Raiders owner Davis still deeply ‘hurt’ by Gruden Deception, originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
The recruitment continued for six years, involving more than a dozen cross-country flights, maybe hundreds of phone calls perhaps even nightly prayers. To call it a personal manhunt would be an understatement. This was an obsession.
Mark Davis was relentless in his pursuit of a “yes” response from Jon Gruden.
Davis would not be dissuaded or deterred by the consistent “no” responses, month after month, year after year. As owner of the Oakland Raiders, inheriting the position after his father, Al Davis, died in 2011, Mark was determined to bring the NFL franchise back to prominence and heartfully believed Gruden was the best man for the job.
Davis had no idea that his decision to lure Gruden back to the sideline, which generated excitement among fans recalling Gruden’s revivifying first tenure (1998-2001), would end in such sordid fashion that he would be both saddened and sickened.
“It just hurts. It really hurt,” Davis recalls as a guest on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” premiering Wednesday night before and after Game 5 of the Warriors-Nuggets NBA playoff series on NBC Sports Bay Area.
“But when you do things, you have to live with the ramifications of what you say and do.”
Mark Davis’ first major move as owner was hiring a former Raiders linebacker who had been coaching, scouting, and evaluating talent for 20 years. Reggie McKenzie left his position as director of football operations with the Green Bay Packers to rejoin the Raiders as general manager.
The next search was for a head coach, as McKenzie dismissed Hue Jackson after one 8-8 season.
“The only person I really was interested in was Jon,” Davis says. “I reached out to Jon, and he wasn’t interested. So, I let Reggie do his job as general manager and go after a head coach.
“But I never quit the conversation with Jon.”
McKenzie hired Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who was a disaster, as Oakland went 8-28 in his tenure. Next up was Jack Del Rio, an East Bay native who grew up rooting for the Raiders. With nine years of experience as a head coach, Del Rio sandwiched two subpar seasons around one excellent season (12-4, 2016) before he was dismissed.
Even as Del Rio coached, Davis’ eyes kept peeling toward Gruden.
“I’ve never seen anybody work the film and do cut-ups and study football like Jon did – other than my father,” Davis says. “I just felt that with the 10 years that Jon was doing Monday Night Football, watching other games, watching film, doing the cutups, talking to other teams, going to every facility around the league, that if he would come back to do football , he would come in with a whole new type of mentality that would be a reinvigorated Gruden offense.”
Del Rio’s departure created a path for Davis to get his man. All the pressing and pushing, the wooing and pursuing, had paid off.
In January 2018, Gruden received the largest contract for any coach in American sports history: $100 million, over 10 years.
When Davis and McKenzie introduced the new coach to a euphoric Raider Nation, everyone realized Gruden had plenty of time for a minor overhaul or massive rebuild.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” Davis recalls. “I really believed that we had hit on something and that we were going to build on something.”
Davis was wrong. The Raiders were 4-12 in the first year of Gruden’s second coming to Oakland and 7-9 in the second, before which. Gruden replaced McKenzie with Mike Mayock. The franchise moved to Las Vegas in 2020 and finished 8-8. They were getting closer to the playoffs, but the drafting of Gruden and his hand-picked GM was profoundly underwhelming.
It was enough for fans, if not Davis, to heat the seats of both men.
Davis exuded a degree of confidence when the Raiders opened the 2021 season with three consecutive wins. On Oct. 8, four days after their first loss, the Wall Street Journal reported that Gruden and other NFL figures were under investigation for using despicable, demeaning language in a series of e-mails. A racial trope was used to identify NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith, a Black man.
Within days, The New York Times reported that an investigation of Gruden’s e-mails over an eight-year period through 2018 revealed a pattern of misogynistic, sexist, and homophobic insults. Davis requested and received Gruden’s resignation on Oct. 11, 2021.
“I just did not believe that he could lead the Raider organization, based on the comments that were out there,” Davis says. “And, unfortunately, I had to make the change.”
Gruden’s cover was blown, his popularity forever tarnished. Davis, the man who chased him, concedes he was “more than a little hurt” by revelations.
“I never once saw Jon do anything that had anything to do with the statements that were made on those emails,” he says. “In practice, Jon was one of the most perfect people that I’d seen around.”
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Gruden used his public persona to deceive millions — and to be presented with a massive contract from the Raiders that would never have come had his bigotry been common knowledge.
For the Raiders, above all other teams in the NFL, and most in American sports, have a tradition of equal opportunity. Of making decisions not based on race or gender but on qualifications. Al Davis hired the first Latino head coach, Tom Flores. Hired the first black head coach, Art Shell, who served two terms. Hired the first female CEO, Amy Trask.
Mark Davis’ first significant hire upon becoming owner was McKenzie, a Black man.
Desperate to restore pride to his organization, Davis made a mistake that many others in his position might have made. He turned to a respected coach admired by his fan base. Gruden had resurrected the Raiders, made them a contender, before being traded by his father.
Davis, guided by sentiment and yearning, reached for the celebrated past in hopes it would signify a glorious future. He discovered the object of his obsession was a phony who took the money and broke a piece of his heart.