court. Davis appealed the ruling but lost.
Once back in Oakland, Davis battled with his new landlords in Northern California. A lawsuit against the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum followed, based on Davis' assertion that East Bay officials did not deliver on promises when the team returned in 1995. A jury in Sacramento awarded the Raiders $34 million in 2003.
Davis, whose pro football career spanned six decades and included serving as coach, general manager and owner of the Raiders, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
"Al Davis' passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement. "He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level. The respect he commanded was evident in the way people listened carefully every time he spoke.
"He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the NFL."
Davis made an immediate impact when he came to the Raiders as head coach and managing general partner in 1963 at age 33. The Raiders were a 1-13 team in 1962 and finished 10-4 the following season. Davis had a 23-16-3 record as head coach.
Davis started with a 10 percent share of the Raiders that reportedly cost him $18,500. By the mid-1970s, Davis had acquired full control of the franchise. In its latest rankings, Forbes magazine estimated the value of the Raiders at $761 million.
While Davis often seemed to relish court battles and legal fights, he often complained they were distractions from his passion of winning football games and finding the best players and personnel to help run his team.
Davis put winning above all else, and downplayed his role as a trail blazer in hiring the the first Latino head coach (Tom Flores) and African American coach (Art Shell) during the NFL's modern era. Davis also hired the first female CEO of a major professional sports team, Amy Trask.
Davis also was the first owner to draft players from small, historically black colleges. Under Davis, the Raiders developed a reputation for building around rejuvenated veteran players who were discarded by other teams who considered them too old, too unruly on and off the field, or otherwise undesirable.
"He's been a big part of my life, my family's life since 1978, when he gave me a second chance and another opportunity to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, which I appreciate very much," said Jim Plunkett, who led the Raiders to two Super Bowl championships after the New England Patriots and then the San Francisco 49ers had given up on the former Stanford star.
"He was always encouraging and helpful both on the field and off the field. He got me ready to play as much as any coach out there, including coach Tom Flores. He'll be sorely missed."
The team learned of Davis' passing Saturday while in Houston before its morning walk-through in preparation for today's game against the Houston Texans.
"It is with my deepest and most sincere regret that Mr. Al Davis, Coach Davis to me, has passed away," said Raiders head coach Hue Jackson. "My thoughts and prayers, first and foremost, go out to his wife and family, then the Raider family and organization. It is because of this accomplished man and his forever love of Silver and Black, the fire that burned in him I will honor and will always and forever burn in me."
Davis was on the track for success in professional sports at an early age. He became an assistant coach with Baltimore Colts at 24.
Davis also had stops at the Citadel and USC before joining the staff of the Los Angeles Chargers of the new American Football League in 1960.
Born July 4, 1929, Al Davis was reared in Brockton, Mass., but relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y., the area that he considered his hometown. He graduated from Erasmus Hall High School and attended Wittenberg College and Syracuse University. Davis earned a degree in English while playing football, basketball and baseball.
Davis is survived by his wife, Carol, and son, Mark.