Raiders: An excerpt from Steve Corkran’s book on the team’s late owner, Al Davis.
On December 21, 1997, scout Jon Kingdon sat in his car at the Oakland Coliseum on the morning of the Raiders’ regularseason finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Kingdon watched as the fans streamed past. He knew what was about to happen. He knew that the Jaguars were going to beat the Raiders. It was just a matter of how badly.
“I had to force myself to get out of the car,” Kingdon said. “I didn’t want to go inside. I was embarrassed at the product that was being put out to this very loyal fan base, all dressed in silver-and-black gear.”
Kingdon finally summoned the energy to get out of his car, trudging into the stadium to stomach yet another loss.
The Jaguars jumped to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and cruised to a 20-9 victory as they finished 11-5 and the Raiders concluded a 4-12 campaign, the worst in the Al Davis Era up to that point.
The next day, Davis called Kingdon.
“What do you think?” Davis asked.
Kingdon replied: “Do you really want to know?” Davis said “yes.”
“This may have been the first time where I went into a game knowing that there was no chance we would win the game,” said Kingdon, who began working for the Raiders in 1978. “The whole season has been a disaster. I’ve seen the players quit and there were coaches on the staff that have long since quit. I’ve never been more embarrassed to be associated with this team. These fans deserve a lot better than what we’ve been giving them. It’s not worth the effort if this is the product we’re putting out.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Davis said. “I’m going to turn this thing around.”
Davis had to do something drastic. All the momentum the Raiders had built upon their return to Oakland in 1995 had dissipated. The players had turned on the coaches, many fans stopped going to the games and whispers about the game having passed Davis by reverberated.
“Al realized that it was essential to make the right decision in choosing his next head coach,” Kingdon said. “He knew his legacy was at stake.”
Davis interviewed Jon Gruden, Bill Belichick and Jim Haslett after he fired Joe Bugel. … Ultimately, it came down to Belichick and Gruden. … This time, Davis offered Gruden the job, and Gruden jumped at the opportunity rather than wait for a better one that might not come.
Gruden had been told what to expect long before he arrived in Oakland, and he had a plan in place. After the team’s first practice, Kingdon and Gruden crossed paths and Kingdon remembered a conversation between the pair: “I told him how much I really enjoyed watching the practice, how much different it was from the prior seasons and how he wasn’t putting up with any of the little mistakes.”
Gruden stopped in his tracks, looked at Kingdon, and, in a gruff, gravelly voice, said: “Jonnn (drawing out Kingdon’s name), I’m going to make the players hate my f— guts.”
Kingdon and others didn’t have to wait long to see what Gruden had in mind.
During Gruden’s first minicamp
— a time when coaches get a chance to assemble most, if not all, of the players on the roster for practices over a three-day period — veteran cornerback Larry Brown marched into Gruden’s office after one practice.
Brown had joined the Raiders in 1996 — parlaying a two-interception, Most Valuable Player performance in that year’s Super Bowl, as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, into a five-year, $12.5 million contract with the Raiders.
That made Brown one of the highest-paid defensive backs in the league. It did not make him immune from Gruden’s master plan.
Brown played in 12 games his first two seasons with the Raiders, and he performed at a level not commensurate with his lavish contract.
Yet, he still felt emboldened, be it as a result of his shining moment in the Super Bowl, his contract or the fact Gruden was new to the job.
On this day, Brown entered Gruden’s office and launched into a tirade. He informed Gruden that he wasn’t pleased with the way his predecessors, Joe Bugel and Mike White, treated him and instructed Gruden, in no uncertain terms, about how he wanted to be used from that point.
Gruden stoically listened as Brown ranted. Once Brown finished, Gruden calmly called Mark Arteaga, his assistant, into his office.
“Mark, would you please buy him a ticket and send his ass back to Dallas,” Gruden said to Arteaga.
Just like that, Gruden jettisoned Brown from the roster. It wasn’t until that afternoon’s practice that the players learned of Brown’s absence.
Roster moves were the domain of Davis. Gruden had cut Brown without consulting his boss.
Later that day, scout Bruce Kebric saw Gruden in the coaches’ locker room.
“Jon, this is the best move that you could make because the players don’t care for Brown,” Kebric said. “They know he’s around here only for one reason. He’s one of Al’s scholarship guys. You have a contract, right?” “Yeah,” Gruden said. “This will be the first big move that you make in this organization,” Kebric said in an attempt to reassure Gruden.
Davis was upset but there was nothing he could do. Veteran players such as wide receiver Tim Brown quickly warmed to Gruden as well.
“They jumped on Jon’s side because they thought, ‘Hey, he’s not going to put up with keeping all of Al’s scholarship guys,’ ” Kebric said. …
That Gruden survived getting rid of Brown showed not only that there was a new sheriff in town but that Davis would give Gruden some latitude. Just the same, Davis had been adding assistant coaches to the Raiders staff. This did not deter Gruden, who had a plan in place when he arrived in Oakland.
Raiders owner Al Davis knew it was time for a major overhaul after a disastrous 1997 regular-season showing.