Al's act is back in silver and black

Posted: Monday, January 20, 2003

Bellbottoms are back. So, too, is Al Davis. Appar-ently without bothering to change his clothes.

Nineteen years after the NFL's dark star last cast his outsized shadow across the league's biggest stage, his Raiders are going to the Super Bowl again.

And in a twist so devilish that Davis must be tempted to take credit, the coach he auctioned off to Tampa Bay a year ago, Jon Gruden, will be there to meet him.

Davis didn't show up on the podium after the game to collect the AFC Championship trophy his team won by pounding the Tennessee Titans 41-24 on Sunday.

The closest the 73-year-old, sometimes-reclusive owner got to the field, in fact, was a brief clip at the end of an NFL Films video that ran on the jumbo TVs at the stadium at the end of the halftime show.

In it, Davis was wearing one of his two trademark sweat suits -- the all-white one -- and uttering the line that entered the lexicon of sports: ''Just win, baby!''

And for the first time in a long time, the Raiders did when it really mattered.

Some people argued that the game, like fashion, had already passed Davis by. And watching him walk through the locker room afterward, surrounded by bodyguards and wearing his other sweat suit -- the black satin model -- it was hard to argue otherwise.

Davis shook hands with a few players and well-wishers, and at one point, he said to no one in particular, ''I'm a long way from Brooklyn.''

But if he chose to remember his childhood at the moment, what everybody else focused on was the franchise Davis brought into existence as part of the now-defunct AFL more than 40 years ago and later turned loose on an unsuspecting old-guard NFL.

This latest collection of Raiders is loaded with castoffs and old-timers, just like vintage teams, but the roster is hardly Davis' biggest risk this time around.

That would be letting Gruden go to Tampa just weeks after the coach took Oakland to the AFC Championship game.

Yet, just as the Bucs' victory earlier Sunday validated the ransom the Glazer family paid Davis for Gruden -- four draft picks and a cool $8 million -- Raiders rookie head coach Bill Callahan made his eccentric owner look like a genius once more.

''Jon Gruden is a great coach,'' defensive end Regan Upshaw said, ''but Al Davis built this team.''

Gruden didn't dispute either point.

''I've got a lot of respect for where I come from,'' he said after the Bucs beat the Eagles 27-10 in the NFC Championship game. ''I do have some close relationships with some of those players.''

There's a reason, of course, that Gruden said ''some of those players.''

Right tackle Lincoln Kennedy was clearly speaking for more than a few teammates when he earlier labeled his former coach ''a little man who wanted to be a big man and wanted to rule the world. He had kind of a Napoleonic complex.''

Afterward, Kennedy wasn't interested in making up.

''I'm not concerned with Gruden. I'm really not concerned with him,'' he said.

But it wasn't just Kennedy, or just the offensive line, who considered the laid-back Callahan a welcome change from Gruden's very public, very intense ''Chucky'' sideline act.

Callahan never sought the spotlight, even as the Raiders continued to gather momentum.

Part of it was upbringing -- he's the son of a vice-squad cop from Chicago's tough South Side -- and part of it was probably occupational. Callahan had been Gruden's offensive line coach and coordinator the last four years.

No matter how set he seems in some of his ways, credit Davis with figuring out that his team would respond just as well to Callahan's quiet direction as Gruden's white-hot touch.

Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Rich Gannon, who pulled the strings on Callahan's souped-up offense, is 37. His principal targets, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, are 40 and 36. Bill Romanowski, the linebacker who came over from Denver with a bad attitude and a suitcase filled with vitamins, is 36. Rod Woodson, the safety who came from Baltimore after being told -- not for the first time -- he was too old, is 37.

Asked earlier this week where the whole bunch of them would have been without Davis, Woodson had a ready answer.

''Retired,'' he said.

But none of them will have to face the question for at least one more week.

''I've been looking at this game for 14 years and watching other people go,'' Brown said. ''Now, I'm finally on my way.''

To a Super Bowl, that for once, won't be starving for plot lines.

''I told the NFL to move this back a week'' Brown said, ''and pump this up.''

It won't be hard.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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