EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an occasional series on the history of the Raiders.
As another coaching cycle has come and gone in the NFL with only one minority hire — Ron Rivera in Washington — the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule, which states that teams must interview a minority for head coach, is again coming into question. But when it comes to the Raiders, the franchise long has been at the forefront of diversity — starting with former head coach Art Shell.
Shell is one of the most important figures in Raiders history. He earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a left tackle and then made history by becoming the NFL’s first African American head coach of the modern era when the late Al Davis chose him to replace Mike Shanahan early in the 1989 season.
At the time, the Los Angeles Raiders were 1-3. Part of the reason Davis made the decision was to help bring the Raiders back to their former level as a championship team.
Shell was an eight-time Pro Bowler for the Raiders, starting from 1970 to 1981 — the club’s final season of their first stint in Oakland. He was a third-round pick in 1968 out of Maryland State College, now known as Maryland Eastern Shore. During Shell’s playing career, the Raiders won Super Bowl XI over the Vikings and XV over the Eagles.
After playing in 207 games over 15 seasons with 169 starts, Shell retired in 1982. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
When Shell was introduced at a news conference as the Raiders’ coach, he said he understood the significance of the hire.
“It is an historic event,” Shell said. “I’m proud of it, but I’m also a Raider. I don’t believe the color of my skin entered into this decision. I was chosen because Al Davis felt I was the right person at the right time. The significance in this is I am now the head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders. We’re going to try to regain the power, toughness and explosiveness we had in the past.”
Davis, who had hired the league’s first Latino head coach in Tom Flores in 1979, said at the same news conference: “If this is an historic occasion, it will really only be meaningful and historic if he is a great success.”
While the Raiders did not make the playoffs in Shell’s limited first season at the helm, he did find significant success in his first stint as a head coach. The Raiders finished the 1989 season 8-8, with Shell guiding the club to a 7-5 finish. They then went 12-4 in Shell’s second year, reaching the AFC title game against the Buffalo Bills. Shell’s Raiders reached the playoffs two more times in his six-season stint, though they never advanced beyond the divisional round.
Despite Shell compiling a 54-38 record and leading the Raiders to a 9-7 finish in 1994, Davis fired him to promote former California and Illinois head coach Mike White. The Raiders did not have a record better than 8-8 until Jon Gruden led the club to a 12-4 finish in 2000.
Shell coached the Raiders again in 2006 for an unmemorable 2-14 season. But his legacy as a player and coach for the club — winning two Super Bowls and becoming the first African American head coach of the modern era — stands strong to this day.