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Two diverse owners, one Super goal

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001


OAKLAND, Calif. -- These are not the Raiders of your bandana-wearing, skull-and-crossbones, well-tattooed, black-leathered Uncle Spike and Aunt Elvira.

It's the '00s not the '70s.

Al Davis is still franchise godfather. Coliseum crowds perpetuate Hell's Angels attitude. Hundreds roar to games on Harleys. Oakland's stadium is a Biker Bar with luxury suites.

But the Raiders themselves have changed dramatically from the memorable renegades coached to Super Bowl championships by John Madden and Tom Flores. Jon Gruden's guys tend to be more neat, reserved, sober and law-abiding.

Mismatched with their constituency.

Coming out of Vietnam War miseries, America engaged in a raging love/hate affair with Raiders of yore and lore, intrigued by the competitive excellence of Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell, Lester Hayes and Gene Upshaw.

Multitudes also were wowed, amused and aghast at athletically gifted characters like Ken "Snake" Stabler, Ted "Mad Stork" Hendricks, Otis "University of Mars" Sistrunk, Daryle "Mad Bomber" Lamonica and John "Terrible Tooz" Matuszak.

No such nicknames now.

None merited.

Today, in the first AFC championship in Oakland in 24 seasons, it's apt to be the Baltimore Ravens who're talking more smack, prancing with saucier bravado and stooping to more borderline shots at rival runners, receivers and quarterbacks.

Shannon Sharpe is deafening.

What mesmerizing irony, this Ravens-Raiders dukeout at the Super Bowl XXXV altar, including the team owners. Davis and Baltimore's Art Modell, now both in their 70s, long have been NFL shakers, if in different ways.

Also movers.

Enemies of Modell and Davis are voluminous, perhaps eternal. For a quarter-century, Art epitomized the NFL establishment, being a cozy ally of commissioner Pete Rozelle. That was premove.

Distraught with a decaying Cleveland Stadium, despite averaging 70,000-plus patrons, he robbed the city of its Browns, trucking the franchise to Baltimore and rechristening it Ravens.

Born again.

Sharpe, the mouthy tight end, approached the 75-year-old Modell. Regarding the Ravens' developing mentality, Shannon said, "Hey, Art! Guess what -- we're the new bullies of the AFC."

Al, the scoutmaster?

Davis has, for 40 years, been pro football's offbeat power, a unique bloke from Brooklyn who repeatedly defied the NFL blue bloods while coaching, owning and manipulating his historically successful West Coast pirates.

Art and Al ... different or alike?

"I felt the move was something I had to do," Modell said, "but many in Cleveland, a city I will always love, are probably going to hate me forever. My family and I have tried hard to do everything right in Baltimore. We never made the Super Bowl in Cleveland. Now comes another chance."

Davis has, since the AFL was formed in 1960 to compete with the NFL, been the game's ultimate counterculture power. A secretive chap who repeatedly defied Modell and other NFL fundamentalists.

His self-styled Raiders became one of history's more successful teams, nurturing that baddie image. Eventually, ignoring legal threats and having become embattled in a stadium quandary of his own, Davis transferred the Raiders to Los Angeles.

But now, as we were ... almost.

After an L.A. bummer for the Raiders, despite a Super Bowl XVIII win in Tampa, while Davis milked another California community for millions, they are properly re-entrenched in Oakland. Al never did get the new ballpark he wanted, but Alameda County taxpayers spent tens of millions of dollars reshaping and upgrading the Coliseum.

Uniforms of the Raiders aren't much different from the '70s, all in silver and black, because Davis is colorblind. Al still peers from his press-box lounge, the duck-tailed hair at last going gray. But the personality of his Oakland players is definitively removed from the flamboyant crustiness of the Madden/Flores stretches.

Still tough, but in different ways.

Guard Steve Wisniewski once was infamous as pro football's dirtiest lineman. His paychecks were so often docked for NFL fines that Wiz considered it "my second withholding tax." His tactics have undergone extreme cleansing since Gruden became coach.

"Jon doesn't stand for detrimental silliness," Wisniewski said. "Not only have the fines stopped, I'm seldom getting flagged for penalties. Who would've ever thought of Steve Wisniewski as a good person? It's like a bad-boy wrestler changing to a good guy."

Mean can be clean.

"Times have changed, a lot, even if Raiders fans still enjoy the madness of the old Oakland look," said Lincoln Kennedy, a tackle with names that honor two presidents. "When the team relocated to Los Angeles, it obviously was poor fit. Raiders ain't Hollywood. "There was a return of unique Raiders energy when the team came back to Oakland. Not necessarily to bygone attitudes or mystiques, but just that the fellows felt really good about playing games for more of a blue-collar crowd, which has forever been the franchise's identity."

Harleys are cranking.

Ready for some Sunday drive.

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