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When Al Davis Tried to Sabotage the NFL

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He was hell-bent to destroy every roster on every team

Al Davis. Coach. Owner. Oakland Raiders. Los Angeles Raiders. Oakland Raiders again. Commissioner. Commitment to Excellent. Just Win Baby.

Wait a second…..commissioner? When? Where? More importantly, why would anyone hire Al Davis to run a league?

Charter Member of the AFL

The Oakland Raiders began as one of the eight charter franchises of the upstart American Football League (AFL) in 1960. If the established National Football League (NFL) had simply sold two or three expansion franchises to several wealthy men, the AFL would never had been born. But, the old school owners liked their 12-team league and more importantly, liked each other and were very content the way things were.

So, the AFL began. Five of the eight owners were wealthy with very deep pockets. One of those was Barron Hilton, son of Conrad Hilton of the Hilton Hotel Empire. He agreed to purchase the Los Angeles AFL franchise for the $25,000 entry fee but was not happy about being the only West Coast club.

At first, Minneapolis was awarded one of the eight franchises but pulled out for an NFL expansion slot (later named the Vikings) on the eve of the AFL’s initial college draft. That left the infant league with only seven teams instead of the desired eight. The expansion offer to the Minneapolis ownership group was an attempt by the NFL to try to squash the infant league before it even got a foothold.

But, the AFL preserved and continued on. But when the Minneapolis franchise bolted, this meant another club was needed. After two months of searching for a suitable city for the eighth and final franchise, Hilton threatened to drop his ownership if another team was not placed nearby so that his club would have a natural West Coast rival. With only seven clubs and one being in Los Angeles, the AFL finally found an investor group in Oakland and called themselves the Raiders.

1960 Chargers coaching staff: (standing L to R) Joe Madro, Chuck Noll, Jack Faulkner; (seated L to R): Sid Gillman, Al Davis
Vic Stein & Associates

Meanwhile, a young Al Davis was hired by the Chargers as the wide receivers coach by head coach Sid Gillman. The other coaches were Jack Faulkner, who would go on to become head coach of the Denver Broncos, Joe Madro, Chuck Noll, who would capture four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Davis, who was hired away from USC. Gillman himself had been hired away from the Los Angeles Rams.

Except for the college draft, every AFL team had to field their own roster of players that first season. The Chargers’ staff did an excellent job recruiting former NFL veterans whose contracts had expired and had a successful draft that brought in numerous young college blue-chippers. They went 10-4-0 and won the Western Division crown, then lost to the Houston Oilers 24-16 in the very first AFL Championship Game.

Even with their sterling record, the Chargers had a problem in Los Angeles. At the time, the Los Angeles Coliseum was the only stadium suitable to support large football crowds. It was home to the NFL Rams, plus USC and UCLA. With the Chargers as the new kid in town, they were placed as low-man on the Coliseum scheduling totem pole. So, after that successful 1960 season, they moved to San Diego.

While with the Chargers, Davis was shrewd. He had signed WR Lance Alworth on the playing field after his final college game before the NFL could get to him. When Alworth was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it was Davis who introduced him.

Al Davis the Head Coach

The Raiders fired their head coach after the 1962 season and brought forward a list of names for the vacancy, one of which was Davis. Eventually, they offered him a one-year deal, to which he turned it down. He countered with a three-year deal at $20,000 a season and the stipulation that he would retain the General Manager position also.

1963 Oakland Raiders

Davis immediately cleaned house on the roster as well as the front office. He also began a campaign for a proper stadium since they had played most of their home games across the bay in San Francisco. He also got rid of the gold and black uniforms which originally were bought used from the University of Pacific/Stockton. He liked the look of the black uniforms because he thought it made players look larger and added silver instead of the gold.

Davis made shrewd trades and drafted several players from smaller colleges that produced. In his first year, the Raiders went from 1-13-0 to 10-4-0. He was named AFL Coach of the Year.

In 1966, Davis formed an investor firm with the current Raiders’ two owners that allowed Davis to hold 10% as a minority owner. He then hired John Rauch as head coach and Oakland finished 8-5-1. The following season the Raiders went 13-1-0 and defeated the Oilers 40-7 to win the AFL Championship. This placed them in the second Super Bowl, but lost to the Green Bay Packers.

In 1969 Davis hired John Madden as head coach and the Raiders became one of the most successful franchises once the AFL and NFL merged into one league. In 1972, Davis became majority owner with complete power over all aspects of the team.

So, what does any of this have to do with Al Davis as commissioner and him trying to destroy the NFL? Patience grasshopper.

War of the Football Worlds

For five years from 1960-1965, the AFL and NFL had been waging war - a financial war. Before the advent of the AFL, player salaries were in the neighborhood of $7,000 for veterans and $6,000 for rookies, with QBs getting about $10,000 a season. When the AFL began, the two leagues had a gentlemen’s agreement not to sign each other’s veteran players that were still under contract. But college players? That is where the AFL excelled at acquiring young talent - at the NFL’s expense.

If the NFL offered a first-round selection $6,000 a season, the AFL team that drafted the same player offered him $10,000 a year. This meant the NFL club would have to counter with the same or more money to sign him. So, a large percentage of rookies became property of the AFL. At the same time, this created problems with the veteran players whose contracts came up who were suddenly making the same (or less) as a rookie. That was a definite no-no in the world of pro football.

This escalated for years to the point that QBs were suddenly getting $35,000 a year from teams in both leagues. Both the NFL and AFL wanted the financial madness to stop.

So, several NFL owners asked the Dallas Cowboys’ GM Tex Schramm to contact the AFL and see if a merger could be worked out. Schramm knew Lamar Hunt very well, whose Kansas City Chiefs used to be located in Dallas (as the Texans) and competed for three years for the same fans and sponsors. And although Hunt and his wife had an apartment in Kansas City, their home was still in Dallas.

Without provocation, the AFL commissioner, Joe Foss, abruptly resigned in April of 1966. And who did the other AFL owners vote in as their league commissioner? Al Davis.

“Need to Know” List

Hunt and Schramm met secretly to talk about the merger on April 4, 1966. Only two NFL owners knew about the possible plan along with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, and only two AFL owners were told. AFL commissioner Davis was not one of them.

Davis was not friends with many in his own league much less those in the NFL. He was combative and was known to disagree with just about everything. In an issue of Sports Illustrated, writer Bud Shrake wrote, “It is not certain where Al Davis would finish in a popularity contest among sharks, the mumps, the income tax and himself. If the voters were the other American Football League coaches, Davis probably would be third, edging out income tax in a thriller.”

Davis knew how to alienate others and didn’t care who got in his way. He wanted to win, and he wanted to win at all costs. He despised the NFL because they publicly minimized the AFL as a viable professional football league, and often referred to it as “minor league football.” He had a military background that pounded that mantra of win at all costs into him daily. Win - or die. And he kept that going into any new battleground.

So, in the event that war continued against the NFL, Davis was the man with experience. And he felt that the AFL could stand alone as a viable pro football league and never need the NFL. The AFL had made great strides and teams were making money. The AFL just expanded into Miami with plans to expand soon into Cincinnati. Plus, they had just signed a tidy new $36 million television contract with NBC a year earlier which would feature games shown in color for the first time and promised that every club would make even more money and finally be solid.

About this time, players were making between $11,000 to $38,000 a season.

Meanwhile, in May, Schramm and Hunt met once again to iron out details from meetings that they had attended with their league’s confidants. The NFL agreed to the merger but insisted that Rozelle would become the commissioner, and that all AFL clubs would be admitted providing they paid the NFL an entry fee of $2 million per AFL franchise (totally $18 million with the expansion Miami club).

All of this was going on, and Commissioner Davis still was not brought on board with the merger talks.

What happened next almost broke things wide-open. And if Davis would have had his way, he would have brought the NFL to its knees.

Gentlemen’s Agreement, or War?

At the NFL owner’s meeting in May, the Giants announced that they had signed Pete Gogolak, the All-Star kicker who introduced the soccer-style kicking method into the pro football universe. The problem was, Gogolak was a free-agent but was still in negotiations with the Buffalo Bills. Of the AFL.

Kicker Pete Gogolak

Remember the gentlemen’s agreement the two leagues had for the first six years? Giants’ owner Wellington Mara rationalized that Gogolak’s contract had expired. The problem was, both leagues had always waited until they knew for certain that the player’s current team did not have any intentions of re-signing him; otherwise, both leagues left each other’s veteran athletes alone. The Giants had signed Gogolak before Buffalo had the opportunity to discuss his future with them. To do otherwise, like the Giants just did, it would evoke an all-out bidding war for every veteran in each league. It was one thing to bid for four or five blue-chip rookies a year, but 14 rosters full of veterans?

In the May 18, 1966 edition of the Tuscaloosa News, Davis was quoted as saying, “No comment,” when confronted about the Gogolak signing. But someone in his office was quoted in the same article, “The league office stand is that this was not a surprise. We are interested in seeing if the commissioner’s office of the other league will approve the contract.”

Since there was nothing in the NFL by-laws that prevented a team from signing a player who had played out his option and was a free-agent, the contract was approved reluctantly on May 16 by Rozelle. This was two days before the AFL learned about it from the newspapers.

All the while, Schramm and Hunt were having secret meetings and ironing out details to make the merger finalized, and eventually official. The merger was going to happen. Both leagues agreed to it and wanted it but the small details still remained.

Davis remarked at the time that if the AFL went out and signed the NFL’s key players to huge contracts, they could destroy the older league. And so he began to concoct a plan on just how to do so.

Money Talks

Davis’ plan was to approach the best players in the NFL about signing very high contracts that would begin the minute their current team’s contract expired. He called them “future contracts.” Right away, the Chargers offered contracts to three Giants’ players, but it would be Davis’ Raiders who would deliver the first blow.

He signed the Los Angeles Rams’ starting QB Roman Gabriel to a four-year deal worth a king’s ransom of $400,000. Next, the Oilers offered San Francisco 49ers QB John Brodie a three-year deal for the unbelievable sum of $500,000. The 49ers had previously offered Brodie $40,000 a season (up from the $38,000 he was making).

Schramm frantically called Hunt to find out if he could stop this impulsive financial avalanche that Davis had created. Hunt called both AFL owners and asked them to not go through with the signings, although he couldn’t tell them why just yet. Other agreements were being worked on with Washington Redskins’ QB Sonny Jurgensen along with Jim Ninowski, the Cleveland Browns’ starting QB.

Hunt sent word to Davis asking that the signings cease and he had his reasons. Davis refused. His rationale was that if someone like Brodie and Gabriel were already signed, the AFL’s bargaining power was greater with star player’s ink than with blank contracts and no players under wraps. And so, announced signings to exorbitant contracts continued.

Finally - an Agreement

On May 30, Hunt and Schramm hammered out almost six pages of notes and a final briefing regarding the merger. Schramm already had the NFL owner’s blessing, so all Hunt had to do was to get his fellow AFL owners to approve it. On June 7, the final details had been ironed out and an approved charter was approved by both leagues.

Al Davis (center) early days with the Raiders

Later that evening, Boston Patriots’ owner informed Davis about the merger and that Rozelle would be commissioner of the imminent 26-team league. Needless to say, Davis was furious on so many levels. His main contention was that he was the commissioner of the AFL, and how dare the owners engage into anything as major as a merger without his input and subsequent approval. Secondly, he was convinced the AFL could take on the NFL as an independent, viable league and instead grow steadily as it had already done. He did, however, want a final championship game against the NFL every season, but as independent leagues.

The following day, a press release was issued to the UPI and AP offices stating details about the AFL-NFL merger.

The war had ceased, and the only clashes now would be on the playing field. For Al Davis, you either loved him or hated him. And suddenly, the very people he had tried so passionately to destroy would be the same folks he would be forced to get along with year-after-year as business partners.

Of course, now as a member of a 26-team league this suddenly gave him more men to antagonize.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.