Living in a Raider dream

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Sitting there listening to Art Shell, it was clear that we gave up on his dream long before he did.

Talking about the ordeal now, Shell says his life didn't magically pause when he lost his job as head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1994. As he puts it, "It wasn't like I was sitting there staring out the window, waiting for an opportunity."

Shell makes that statement with conviction – like he's preached himself into believing it. But he betrays it, too, admitting that right up through last year, he used to go to sleep at night and have dreams of coaching the Raiders again.

"You wake up and you go, "What the hell are you dreaming about?" Shell said. "You say to yourself, 'Why?' "

What do they call dreams – the windows to your soul? Physically, maybe Art Shell wasn't waiting on the NFL. But mentally, you get the feeling he never stopped staring out the window. And make no mistake, this has been a long wait. It's not until you talk to Shell that you realize how long it's taken him to get back into the head coaching ranks.

You still think of him as the young, emotional coach, devouring the sidelines in the all-black outfit – a man who, even on his worst day, looked like he could still anchor his own offensive line. But looking at him now, you see how the years have softened the edges. His skin is a little looser. When he smiles, parts of his face become a roadmap of creases. And above his salt-and-pepper mustache, you find an unrelenting swath of white has invaded his hairline.

Ask him whether the players have changed since he's been away, and he cracks a smile and shoots back, "Yeah, I'm an old man now."

Oddly enough, this more classical version of Shell seems to fit the Oakland Raiders better. Some men are just married to certain things in their lives. Whether he was six or 60, Miles Davis was born for jazz; you see the same kinship with Shell and the Raiders. He looks the part of Raiders head coach. And when you consider his resume has 27 years of Raider service on it, he has studied for the role all his life.

That's not to say it hasn't been a trying relationship.

Shell has definitely gone through his ups and downs with Al Davis, suffering under his owner's heavy-handed approach during his coaching days in L.A. and then wondering why he was being fired in 1994 after going 9-7. Shell had carved out five winning records in six seasons and was only one year removed from a narrow divisional playoff loss to a Buffalo team that advanced to the Super Bowl. He never thought he would lose his job that way.

But he also remembered a conversation he and Davis had in 1989, when he was given his first head coaching job.

"There may come a time when we have to part – when we need to go our separate ways," Davis told him.

And when that day finally came? "Sure, it bothered me," Shell said.

"But I understood the business," Shell continued. "And I also understood that he gave me a chance to be a player, he gave me a chance to be an assistant coach, he gave me an opportunity to be a head coach. So how can I say anything bad about him?

"He brought me back again to interview me before he hired Jon Gruden. And now I'm here again as the head coach of the Raiders. So you will never hear me say anything bad about Mr. Davis. I have too much respect for him. He's like a father to me."

When Shell interviewed with the Raiders for a second time in 1998, something struck Davis in their meeting. Shell had matured. He'd come to understand things about the NFL that you only get by going through the grinder a few times. Shell spent time as an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Flacons, and for the first time, he'd seen how teams operated from outside the umbrella of "Just win, baby."

"It was good for me," Shell said. "I grew."

But even that growth could never really give him enough layers of wisdom to take the sting out of being passed over for jobs. Shell took a position in the league office in 2000 and became the NFL's vice president of football operations and development – an esteemed job – and yet, the magnetism of coaching never went away. So it always hurt when he saw less qualified coaches get opportunities when he couldn't get a sniff.

Sort of makes you understand where Shell got his white hair.

"There comes a point in time where you have to shut it off," Shell said. "You have to let go and say, 'It's not going to happen, I'm happy with what I'm doing.' Before (that time came), I was willing to listen (and) excited about sitting down and talking about a head coaching job. But it didn't happen.

"I had resigned myself that it might not happen. … I had said that this would be the last time that I would let anyone throw my name into anything, that I would not be involved in that after this year. So it went down to the wire."

That's an understatement. Shell's candidacy with the Raiders went down to the wire the way a Kentucky Derby goes down to the wire if the last-place horse watches the rest of the field suddenly take a right turn and bolt for the paddock. Essentially, he was the last guy available after Davis had blown kisses to half a dozen other coaches.

In an odd way, this might be the best scenario of all the others that could have gotten the job. After all, Davis is still a micromanaging owner, and there is no telling how Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz would have performed beneath such a meddling personality.

Instead, Shell comes in with 27 years of Raider in his DNA, knowing all the details of the organization right down to how many synthetic fibers are in each Al Davis sweat suit. There are no illusions of "rebuilding" – a noun that has been surgically removed from the brains of the franchise by Davis. And there is no lack of understanding about what gets Davis bent out of shape.

"It affects him when you lose," Shell said. "You can be 15-1 and it affects him when you lose that one game. That's the way he is."

So here goes Shell, on his second voyage. Like his owner, Shell is feeling life's cobwebs creeping. He's already trying to clean up as much of the Raiders' roster mess as he possibly can, and, from early indications, it already sounds like he's pushing the right buttons. Randy Moss has apparently already taken a liking to him, and Shell is already stressing to some players – like tackle Robert Gallery – that it's time to make good on their unrealized potential.

Not that there aren't plenty of hurdles ahead. Other than Gruden's blip of success, Oakland has been yearning for success in the worst way. There is work to do virtually everywhere – with the roster, the salary cap and an image that took a hit after several coaches reacted to the job opening as if it were a ticket to the gas chamber.

For now, Shell is trying to reshape the scheme to fit the talent (like sticking to a base 4-3 defense). However, bringing in Aaron Brooks at quarterback is a tremendous gamble. So is leaning on offensive coordinator Tom Walsh – a man who has been out of football for eight years and has made his biggest impact during that time as mayor of Swan Valley, Idaho (population: 213).

This time around, Shell isn't stirring from his sleep and asking himself why. He knows he's where he's supposed to be – maybe where he should have been all along.