Raiders Name Shell Coach

Posted: October 04, 1989

There had not been a black NFL head coach during his lifetime, but that did not deter Art Shell from aspiring to a place in history.

In 1974, the seventh of his 15 seasons as a standout offensive tackle for the then-Oakland Raiders, Shell told Al Davis, the team's managing general partner, of his desire to someday be a head coach in the NFL.

"Al said, 'OK, you go ahead and finish your playing career, and when the time comes for you to retire, we'll sit down and talk about it,' " Shell recalled last August when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

"You have to let people know you're interested, but it meant a lot to me that Al didn't give me a song and dance about blacks not having a future in the league as a head coach."

Nearly 15 years have passed since that meeting. Shell, now 42, brought up the subject of coaching with Davis again when he retired as a player after the 1982 season. Davis promptly hired him to coach the Raiders' offensive line.

Yesterday, when Davis named him to replace Mike Shanahan as field leader of the Los Angeles Raiders, Shell became the first black head coach in the NFL since Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard Jr. concluded a three-year stint as player-coach of the now-defunct Hammond (Ind.) Pros in 1925.

Shell inherits a team that is 1-3 and has not had a winning season since it

went 12-4 in 1985, the year after the Raiders' third Super Bowl championship.

"It is an historic event," Shell said at a press conference in El Segundo, Calif., to announce his promotion. "I understand the significance of it. I'm proud of it, but I'm also a Raider. I don't believe the color of my skin entered into this decision. I was chosen because (Davis) felt I was the right person at this time."

While Davis downplayed the fact that Shell is the NFL's first black head coach in 64 years - "It will only really be meaningful and historic if he is a great success," Davis said - others lauded Shell's hiring as a major advance for blacks in management areas of professional sports. Since Pollard left the then-fledgling NFL, there have been 18 black head coaches in the NBA and four black managers in major league baseball.

"It's a giant step forward," said former Miami Dolphins guard Larry Little, now the head football coach at predominantly black Bethune-Cookman (Fla.) College. "It's great for every black coach in America, because blacks have done well in every other sport they've had a chance. Look at (Baltimore Orioles manager) Frank Robinson.

"There will be a lot of eyes on Art. But a lot of people will be pulling for him. I don't think it will be as tough for him as a lot of people think."

Gene Upshaw, who played alongside Shell during the Raiders' glory years and is now executive director of the NFL Players Association, was equally enthusiastic.

"I played next to Art for 15 years, and he was always a student of the game and wanted to be a head coach," Upshaw said in a statement released through his office in Washington.

"He has the qualifications any former player would need to succeed in coaching, but until today, a head coaching job in the NFL was out of reach. However, I always felt that Al Davis would hire the first black head coach in (modern) NFL history."

Harry Edwards, professor of sociology at the University of California and a consultant to the San Francisco 49ers as well as to major league baseball, said he was "elated" about Shell's hiring.

"I've always felt there were two organizations in the NFL whose owners might make this move, and Al Davis's organization was one of them," Edwards said. "(Davis) is open and interested in only football games, irrespective of sustaining some system like an 'old boy network.' I'm not surprised he was the first to do it.

"In Art Shell, he got a very good candidate as coach. I've known Art for a long time, since he was playing in Oakland. He has great integrity and football knowledge. As a player, he never said a lot, but when he did, everybody listened."

Shell brings an impressive resume to his new job. He was the Raiders' third-round draft choice in 1968 out of Maryland State (now Maryland-Eastern Shore), and in a brilliant NFL career, he played in 207 games (third-highest total in Raiders history), eight Pro Bowls and on two Super Bowl championship teams.

Shell also distinguished himself as an offensive line coach, although he acknowledges his transition from player to coach was not easily made.

"When I first became a coach, I still thought of myself as a player and I hung out with them," Shell said. "Every so often, Al would say, 'Art, you're not a player anymore, you're a coach. You've got to coach 'em, not fraternize with 'em.' I had to understand that difference before I could become a good coach."

As Shell adapted to his role as an assistant coach, Davis's respect for him also grew.

"This guy, I've known him since he was a kid," Davis said of Shell. "He knows me and I know him. I've watched this guy with all our young players through the years. I've watched him with our older players. He can communicate with people, he can inspire people to be great."

Shanahan, who, at 37 was the NFL's youngest coach, had been at odds with Davis almost from the time the former Denver Broncos assistant was hired to replace the retiring Tom Flores on Feb. 29, 1988.

As had been the case with John Madden and Flores, both of whom had chafed at their authority being undercut by Davis, Shanahan seldom appeared to please the team's maverick owner.

Davis, who once coached the Raiders himself, frequently criticized Shanahan last season, the first in a three-year contract, when the Raiders finished 7-9. And after an opening victory this season, Shanahan fell even more into disfavor with his boss when the Raiders lost three in a row.

It hardly was a secret that Davis, who as a coach favored a wide-open offense with lots of passing, regarded Shanahan's ball-control style with disdain. After the Raiders blew a fourth-quarter lead Sunday in losing, 24-20, to the Seattle Seahawks, most observers were convinced that it was only a matter of time before Shanahan would be fired.

Given Davis's long-held aversion for changing field leadership during a season, it was generally believed that Shanahan would survive the remainder of this year. A popular rumor had it that Davis then would attempt to lure Lou Holtz away from Notre Dame with a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal.

That rumor was put to rest, at least for the time being, with Shell's hiring.

Although no details of Shell's agreement with Davis were revealed, Davis said, "I think he's going to be here for a long time, at least 10 years."

Shell, whose head coaching debut comes Monday night against the New York Jets in Giants Stadium, said that the Raiders have the talent to win and that he hoped to restore to them some of the qualities that made the franchise successful in the past.

"We've got great personnel and we've only played four games," Shell said. ''The season's not over. We can turn this thing around.

"Beyond that, we're going to try to regain the power, toughness and explosiveness we've had in the past. That's the only way I know how to win.

"There will be a few subtle changes, to make things a little simpler. But this organization is about winning."

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