As the world mourns the passing of a great and visionary leader in Steve Jobs (see my earlier tribute to him here), it seems appropriate to mark the recent passing of another titan of the business world. This man’s departure has generated only a fraction of the headlines devoted to Jobs, but he was definitely a kindred spirit of the Apple founder and a visionary in his own right. Without the benefit of a technology wave that changed the world, without touch screens or smartphones, this man completely redefined his industry. He was Al Davis, founder and CEO of the Oakland Raiders, and the former commissioner of the American Football League.
I always admired Davis a great deal, and saw him as a special kind of role model. He embraced the “maverick” label, and he successfully walked the thin line between being feared and being loved. Perhaps most importantly, he had a long-term commitment to excellence in the art of branding. The iconic silver-and-black Raiders logo is one of the most enduring brands in all of sports.
Davis was among the first to realize that a football team could be a brand that meant more than wins and losses, that it could have a mystique. When you wear the black and silver, you inherit a certain responsibility – as a player and even as a fan.
While others talked strategy, the fiercely competitive Davis exclaimed “Just Win, Baby.” He was actually about a lot more than winning on the field, though. He wanted every other team in the league to fear the Raiders before the game … and feel the Raiders after the game. And he himself was feared because he was deeply committed to an uncompromising vision — an unwavering “Commitment to Excellence” — that unsettled and inimidated a lot of people. In truth, he played not so much for the victory, but for the kill.
To be on Davis’s bad side was apparently an awful experience, but to be in his circle was to be loved and cared for without question – forever. He gave countless people the chance to re-build themselves and resurrect their careers when other owners wouldn’t come near them. Davis introduced nine players into the Hall of Fame – more than anyone else — and his Raiders played in five Super Bowls with four different coaches and four different quarterbacks.
This week, Raider Nation mourns the passing of its own innovator, its own pioneer, its own “think different” champion. Like Steve Jobs, Al Davis leaves a space that no one else can fill or should be expected to fill. He will be missed.