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Thunder out of Oakland

Unloved Al Davis and his outcasts jolted Houston and climbed to second in the AFL's turbulent West

Outside the city of Oakland and maybe the block in Brooklyn where he used to play stickball as a kid, it is not at all 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. That lack of affection has troubled Davis so much in the past three seasons that he has beaten San Diego, the best team in his division, only three out of five times and has turned the Oakland Raiders into a team the rest no longer look forward to playing. Before Davis took over, the Raiders were hardly even worth making fun of. If he stays in Oakland another couple of years, ignoring job hints and feelers from cities in both leagues, the Raiders could become AFL champions. "I hope not," says one AFL coach. "He's hard enough to live with as it is."

When Davis went to Oakland in January of 1963 he found a really pitiable state of affairs. At every league meeting the hottest rumor always concerned moving the Oakland franchise. The Raiders had tried playing at Kezar Stadium and Candlestick Park in San Francisco and had done so almost in anonymity. Finally, they got the use of Frank Youell Field, a temporary park a few blocks from downtown Oakland. At that point the Oakland Raiders were—with the possible exception of the old New York Titans—the finest bargain in sports. A New Orleans promoter says he could have brought the Raiders to his city then if he could have come up with $200,000 cash. If that is true, the people who would not dig for the money must have been the same sort who said the Gadsden Purchase was not worth it. Within a year NBC-TV had guaranteed each franchise nearly a million dollars per season.

Meanwhile, Al Davis, who is wealthy enough to have bought the team himself, had been preparing (SI, Nov. 4, 1963). In his first season he did a number of big things—made shrewd trades, established an organization, informed the owners he was not running a football school for their benefit, won 10 games and finished second to San Diego. But the biggest thing he did was to get Art Powell. Never the clubby type, Powell had quit San Jose State as a sophomore in 1957 and had played professional football for Toronto in the Canadian League. Powell moved on to the Philadelphia Eagles, was suspended when he refused to play a game after protesting the strictures of a Jim Crow hotel and joined the New York Titans of Harry Wismer. Powell was with the Titans for three seasons but played out his option. "I didn't think not getting paid on time was funny," he said, and was debating whether to sign with Buffalo or Toronto when in flew Al Davis—blond, big-shouldered, with half a scowl but with eyes that seemed to be reflecting some hidden joke, a kidding voice, a you and-me-know-about-them-don't-let's-kid manner, and with his fingernails mostly bitten off. Out to Oakland with Davis went Powell, who is among the top half a dozen receivers in professional football and who has only Lance Alworth (signed by Davis when he was a San Diego assistant coach) as his AFL rival.

Powell has a reputation as a troublemaker. At Oakland he met a number of other players who had reputations as troublemakers in one league or another, for Davis was gathering people who had proven athletic ability but could not be controlled in other cities. That was not all he was gathering, of course, but he was after whatever he could find, and to his credit he coaxed first-rate performances out of players who had been given up on.

"They called me a clubhouse lawyer," Powell says. "That's silly, I'm a loner. I hardly ever have a buddy on a team, except I would if Cookie Gilchrist was on my team. For some reason I don't get the recognition Lance Alworth does. Lance is a nice kid, but I always see double and triple teaming and guys cutting at me from low angles and going for my thighs. I don't expect kindness. I hate the guys on the other teams. I don't joke with them. I'm a poor loser." Last year Powell caught 76 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns, roughly identical to his 1963 production. The Oakland offense has been characterized as Art Powell left and Art Powell right. Despite his small hands and slender fingers and his refusal to use the sticky substances many other receivers use, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Powell makes astounding catches and runs well with the ball. For that ability he credits his basketball career which, he says, increased his agility and quickness.

Joining Powell in the past three games this season has been Receiver Fred Bilentnikoff, an outstanding rookie who was brought along slowly by Davis after a shaky start. His appearance signifies the change Davis has worked in the Raiders. Before, Davis relied on good trades. Middle Linebacker Archie Matsos came from Buffalo as did Tackle Ken Rice, Quarterback Cotton Davidson came from Kansas City and Dick Wood from New York, Fullback Alan Miller came from Boston and Running Back Clem Daniels came from Kansas City.

This season Davis had the best draft and the best signing crop in the AFL. He got Bob Svihus, Harry Shuh, Kent McCloughan, Bilentnikoff, Gus Otto, Larry Todd and Rich Zecher among nine rookies who have stuck with the club and, with the good players already assembled, he has an enviable nucleus. Davis still needs a quality quarterback, an outside running back and perhaps a tight end, but he is on the road toward catching San Diego, Buffalo and Kansas City. Davis' clubs are known as fast closers, and after last Sunday's 33-21 victory over favored Houston they are only a game and a half behind the Western leader, San Diego, with five games to go. At least five or six rookies are starting every Sunday.

"Al Davis," says one AFL coach, "is a great listener. He'll talk to some top offensive coaches about a play, and then he'll mull it over and take the best of what they said and present it as his own theory. He can synthesize it beautifully. He never loses his poise except when he's complaining to the officials, and sometimes he sounds like an LP record when he's doing that."

Davis' most recent public feud was with his former boss, Sid Gillman of San Diego. Davis accused the Chargers of being guilty of offensive holding 75% of the time and added that Bones Taylor of Houston agreed with him. Since Davis said that the week before the Oilers played the Chargers, Taylor was far from pleased about being included. Davis is a fast man with a waiver list and frequently claims players other clubs are trying to sneak through with injuries. At Buffalo he once held his team in the locker room during TV player introductions while the Bills obediently stood around on the field, and that did not endear him to Lou Saban. "Davis always acts like he's got some kind of secret information nobody else knows about," an AFL coach says, "and much of the time that's true. He knows the members of every taxi squad in both leagues and what players are having trouble with their coaches, and he's always ready to make a deal, although you'd better look out when you deal with him. But Al has done a fine job."

The new Oakland Stadium should be ready by next season, about the same time the Raiders should be ready to challenge for the championship. "I don't care what the other coaches think of me personally as long as they respect what we do on the field," Davis says. His record takes care of that.