There’s something larger than life about the Raiders. Whether in Oakland, Los Angeles or Las Vegas, the black and silver uniforms and the raucous fans are symbolic of tough, exciting and slightly reckless football. It’s a team that owes its reputation to one era in particular.
Between 1967 and 1977, the Oakland Raiders played in nine out of 11 Championship games. That extraordinary record is not well known because they won only two of them. (Indeed, if you combine AFL and AFC title games, no team has lost more than the Raiders’ nine.) In the 1967 season they beat the Oilers before losing Super Bowl II to the Packers, and in 1976 they beat the Steelers to win the AFC and then the Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
History tends to focus on Super Bowl winners but the Raiders, one of the AFL’s founding teams, were dominant in the 1970s, and that’s partly why so many of the books about the team focus on that era.
Another reason is that the Raiders of the 70s were filled with larger-than-life characters, assembled under the similarly attention-grabbing head coach, John Madden. Big hitters, playmakers or downright lunatics seemed to fill every position, making for a wealth of memorable stories. That period produced 10 Hall of Fame players: Jim Otto, George Blanda, Willie Brown, Gene Upshaw, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell and Ted Hendricks, and Dave Casper, Ken Stabler and Ray Guy would join them later. To that list, you can add Coach Madden and owner Al Davis.
Most of those players had retired by the time the Raiders achieved their biggest success – winning two Super Bowls (XV and XVIII) in four seasons under head coach, and former player, Tom Flores. Since then, the Raiders have been known more for off-field events. Between 1982 and 1994, they played in Los Angeles, before returning to Oakland. In 2017, they won approval to move again, this time to Las Vegas, in 2020.
On-field success has been scarce recently, aside from a brief revival in the early 2000s that saw them reach the AFC Championship game in 2000, the Divisional round in 2001 and then lose Super Bowl XXXVII to former head coach John Gruden’s Buccaneers in 2002. However, Gruden returned as head coach in 2018 and with the impending move, the Raiders are hoping for a return to glory.
1Madden (2011) by Bryan Burwell
These days John Madden is known as much for his broadcasting career and the video game series he helped develop as he is for coaching. That’s unsurprising, since it’s more than 40 years since he retired as a coach after an extraordinary 10 seasons in charge of the Raiders. He left with an overall record of 112-39-7, including a 9-7 playoff record and a Super Bowl win. What’s more, he played a significant role in creating the Raiders’ famous attitude and culture. This book is an excellent overview of his life and career.
2Badasses (2010) by Peter Richmond
It’s probably pretty difficult to write a boring book about John Madden’s Oakland Raiders but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to write a great one. Peter Richmond (no relation) tells the stories of that team in all their riveting, rollicking glory and wraps them up into a book that is essential reading for fans of any football team, not just the Raiders. It’s a measure of how influential it’s been that you’ll find Badasses quoted in pretty much any book written since that touches on the NFL of the 1970s.
Buy the book: Amazon US // Amazon UK
3Snake (2016) by Mike Freeman
The Raiders were good for a long time but they got even better when Ken ‘Snake’ Stabler became full-time quarterback. Mike Freeman tells the story of the hellraising quarterback’s life, from a troubled home, through rebellious years in high school and college, then onto the NFL and life afterwards as a doting father. He brings to life a central figure in Raiders history, and one who waited too long for his Hall of Fame induction
Buy the book: Amazon US // Amazon UK
4Bo Knows Bo (1990) by Bo Jackson
Heisman winner, College Football Hall of Famer, and the only player to be named to an NFL Pro Bowl and the MLB All-Star Game, Bo Jackson’s fame was unimaginable for a time in the late 1980s. Drafted by the Raiders in 1987, Jackson went in the seventh round because he planned to split time between baseball and football. That affected his numbers – he never played more than 11 games in a season – but not his performances, which were routinely excellent. This book, written a year after a hip injury ended his football career, tells the story of a player who became an icon.
5Slick: The Silver-and-Black Life of Al Davis (1991) by Mark Ribowsky
Controversial scarcely begins to describe Al Davis, who is the only person in professional football history to be an assistant coach, head coach, general manager, owner and league commissioner. A crusader for civil rights, who consistently broke diversity barriers, Davis also often ended up in feuds with the NFL, and with his players. Ribowsky’s book tells a colourful life story.
Photo: Pete Sheffield