OAKLAND, Calif. — Al Davis was remembered Saturday as the AFL commissioner who helped lead the merger with the NFL that changed professional football forever.
He was praised as the trendsetting owner of the Oakland Raiders, who broke racial and gender barriers while winning three Super Bowl titles and preaching his mantra of "Just win, baby!"
Davis died at age 82, still called "Coach" by many of those around him. Coach Hue Jackson always used that respected title whenever he talked about Davis, saying there was no other owner in the NFL who could talk the intricacies of the game as well as "Coach Davis."
Davis died Saturday at his home in Oakland, while his beloved team was in Houston preparing to play the Texans. That Davis was not with his team was telling as he is believed to have missed only three games since joining the team as coach in 1963.
He did not appear at a single training camp practice this summer and missed a game in Buffalo last month.
"As he became older, he developed some health problems, and he just couldn't be out there each and every practice, like he used to be. That's too bad. But we all age, and things change," said Jim Plunkett, who won two Super Bowl titles after Davis revived his career by bringing him to Oakland. "But he never lost his love and his fire for the game. Just sitting in the box with him, even though he couldn't speak loudly, this year, he'd get his point across, telling everyone that they shouldn't have done this or they should've done that. He wasn't yelling anymore. But he was still into it."
Davis did attend Oakland's home game last week against New England, and Plunkett said he had a smile on his face when the Raiders led early. Oakland lost that game 31-19 to fall to 2-2, but this year's edition of the Raiders appears to be the best the team has had since losing the Super Bowl following the 2002 season.
"I sit in his box for every home game," Plunkett said. "I've gleaned so much from him. He talks about philosophies and how the game has changed, what each individual player means to a team, what they can do. An offense will huddle and come up to the line of scrimmage and right away, he can tell you what the next play is probably going to be, because he studies film so much. It was a joy being in that box. I learned so much from him, even after football."
Elected in 1992 to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Davis also was a trailblazer. He hired the first black head coach of the modern era – Art Shell in 1988. He hired the first Latino coach, Tom Flores; and the first woman CEO, Amy Trask.
"During this indescribably difficult time, let us all reflect upon what it means to be a Raider – let us all reflect upon how privileged we are to be Raiders – and let us all be Raiders," Trask wrote in an email to team employees on Saturday.
Davis was infallibly loyal to his players and officials: to be a Raider was to be a Raider for life.
"Forty eight years ago, I met Al, and every once in a while in your life, someone comes along that changes the direction of your life," Flores said. "He did that to me and changed the direction with his passion for the Raiders and professional football. He was a dear man, my mentor and most of all, my friend. I will miss him."
For decades, his team was one of the most successful in the game, living up to his trademark philosophy of "Just Win Baby." Since going to the Super Bowl following the 2002 season, the Raiders have not had a winning record.
Jackson told the team of Davis' death at a meeting Saturday morning before a walkthrough and the players immediately reacted by calling Davis a "legend" and the greatest owner in history.
"He's one of the greatest sports icons ever," Raiders cornerback Stanford Routt said. "He will be greatly missed. He believed in me, he lived for us, now we have to play for him."
Even those who feuded with Davis remembered his positives. Marcus Allen was the most valuable player in the Raiders' last Super Bowl win in 1984. But he later was ordered to be benched for two seasons by Davis and ultimately released after the 1992 season for reasons never made clear. Davis' only comment: "He was a cancer on the team."
"It's a sad day," Allen said. "When you look at the landscape of the National Football League and what Al Davis did, it's immense.
It's no secret that we didn't see eye-to-eye at times, but I've always been grateful for the opportunity that he gave me, and I'll always remember that."
New England coach Bill Belichick recalled last week his interview with Davis for the head coaching job after the 1998 season. He called it the most unique interview he ever had with an owner because of how much of time was spent on strategy and scheme that only a coach could really grasp.
"They have their style of play, they have their way of doing things," Belichick said. "As much as you can say this is a copycat league and things like that, you can't really say that about them because they've done the same thing now for decades defensively and to a certain extent, offensively."
Davis was known for taking care of his former players, and Clem Daniels called him a "father figure." Raiders assistant Willie Brown, whom Davis acquired in a trade from Denver, said becoming a Raider was the best thing that ever happened to him.
"I've enjoyed every year of being here with him, and it's a loss not only to the Raider organization, but to all of America," Brown said. "People love the Raiders, and every time they think of the Raiders, they think of Mr. Davis. He was a great leader on and off the field, and he took care of a lot of people in his lifetime. He helped guys off the field, not only guys that played for him but also guys that played for other teams. It's a sad day in the Raider Nation, but we must go on."
Fans dressed in Raiders jerseys quickly made their way to team headquarters in Alameda, where a black flag with the team logo flew at half-staff and a makeshift memorial formed at the base of the flag pole. There was a tombstone on the Raiders' website for Davis.
The memorial included a framed photo of a younger Davis. A simple cardboard sign read: Thank you Al Davis. 1929-2011, God Bless, Rest in Peace.
AP Sports Writers Chris Duncan, Janie McCauley, Stephen Hawkins and AP freelance Michael Wagaman contributed to this report.