Last in his class: RSJ alum remembers Raiders owner
George Ross, one of the School of Journalism's most distinguished graduates, was one of the closest journalists to the late Oakland Raiders owner, Al Davis.
Two years ago, at about this same time of year when the aspens trade their green for gold and the landscape of Plumas County takes on the crisp, vivid feel of fall, we sat for two long visits with George Ross at his home in Graeagle, Calif.
The first conversation was about an hour and a half. It wasn't nearly long enough to fill in all the pertinent details of Ross' life.
So a second conversation was scheduled. It was even longer, close to two hours. That one, too, felt like it ended all too quickly.
Ross was 92 years old then. The 1946 graduate of the University of Nevada had suffered a stroke not long before we sat down to discuss his long and accomplished career in journalism, which had included a distinguished stint as sports editor and managing editor of the Oakland Tribune.
His stroke hadn't robbed him of anything important, however.
He smiled mischievously and laughed often. When he walked, there was a tender, carefully plotted patience to his movements. He refused to use a nearby walker, and instead relied on his own power, which came in spurts, like the mid-afternoon breeze you could see gently swaying the limbs of the tall pines in his backyard.
His forehead would wrinkle, the wrinkles seeming to go as deep as wood carvings, as he went deep in thought, long into memory, and recalled the many Bay Area players, coaches and owners he had covered during the 1960s and 1970s.
Of all the colorful cast he had interviewed during those years, seeking "good stuff," as Ross described his reportage and his uncanny knack to get otherwise difficult or enigmatic personalities to open up, one stood out among all the others.
Al Davis, the one-of-a-kind owner of the Oakland Raiders, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 82.
Ross met Davis nearly a half-century ago, when Davis was 33 and interviewing for the head coaching job of the Raiders.
Ross never forgot that first meeting.
Davis made for a dashing figure, his dark hair combed back in careful, consciously styled waves. If it was possible, Ross thought, Davis had a way of talking and listening at the same time. Davis had the gift of making whatever he heard sound important - and of making whatever he said in response sound doubly important.
"Al was a very impressive young man," Ross recalled, with a smile. "He was good looking. He had been called a genius in one of the major football publications ... he made sure I knew that."
From the very beginning, Ross knew that Davis would be a good hire by the Raiders, who were then one of the laughingstocks of the fledgling American Football League (AFL).
"They were awful," Ross remembered. "They played their first two seasons in San Francisco. The third year, they played their games at Frank Youell Field. Frank Youell was an undertaker, and it looked like he had built the stadium. It had bleacher seats on two sides for about 17,000 fans. It was pretty primitive."
"But the public fell in love with the Raiders," Ross added. "All they needed was a good coach and an owner who knew what he was doing. With Al Davis, they got both."
Davis, an assistant to the legendary offensive guru Sid Gillman with the Los Angeles (and soon-to-be San Diego) Chargers, had an immediate impact.
"He came in as head coach and general manager at 33 years old and instantly set up a new office and hired new (assistant) coaches," Ross said.
Davis' attention to detail was a marvel for Ross to behold.
"I remember going to the practice field where Al was telling his assistants how to tell the linemen how to position their feet for better pass protection," Ross said. "He knew what he was doing."
The Raiders had won only nine games in their first three seasons of existence. In Davis' first year as head coach, in 1963, they finished 10-4. By 1967, the the Raiders were AFL champions, and went to Super Bowl II.
Davis sought the best athletes first and found the proper positions for them later.
Ross lunched regularly with Davis, and the young coach and general manager would explain the philosophy behind such seemingly strange moves as converting the Southeastern Conference star running back Billy Cannon into a tight end, or, why he acquired a career backup like Daryle Lamonica from the Buffalo Bills to be his starting quarterback.
The Raiders would be all about a power running game (with a premium on great blocking, hence Davis' terse instructions for Cannon to put on 15 pounds while learning a new position) and what Davis termed the "vertical" big-yardage passing game (Lamonica's arm was so strong and his throws often so long he was dubbed "The Mad Bomber" by ABC Sports commentator Howard Cosell).
Davis viewed the rivalry between the upstart, wide-open, pass-happy, multi-chromatic AFL and the corporate, stodgy, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-monochromatic-Packers-or-Giants NFL as the equivalent of class warfare.
"He was from a school of thought that was way ahead of anybody other than the man he learned a lot from, Sid Gillman," Ross said. "He told me, 'If I can get a team that can move the ball to the opponents' 40-yard line early in the game, they'd better defend that end zone the next three plays as I'm apt to call three passes into the end zone just to get their defense to react ... that should scare the heck out of their defensive backs the next time we get the ball.' He always said his theory was to play offense from the start. He thought too many coaches in the NFL were defensive thinkers, and that too many of their owners were attorneys and businessmen.
"He looked upon it as a great clash of philosophy. This was his life. He believed that if the two leagues merged, the NFL would have to change its opinion on how it played the game. He was right about that. The AFL-NFL merger changed everything.
"Al Davis was right about everything he said."
Davis was so right that the Raiders enjoyed a level of success that few professional football organizations have ever approached. From Davis' first season as coach in 1963 through 1986, the Raiders suffered only two losing seasons. Davis' ownership guided the Raiders to three Super Bowl victories.
In recent years, however, the swashbuckling young man who reminded many of James Dean had been reduced to using a walker. He was frail-looking, the hair no longer as majestic as a cresting wave. His public appearances were increasingly scarce. The Raiders' last winning season was in 2002.
Ross had experienced the Davis cold shoulder as well. The two hadn't spoken since the late 1970s.
There had been talk of making amends two years ago.
Scotty Sterling, a former sportswriter under Ross who went on to become general manager of the Raiders, was one of the people who worked to bring the two men together.
Both men were probably too proud to make the first move themselves.
Both were sticklers for the immaculacy of detail - Ross so much so that years before it was in vogue, he would always use a tape recorder for every interview, "because you always want to get complete accuracy."
Both knew the value of opportunity and diversity long before they became common workplace phrases. Davis drafted players from historically all-black schools like Maryland State (now Maryland Eastern Shore). He hired the NFL's first black head coach in more than 65 years (one of his former lineman, Art Shell), as well as the league's first Latin head coach (one of his former quarterbacks, Tom Flores, who won two Super Bowls), and made Amy Trask, a woman, his team's CEO.
Ross was the same way. At the Oakland Tribune, Ross hired people like the late Ralph Wiley, an African-American who was one of the finest sportswriters of his generation.
Wiley, in remembering his old boss, recalled how Ross, an avid California history buff, had told him the story of James Beckwourth, the African-American frontiersman from the 19th century who helped open the Golden State to popular settlement. To get to Ross' home in Plumas County, in fact, you have to crest Beckwourth Pass on California Highway 70. Ross would often encourage Wiley, a trailblazer himself in newsrooms and the Manhattan offices of his later employer, Sports Illustrated, by exclaiming to the young writer, "You're Jim Beckwourth!"
"George Ross helped give me what one needs to progress," Wiley once wrote. "Often, that is perspective."
Two years ago, as Ross remembered Al Davis, it was clear that Ross' entire life had been one of proper perspective. Ross is 94 today, and is still finding ways to influence those around him through his stories, and just as importantly, his actions.
In late August, the Reynolds School of Journalism's website featured a story on Ross, who has established the George S. Ross Scholarship Endowment to benefit journalism students.
Even as the seasons have changed, even as the years have rolled by all too quickly, it is obvious that Ross will never forget his time covering Davis.
It was a time to sit at lunch, to listen, to learn from a man who could baffle with his dynamic personality one moment and then turn distant and the next.
Yet, Ross never took offense. He understood better than most why this was so.
Al Davis, more than anything else, was a visionary. His Holy Grail-like mission required an all-consuming intensity to irrevocably alter how football was played - and just as importantly, perceived - in America.
Ross never took offense because that was the whole point with Al Davis. In Al Davis' world, you were always on the offensive.
"Al Davis told me once that the game of football should not be played defensively," Ross said. "You should not set your theories on playing safe.
"Put the ball in the air. Get it down the field. Use the speed you've got."