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May 23, 2018

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Gruden hire makes it clear: Raiders’ Davis is a mover, shaker

Image

Ben Margot / AP

In this Jan. 14, 2001, file photo, then-Oakland Raiders’ coach Jon Gruden is shown during a press conference at Raiders headquarters in Alameda, Calif.

ALAMEDA, Calif. — Jon Gruden will be the center of attention Tuesday when he is introduced as the Raiders head coach.

Yet the day is as much about owner Mark Davis as it is about Gruden.

Like it or not, Davis has altered the NFL landscape twice within the last nine months.

It's a tossup as to which Davis move is more bold — getting approval to move his franchise to Las Vegas in late March or luring Gruden back into the organization 16 years after he was traded, with the last nine in the broadcast booth.

Either way, it might be time to stop underestimating Mark Davis.

You may believe the concepts of Vegas and Gruden will lead to the Raiders doom. Yet there's no denying Davis has dramatically altered any expectations of him as a mover (Vegas) and a shaker (Gruden).

It's been more than six years since Al Davis died at age 82, with Mark ascending to managing general partner. Not much was known about Mark Davis. To this day, the Raiders media guide has only a photo of the owner with no biography.

We know he's either 62 or 63 years old, even the Raiders media relations department doesn't know for sure. We know he'd been around the franchise for years, without specific duties ever being spelled out. You could find him courtside at Warriors games with close friend and Raiders legend Cliff Branch.

Al Davis rarely talked about Mark publicly, although he did openly wonder about his son's relationships with players. Mark, Al reasoned, would have difficulty parting with players with to whom he had become close.

Being the son of the Raiders icon and patriarch had its challenges. Warm and fuzzy have never been adjectives of the Al Davis experience.

As Mark became more involved with the franchise, he would occasionally be subjected to withering looks and sharp criticism from his father in the presence of others. If there was any solace, it's that Al Davis treated a lot of people that way, particularly in his later years.

Once Mark was in charge, seldom has any owner looked more out of place or overmatched. He dined for lunch most days at PF Chang's, wearing a white no-collar shirt and reading from his stack of newspapers. He said with pride his mother read several newspapers per day. He'd go to Hooter's for wings and fly on Southwest Airlines.

The public fixated on his bowl haircut, which Davis accepted in good humor.

How was this guy going to rub elbows with NFL power brokers such as Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones?

Two years ago, fellow owners put Davis in his place when they voted for Stan Kroenke's plan for a Los Angeles stadium over a Chargers-Raiders proposal for Carson. The Raiders were relegated to third string, with the Chargers getting first option at joining the Rams in Los Angeles.

Davis' first extended press conference was the announcement of his first big decision — hiring Reggie McKenzie as general manager in 2012. Davis said he had no intention of trying to be his father and conceded "I know what I don't know."

Since then, and especially since the Los Angeles market was lost and a deal with Oakland never materialized, Davis now conducts business as if believes he knows a lot.

Once Las Vegas delivered on the promise of $750 million in public money, Davis and the Raiders managed to close the deal after Sands Corporation CEO Sheldon Adelson dropped out.

The immediate storyline was that Adelson's exit would doom the stadium project. Instead, Bank of America stepped in, and in the end it looked as if Davis had played Adelson instead of the other way around.

Rather than go rogue, as his father had during the Raiders' initial move to Los Angeles, Davis played by ownership's rules. He took home games outside the country when asked, and presented a Vegas deal that would make money for his fellow owners.

All but one owner voted for it.

With that as a backdrop, the Raiders went from 12-4 to 6-10 under Jack Del Rio — the man Davis hand-picked to be his head coach.

So Davis seized upon the opportunity to bring back Gruden, for whom he had long hoped would return to the organization after being traded by Al Davis to Tampa Bay in February of 2003.

Del Rio, with three years remaining on his contract worth $15 million, never saw it coming. The firing was messy and difficult, with Davis doing the deed as the Raiders left the field after losing 30-10 to the Chargers in the season finale.

Del Rio, a man Davis likes and admires, ended up announcing his own firing and then everyone had to endure a tension-filled charter flight home. Davis stayed out of sight. If all goes as planned, he won't fire another coach for a decade.

It was no accident that Gruden never publicly confirmed he was the Raiders coach during his final telecast ESPN Saturday, or even after the Raiders made it official that evening in the form of a press release.

Gruden, as he explained in a text message late Saturday night, was going to let his "boss" make that announcement in his own words.

The boss will be front and center Tuesday, welcoming back Gruden with a contract reported to be for 10 years and $100 million. Initial reports are often inflated, both in terms of years and actual dollars, but it's clear Gruden hit the lottery.

It's a deal Al Davis, with a long history of valuing players over coaches, would have never considered.

And just like Vegas, it's a deal Mark Davis gone done.

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