THE MAVERICK wanteda game changer. Al Davis had watched his Raiders get repeatedly poked in theirone good pirate's eye by cooler opponents and knew Oakland's menacing fan basewas losing its sneer. He craved a fresh image to update his reputation as avisionary, to avoid being seen as an owner sealed in a time capsule with warmupsuits, mood rings and Skylab debris. His vitality was in question. Hisrelevance was in doubt. So 21 months ago Davis searched for a new face to fronthis beleaguered franchise, someone charismatic and young and without a lick ofpro coaching experience. Someone who didn't blink when Davis asked him to joinin reenergizing fans who had lost their desire to wear spiked collars onSundays. Someone who could wink.
And this is howLane Kiffin became Davis's Sarah Palin. Davis wanted arm candy, a personablecoach who could stand on the sideline and say you betcha as he carried out theowner's antiquated vertical-passing schemes. All was well until the 31-year-oldKiffin started to depart from the script, with his smiling displays of ambitionand crazy thoughts of expanding his power. Kiffin said he wanted the defensivecoordinator fired and opposed signing the free agents Davis held dear. Then forthe past year Kiffin vented his frustration as the Raiders failed to delivervictories.
In addition tolosing 15 of 20 games, Kiffin spewed "propaganda" and "lies,"as Davis put it last week during a surreal 45-minute press conference thatscreamed TMI. It was awkward, like hearing divorce tales from the airplanepassenger in the middle seat. At 79, with his strands of hair slicked back andhis frail frame swallowed in a Raiders jacket, Davis let the dirt fly inexplaining why he had just fired his fifth coach in seven years. "I didn'thire the person I thought I was hiring," said Davis, angry at how he wassuckered into believing the dynamic Kiffin was like-minded only to find outthat he was basically Reese Witherspoon in Election. "I think he conned melike he conned all you people," Davis added.
This wasn't so mucha con perpetrated by Kiffin as self-delusion perpetuated by Davis. In anattempt to prove he wasn't dead yet—his mother lived to 103, he remindedeveryone—Davis spoke with the stamina of a telethon host but could not mask histiresome ideology rooted in outdated precepts. Back in the era of George Halas,with friends like Red Auerbach, sharing the sports scene with GeorgeSteinbrenner, Davis was the whiz of "Just win, baby" fame, able toassemble champions from junkyard parts, before free agency made loyalty passéand the salary cap homogenized team identities. Here's what Davis failed tonotice: The cult of personality has largely shifted from the owner to thecoach. It's Bill Belichick in the ubiquitous hoodie, Tony Dungy as abestselling author, Eric Mangini in a scene as Mangenius in The Sopranos.
The coach is theall-powerful Oz in a league where it takes a brain trust of IT junkies to raisea champion. It's been this way for a while, certainly when Kiffin was teethingon leather laces at USC as a twentysomething assistant coach. No wonder he feltfree to disagree with Davis on draft picks, coaching hires and issues ofreverence. "I couldn't get him to feel toward ex-Raiders the way I wantedhim to feel," Davis said. Odd he would say that when a lineup of formerOakland players from Rich Gannon to Warren Sapp emerged last week to assertwhat was already apparent: Davis still sees the world through a lava lamp.
It's a disturbingparadox. Davis can be a refreshing progressive—he installed the first Hispaniccoach in the NFL (Tom Flores), the first black coach of the modern era (ArtShell) and the first female CEO (Amy Trask)—yet his mind remains largely closedto new football ideas. Roger Goodell was among the rubberneckers watching onthe NFL Network as Davis eviscerated Kiffin during a daytime hour when mostmelodramatic death scenes are reserved for soap operas. What's a commissionerto do when one of his owners starts dropping his clown pants in public? Heshould channel David Stern when New York Knicks owner James Dolan—a serialfeud-maker with coaches, too—let his control issues sabotage a celebratedfranchise. Behind the scenes, Stern helped nudge Dolan to the background whilehe supported the hiring of adults to reshape the roster.
This is a differentcontext—Davis knows football; Dolan knows a basketball is round—but withGoodell's push, a similar move toward organizational peace may occur inOakland. This doesn't mean Davis has to surrender his outcast persona, but hecan update his style by being more inclusive of a strong-willed coach, bydeciding not to take fliers on sexy hires to prove he's still got it.
If you have thoughts about Al Davis's stewardship of the Raiders, send them toSI.com/pointafter.
At 79, with his strands of hair slicked back and hisfrail frame swallowed in a Raiders jacket, Al Davis explained why he had justfired his fifth coach in seven years.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER