Let it be known that Saturday, October 8, 2011, was an odd, dissatisfying day for Syracuse. Early in the afternoon we learned that Orange maverick Al Davis had passed, later that night we watched SU football squeak by a pitiful Tulane squad. A legend had left us, while the Orange had left us a terrible taste in our mouths.
The bizarre part about Davis was not that he had died, he was 82 years old and in failing health over the last few years. It was how few members of Orange Nation had realized he was a Syracuse grad. There were texts and tweets flowing yesterday, many with the same tune. “Al Davis was an SU guy? Who knew?”
Heck, even the SU Athletic Department couldn’t correctly nail down his legacy, announcing, “Syracuse University graduate and legendary Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis (’60) died on Saturday morning at his home.” By 1960, Davis was 31 years old and an assistant coach in the AFL. He was actually SU class of ’50.
But then again, this is par for the course. While SU has always touted Jim Brown and Larry Csonka, Floyd Little, Ernie Davis and John Mackey, it always seemed the university distanced itself from Al. It’s somewhat understandable, since Davis relished his role as a rogue, and quarreled with the NFL throughout his career. He wasn’t a cuddly former athlete with old sepia-tone pictures or grainy footage. In fact, there’s barely evidence Davis was on the Hill at all.
The official release yesterday at SUAthletics.com includes a picture of Al in his Raiders gear. The football media guide has pictures of the Orange NFL Hall of Famers as students… except Al. His photo is, again, from his NFL days. I student interned in the communications office. There is a historic reserve of SU-related photos, newspaper clippings and footage. But there seems to be no graduation picture of Al, even a moment of him returning to campus as an NFL icon. (The photo above is from his early years with the Raiders.) The best we have from Davis’ student days is an anecdote about attending practices and tracking every play the football team ran.
SU’s Varsity Club did award Davis an “Honorary Letterman of Distinction” in 1985 (which was after 25 years in the AFL/NFL and three Super Bowl titles). But even that’s shrouded in mystery. A 1991 New York Times piece mentions Al in the team photo of the ’48-’49 basketball team, even though he never played on it. When you walk the football offices, there’s barely mention of him. There is no sign of him inside the Carrier Dome. The discussion of SU football legends often ignores him.
Darryl Gross, always looking to market bricks of SU lore, said in his statement, “We will memorialize his legacy, as he will never be forgotten in the Syracuse community.” Sounds like a banner or mural is coming Al’s way finally. Which is long overdue, because for all his flaws, Davis was the coolest of pioneers.
Not only did he build a three-time champion, brand the Raiders with phrases like “A commitment to excellence” and “Just win, baby,” but he changed the game for the better. His track record of minority hirings is unmatched, and he helped popularize drafting talent from historically black colleges (something most of the AFL did back then to close the talent gap). Yes, he definitely sparred with the league offices (primarily Pete Rozelle) and made things a legal quagmire for the NFL. But hopefully SU starts embracing him, even if it’s posthumously.
For all the slings and arrows we take as Syracuse football fans (you should have seen the looks I got last night when I asked for the SU-Tulane game inside a Boston sports bar), there’s an incredibly rich history from the 1950s and 60s. Canton claims seven Orangemen, six from the same era – Brown, Mackey, Csonka, Little, Jim Ringo… and Al Davis. There’s a Heisman and 1959 National Championship in that timeframe as well.
Granted, when Al was on the Hill, he wasn’t suiting up for the Orange. He only played JV sports at SU and also attended Wittenberg College. So when he was on campus, he was like most of us – a snot-nosed student, trying to carve out a career in between trips to the bookstore and food on Marshall Street. But it’s time for Syracuse University to honor one of the greatest, most bad-ass football renegades that ever lived. Al Davis – proud Syracuse alum.