I went to a Warriors game last Thursday and wound up getting a lesson on the Raiders. That’s because Mark Davis, the team owner, and Jon Gruden, the second most popular coach in franchise history (after John Madden), were sitting courtside at Oracle Arena for the Dubs’ game against San Antonio.
The duo got there nice and early and plunked themselves down in seats opposite the Spurs’ bench. I’d like to think Gruden spent the evening studying Gregg Popovich’s interactions and taking mental notes. Davis and Gruden stayed for the whole game. A few people dropped by for salutations, but mostly they were left unbothered.
At some point in the game, a TV camera found Gruden and beamed him onto the big video board that hangs above midcourt. He was getting a “Warriors Welcome,” and he pursed his lips — oh, let’s be honest, he pursed his entire face — and pumped his right arm. The crowd cheered as if Draymond Green had just blocked a shot and flexed.
A little later, the Warriors posted the video in their official Twitter feed.
Something was missing from the moment, though: Mark Davis. The boss was excluded from the group hug. The cameraperson had cropped Davis from the frame; only a sliver of his peach-colored shirt made the video board or the Twitter timeline. Davis smiled away. He didn’t seem to care.
This small gesture helps to explain how the Raiders were able to get Gruden back into the fold — and why, despite last year’s regression, the team’s prospects are markedly better than they were under Mark’s father, Al Davis.
There wasn’t just one reason for Gruden’s departure from Oakland in 2002. Al Davis was never 100-percent comfortable with the coach’s devotion to the West Coast Offense. The Raiders, while winning consecutive AFC West titles, had fallen short of the Super Bowl in both 2000 and 2001. And there were serious contract issues.
But a big factor, maybe the biggest of all, was the threat Davis felt from Gruden’s popularity in Oakland.
Two longtime Raiders scouts, Bruce Kebric and Jon Kingdon, have written a book with Steve Corkran, who covered the Raiders for 14 years as a beat reporter. It’s called “Al Davis: Behind the Raiders Shield,” and it landed in bookstores this winter. It’s sort of an unplugged look at how things worked inside Raiders headquarters under Al Davis, and it’s highly entertaining.
Reflecting on the Davis-Gruden rift in “Behind the Raiders Shield,” Kebric had this to say: “Al had problems with all the attention that was being bestowed upon Jon. When you drove on the Nimitz Freeway, there was Jon Gruden pictured on the billboards. You had the catchy ‘Chucky’ moniker and signs like ‘I love you, Jon’ and ‘Marry me, Jon’ in the stands at our games.”
The Raiders weren’t just Davis’ business. They were part of his respiratory system. He had molded the team in his image, had defended its interests against the powers of the NFL, had built it into a global brand. He’d be damned if some young coach became the “face of the franchise.”
And so Gruden had to go. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to walk you through the details of what came next. Gruden’s new team (the Buccaneers) humiliated his old team in the Super Bowl a year later, plunging the Raiders into the Dark Ages of their history. They didn’t really recover until Jack Del Rio built a playoff team in 2016.