Monday, September 27, 2010

Mondays with Murray

Sunday, November 19, 1989


Davis Wins by Going Into a Shell

     HOUSTON — First of all, he's not yelling at anybody. He's not slamming his hat down on a yard marker and stomping on it. He's not screaming, "What'd you want to ask a stupid question like that for?!" In fact, he never even raises his voice. If you're too far away, you can't even hear him.
   His nickname is not Bear. Or Bo. Or the Rock.
   He's a man of monumental calm, glacial dignity. Football coaches are supposed to be emotional, temperamental, short-tempered, feared, even baleful. Like a top sergeant whose shoes are too tight. ("What were you thinking of there, Mister?!" "I don't want to see this game, I want to hear it!") They're supposed to be sarcastic, demanding. ("Jones, what is this, an Easter egg hunt or a football game?! You came up to that man like a bunny rabbit, like you owed him money!")
   Mike Ditka couldn't be anything else but a football coach. Neither could Woody Hayes. Art Shell doesn't need any of this shtick. When he talks, people listen.
   He's an imposing, impressive figure. He looks as if he could part the Red Sea. Or bench press a small barge. He was the same way as a player. He didn't taunt, snarl, rage or throw his helmet. "He just knocked you on your butt," Gerry Philbin of the New York Jets used to say. "Nothing personal." Even then, he had this wide-eyed innocent look of a guy just waiting for a streetcar or passing the basket at church. It was when the ball was snapped he became a public enemy. Or a runaway elephant.
   When he was named head coach of the Raiders, it was widely perceived as a public relations ploy, a gesture to times that called for affirmative actions, equal opportunities.
   Al Davis doesn't do gestures. Al Davis does Super Bowls. Al Davis wants winners, not brotherhood awards. What he saw in Art Shell was not a black coach but a good coach. A Raider coach.
   It is a formula that has always worked: pick a man who came up through the system, who knows the Raider philosophy, the Raider tradition. The Raiders have always been a get-out-of-my-way team. They don't jab, bunt, put up lobs. They swing from the heels, go for the fences.
   It was no one's fault, but they hired a coach who came off a team that had John Elway and a bunch of mirrors. He played the close-to-the-vest game of a guy trying to win with a small pair. The Raiders never played "I'll see you" poker, they played "Your 10 and 10 more." The Raiders went long.
   Still, hardly anyone could have predicted the dramatic turnaround the team underwent with a simple coaching change. It was as if the Seventh Cavalry had just ridden onto the scene. The Raiders play in-your-face football. The old Shell game.
   The managing general partner knew Art Shell understood this better than anybody on his staff. Art Shell grew up in the Raider tradition, Al Davis reminds you. "He represents three decades of Raider football history," Davis says proudly. "He knows how we do it."
   The Raider way has always been to get a head coach out of the ranks, bring him along, scour the lists for the best football players available regardless of whether you have to get them out of a doghouse, a nuthouse — or the Kansas City outfield. It is a formula that has worked with John Rauch, John Madden and Tom Flores — to say nothing of Al Davis himself.
   When Al Davis departed from custom and hired Mike Shanahan from Denver and a reporter wanted to know if he didn't expect flak from the minority community, the question appeared to irritate the owner. "The Raiders have never been interested in a man's color, only his ability," he shot back.
   It became immediately clear Shanahan's trouble was not pigmentation, it was implementation. His goal was mistake-free football. But the Raiders make lots of mistakes. They also make a lot of touchdowns. "I hired the fellow to bring some fresh implementation, some new ideas — to add to what we were doing, but not to change what we were doing. But we got total change," Davis said.
   With Art Shell, he got total return. "My idea is to win," Davis said. "But very few organizations have a tradition and an identity that the Raiders have. We were losing it. Image is not always substance, but the history of man is that a return to time-woven traditions and methods of doing things is best for the community in the long run. Usually, what worked will work."
   For the Raiders, the Shell game has worked. Where they have lost, they looked good losing. They looked better winning.
   The trick of leadership is to project confidence, unflappability. The man on horseback has to look in control. Panic is contagious. Coach Shell is the least panic-stricken looking individual in the game. He does not pace the sidelines. He does not grimace at mistakes, wave his arms over triumphs. The players love him. He tells them war stories of the days, so to speak, when the Raiders were in the halls of Montezuma and on the shores of Tripoli, of Super Bowls, Steeler games, the glory days.
   His is a battlefield commission. He has been in these trenches for the Raiders, as player and coach, for 22 years.
   The first duty of a coach (or a general) is to make his forces live up to, or play up to, its traditions. Some leaders do this with tantrums, abuse, histrionics, pearl-handled revolvers, white horses. Art Shell does it by just standing there and expecting every man to do it the way he did it — the way Raiders always do.

Reprintedwith permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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