Tom Flores, first Mexican-American NFL head coach, was a trailblazer and two-time Super Bowl winner
Tom Flores' road to Canton was long and sometimes winding, most of it working for former maverick Raiders owner Al Davis. But Flores’ straight-arrow approach became one of his signature traits amid the chaos around him.
He’d leave the game as one of its most successful coaches, especially when the games mattered most, and became an icon among Raiders fans and in the Hispanic community.
As a head coach, Flores guided the Raiders to two Super Bowl titles, one in Oakland (XV) and one in Los Angeles (XVIII). The latter remains the first and only Super Bowl win by an L.A. franchise.
Boasting a 83-53 record with the Raiders, Flores led the team to the playoffs five times in nine years. He owns the highest postseason win percentage (.727) of any NFL coach with 10-plus playoff games — even higher than Bill Belichick (.721).
Flores, 84, enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the second man to win the Super Bowl as a player, assistant and head coach, after Mike Ditka.
But it took many years for Flores' achievements to be deemed HOF-worthy.
Stepping out of John Madden's shadow
Those two titles as head coach came after Flores replaced John Madden and his gaudy .759 win percentage. Flores worked closely under Madden as an assistant, but their personalities couldn’t have been different.
Madden was the brash, loud and fearless face of the 1970s Raiders. Flores was the quiet, stoic and steady force of the franchise’s next decade.
“I was quiet, under control,” Flores said. “John was a far more emotional person, and he was that way on the sideline. When I was hired, I told Al ‘I’m not John,’ and he said ‘I know that. I hired you to win.’”
Flores' impact on the game was loud. In addition to becoming the league’s first Hispanic quarterback in 1960 with the Raiders, Flores also became the first Hispanic head coach in NFL history and the first to win a Super Bowl.
Some Raiders fans — plus Davis — wondered initially if Madden’s replacement was the right choice for the job.
After a 9-7 season in 1979, missing the playoffs, Davis was unhappy — and let Flores know it. Following a 2-3 start in 1980, the pressure really cranked up on the second-year coach.
“He was tough, demanding; he was fearless," Flores said of Davis. "You had to know him and I got to know him pretty well. You had to know the good things and bad things, and he had so many good things to offer.”
Flores made a critical QB switch that season, riding reclamation project Jim Plunkett to a 9-2 record down the stretch to crash the playoff party — all while fans protested Davis’ announcement the Raiders were moving to L.A.
But Flores' Raiders endured. He led them to three straight road playoff victories, which had never been done before, and the Super Bowl XV victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Flores would win a second Super Bowl in the 1983 season, also with Plunkett at QB, making Flores only the fifth coach in league history to win multiple Super Bowls — and the first to win Super Bowls with the same franchise in different cities.
“It was memorable, arduous [working for Davis],” Flores said. “It was an incredible journey with Al."
Amy Trask: Flores was 'Cool, calm and collected'
Former Raiders CEO Amy Trask first joined the team as an intern at Flores’ height in 1983 and she would return to work there full time in Flores’ final season as head coach in 1987. He came back (after three tough seasons as Seahawks head coach) to the Raiders as a radio analyst in 1997, the same year Trask earned her CEO title.
Trask said Flores has never changed as a person — through all of their junctures together.
“If you asked me for three words that always came to mind whenever I saw Tom, whether in a meeting, on the sideline, in our broadcast booth, at a community event or a social function, [they] would be ‘cool, calm and collected,’” Trask told Yahoo Sports. “Not only did I observe that, I marveled at that.”
In a league full of outsized personalities and egos, Flores had a different mien.
“When others were carrying on, ranting and raving, pitching fits, Tom was always cool, calm and collected,” she said.
Occasionally Flores would let his guard down. Once when the Raiders won a thrilling game in the final moments, Trask was in the Raiders’ broadcast booth with Flores, whose passion for the team still ran hot, even when he no longer had control over games.
Trask called it her “tremendous delight” to watch Flores’ reaction to that game-winning play.
“Tom and I erupted with glee,” Trask said. “As we were hugging and squealing, the play-by-play man [Greg Papa] gestured frantically, pointing to Tom and his headset with the microphone attached, to remind him he was still on air.
“At [that] point, rather than stopping the hugging and squealing, Tom simply took off his headset for a moment as we continued to hug and squeal. He then put it back on and was collected ... albeit neither cool nor calm.”
Flores is a titan in the Hispanic community
As the NFL’s first Mexican quarterback, Flores holds an important place in league history. Beloved by Mexican football fans and Raiders fans, especially in Los Angeles' large Hispanic community, Flores was the team’s coach for the first six years of its existence in L.A.
His father, a sharecropper, arrived from Mexico at age 12. They settled in Sanger, Calif., and Flores played college football at Pacific. He had few designs on pro football, but the AFL’s Raiders gave him a shot.
Flores would end up their starting QB for most of the next six seasons. He and the team would be connected for most of the rest of his life.
After 10 years in the AFL and NFL with the Raiders, Bills and Chiefs, Flores moved to coaching and became Madden’s receivers coach in 1972, winning Super Bowl XI in 1976 as an assistant before replacing him.
Becoming the first Mexican NFL head coach was historic. Winning the Super Bowl in his second season quieted many doubters. Doing it with Plunkett, a Mexican quarterback, made them legends in the community.
“Because we had the same ethnic background, he was one of my favorites even before I coached him,” Flores said of Plunkett.
In 2011, Flores received the Roberto Clemente Award for Sports Excellence by the National Council of La Raza for his contributions to the Hispanic community. But Flores said in July he tried not to define himself strictly within racial parameters.
“I never thought about my ethnic background,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what your color is, you have to be ready to perform and win or you’re going to be an unemployed whatever-color person you are ...
“I was able to win and establish myself and now, here I am.”
The waiting was the hardest (and best) part
Three tough years in Seattle marred Flores’ overall record. His 14-34 mark with the Seahawks, as their head coach and GM, brought his career win percentage down to .527, with an overall record of 97-87.
But he’s second in Raiders franchise history behind Madden for victories with 83 and had very similar credentials to Class of 2020 HOFer Jimmy Johnson.
Johnson got in after 20 years removed from coaching. Flores needed to wait 27.
“I was kind of expecting it sooner, but it didn’t happen, and then I got skeptical and I got a little guarded,” he said.
Everything changed when Flores heard a knock on his door this February. It turned out to be a gold-jacket knock.
“When [Pro Football Hall Of Fame president David] Baker came to my house, I got tears in my eyes,” Flores said. “I have tears in my eyes now just thinking about it. I said ‘Oh man, it happened.’
“When you make the Hall of Fame, it’s not just you. It’s your family and your coaches and your players. We all made it together.”
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