Art Shell...

Angry Pope

All Raider
Feb 2, 2006
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Roots of Shell’s style go back to his youth

Raiders coach returns to Canton once again wearing the silver and black that put him in the Hall of Fame


CANTON, Ohio — The playing field in North Charleston was the scene of so many pickup football and baseball games, the sports home for generations of black youngsters. It’s name, then, seems rife with meaning, though not the apparent one.

“Black Bottom,” they called it in the 1950s and early 1960s. The name had nothing to do with race, even in those days of strict segregation.

“The soil was so rich, if you wore a white uniform, it turned black,” said Dr. Willis Ham, former athletics director at South Carolina State, and director of Columbia’s Webster University. “The grass just grew and grew on that field.”

Not just grass, but also young athletes.

One of Ham’s childhood teammates became a football star, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and, for the second time, coach of one of the NFL’s legendary franchises.

Art Shell, son of the Lowcountry, returned to Canton this weekend as coach of Oakland, which faces Philadelphia in tonight’s Hall of Fame game (8 p.m., NBC).

The Raiders are the team whose silver-and-black colors he wore for most of his 15-season Hall of Fame career.

They are the team that fired him a dozen years ago; now, owner Al Davis asks Shell to remake the Raiders in their old “Commitment to Excellence” image.

“It may take us a short while, but we’ll get that nastiness back,” Davis said when he hired Shell in February. “I’m going to depend on the great Art Shell to help us get that done.”

Shell, a Raider through and through, is eager to restore those glory days when he played in eight Pro Bowls, 23 postseason games and a pair of Super Bowls.

“I just want to get back to the point where when we walk into a stadium, they know the Raiders are in town,” Shell said the day he reclaimed his old job. “We’ve got to create that attitude, and that’s what I expect to do.”

Since Black Bottom, he has known no other way.


They learned early about Shell in the black neighborhoods around now-defunct Bonds-Wilson High, the focal point for an area the rest of Charleston considered “the country.”

“Many of the North area kids had never been into Charleston; that was like a foreign country,” said Gene Graves, 76. “But we instilled in those kids, ‘you’re as good as anybody.’”

The retired coach remembered the oldest of Arthur and Gertrude Shell’s four sons (plus a daughter) from elementary school onward: large like his father, gentle like his mother, gifted in basketball and football.

“He always had determination,” said Graves, who was, at the time, Bonds-Wilson’s basketball coach and assistant football coach. “You could see it in his eyes; he took pride in being good.”

With Shell at center, the Sewards (Theron and Curtis) at the forwards and Ham at point, Bonds-Wilson won a pair of all-black state basketball titles. But it was football that became his vehicle.

Shell grew up in the Daniel Jenkins projects. His father worked at a paper mill and struggled to feed all those mouths. When Gertrude Shell died suddenly at 35, her oldest son vowed to use his 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame (he played at 300 pounds in the NFL, a rarity then) to earn a scholarship, get a degree and build a life.

“His leadership (in high school) was a result of his output,” Ham said. “He knew he could stand toe-to-toe with guys and say, ‘This is what has to be done.’ He didn’t have to be forceful.”

In fact, Ham and Graves said that back then Shell was never hard or tough.

“We thought he was so gentle; we couldn’t take him seriously if he tried to be mean,” Ham said.

That assessment might surprise current Raiders, most of whom praise Shell’s new tough-minded, disciplined program.

Old-timers, Davis among them, are delighted. Excepting Jon Gruden, a hard-edged type who, before moving to Tampa Bay, built the team that played in the 2002 Super Bowl, Raiders coaches since Shell went a combined 43-69, capped by Norv Turner’s job-killing 4-12 last season.

“Art has a certain type of discipline you don’t see too much any more in the NFL that he is going to be using on his players,” said Jim Otto, another Raider Hall of Famer. “His future and his greatness are going to be as a Raider coach.”

This time, right?


Shell seemed the lifetime Raider: a standout offensive lineman, an assistant coach and, four games into the 1989 season, the NFL’s first black head coach. Like his mentor, John Madden, who this weekend joined him in the Hall of Fame, Shell knew how to work for the driven Davis, how to read the mood swings and survive.

Except he didn’t survive. His record (54-38 in five seasons) included four winning seasons and three postseason appearances, but the Raiders didn’t win a playoff game. When the 1994 team went 9-7, Davis cut him loose. During the next dozen years, while black coaches became more commonplace, no team hired the original.

Back home, his old friends are happy, yet cautious.

“Once someone lets you go when you’re successful, should you go back?” Graves wondered. “But I’m not going to knock him for trying.”

Ham thinks Shell will get a fair chance, and not just because his successors had three winning seasons in 12 — one fewer than Shell had in five.

“I think Al will honor the commitment; he doesn’t want to make it hard for a coach who is black,” Ham said. “If Al is committed to get back to excellence, Art is the personality to work and get it done.”

Shell, even after waiting so long for a second chance, sees it less in terms of race and more about being back where he belongs.

“It’s coming home to finish what I started,” he said. “It’s like going out in the wilderness; you travel around, you learn, you gather experience and new ideas (and) you evolve as a person and a coach. I think I’ve done that.”

No matter what happens, Shell will not shrivel and die under the NFL spotlight.

“We’re about winning,” he said, “and we will win.”

He is too rooted in that rich football soil to settle for anything else.
Silver Pining

By Sam Farmer

August 05, 2006

I don't want a coach screaming and hollering at me. So I go talk to a young man and say, 'What are you thinking about?
NAPA, Calif. - Blending into a crowd - even a cluster of enormous men - is no simple task, not for a 6-foot-5 coach with shoulders as broad as a door frame.
Somehow, Raiders Coach Art Shell finds a way. He often can be found standing in a pack of offensive players with his hands behind his back, quietly observing. Unlike most NFL coaches, he almost never raises his voice louder than a resonant rumble.

'I like to coach a guy the way I liked to be coached,' said Shell, 59, a Hall of Fame tackle hired in February to rescue a foundering franchise, one he coached from 1989 through '94. 'I don't want a coach screaming and hollering at me. So I go talk to a young man and say, 'What are you thinking about?' ' And whereas the casual observer might have a difficult time spotting Shell on the field, his players don't have that problem. 'We know where he is,' defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. 'His presence is felt every day we're out here, no doubt about it.' Time will tell if that presence will translate into victories for the Raiders, who have gone 13-35 since reaching the Super Bowl in the 2002 season. That ties the San Francisco 49ers for the worst record over the last three seasons. The Raiders burned through two coaches during that span, Bill Callahan and Norv Turner, before reaching into their past to tap Shell, who went 56-41 in his first stint as coach, counting a 2-3 postseason record. When he was first hired 17 years ago, he became the first African American head coach in the NFL's modern era. In returning to the Raiders, Shell left his job at NFL headquarters as senior vice president for football operations and development. His responsibilities included evaluating officials and implementing rules, and he worked closely with retiring Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. 'Soon after he started working for the league and we spent some serious time together,' Tagliabue wrote in an e-mail, 'it was clear that he was anxious to be with a team and compete again, as a coach if possible, and to achieve some goals that he felt were still undone.

'Occasionally when we were considering what more he could do in our office, I'd tell him that while I didn't want to lose his talents, he should keep thinking about getting back on the sidelines as a head coach.' And, from time to time over the last decade, Shell's name would surface for various coaching vacancies. After he was fired by the Raiders, he coached the offensive line in Kansas City for two seasons and in Atlanta for three. He interviewed for head-coaching jobs in Cleveland, New Orleans, Miami, and with the Raiders before they hired Jon Gruden in 1998. At the beginning of this year, however, Shell told his agent, Danny More, he could try once more to drum up interest but to stop after that. 'I told him, 'Danny, this is the last year I want you to use my name. This thing is over for me. I've moved on. I'm enjoying life in the league office working with the commissioner,' ' Shell said. 'He said, 'No, we've got to get one of these.' And I said, 'Danny, it's not going to happen. My time is done and gone.' He was persistent.' That persistence paid off. The Wednesday before the Super Bowl, Raiders owner Al Davis called and asked Shell to come out for an interview. And little more than a week later, he had the job. In searching for a replacement for Turner, the Raiders had also interviewed two NFL offensive coordinators, Pittsburgh's Ken Whisenhunt and Kansas City's Al Saunders, and Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino, who was offered the job and turned it down. For Shell, it didn't take much convincing to return.

'I came home because there's a need here to get back to the type of football that we played in the past,' he said. 'The toughness of the organization needs to get back in here. Not that these kids aren't tough, but they need to be taught how to be tough. They've got to be taught what it means to have a will to win.' Low-key as he is, Shell is passionate about righting a rudderless franchise that, among other things, has led the NFL in penalties each of the last three seasons.

Clearly, imposing discipline is part of his game plan. The Raiders spend more time on fundamentals now than they have in recent years, and seem to spend a lot more time knocking into each other in full pads. From time to time, the coach can still intimidate the way he did as an eight-time Pro Bowl player - but now it comes with a healthy dose of moderation. 'I was out there the other day watching them and he said something to one player,' Davis said. 'I just got a kick out of it because I know he wanted to grab him, but he didn't do it. He held his composure and I just kind of laughed to myself.' Davis called the hiring of Shell 'a reaffirmation of everything we've ever stood for, everything we've always wanted. 'When he walks in he can dominate a room if he wants to,' Davis said. 'He has an attitude about him. He was a truly great player. He knows the right way to do things.' The challenges are many for Shell. The Raiders, who have gone 2-16 in the AFC West during the last three seasons, are loaded with young and unseasoned players. Their new quarterback, Aaron Brooks, was sporadic at best in New Orleans. Oakland's sloppy-tackling defense must improve if it hopes to survive in the NFL's best running division, one that includes San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, Kansas City's Larry Johnson and a Denver ground attack that seems to find a new star each week. And, in the latest brush fire, star receiver Jerry Porter has made it clear he wants out of Oakland. He and Shell have been at odds since the spring, a disagreement that began over where Porter would condition in the off-season. For Shell, who had all but given up hope of ever coaching again, it was painful to see his beloved Raiders trampled so often over the last decade. 'It bothered me,' he said. 'It bothered the alumni, period. They're accustomed to winning, and they're accustomed to winning a certain way. Look, we're not going to win them all. But if we play the game the way the Raiders are supposed to play - tough, physical, smart - then you've got a chance to win.' In a rare admission, Davis says he made a mistake when he fired Shell in 1994, the team's last season in Los Angeles. Those Raiders were nothing special - they finished 9-7 and set a franchise record for most penalties - but the club didn't finish with a winning record for the next five seasons. 'When it happened, he made a decision,' Shell said. 'He said it was a business decision that was good for the organization. Did it bother me that I was released? Sure, it bothered me. But I understood the business. Also, I understood that he gave me the chance to be a player, an assistant coach, a head coach. So how can I say anything bad about him?' Now, Shell has the authority to dole out some chances. He brought back his offensive coordinator from 1994, Tom Walsh, who had a variety of jobs in his 11-year absence from the league, among them owning a bed and breakfast in Idaho and helping design football video games for Sega.

'It's not like I went away,' said Walsh, whose most recent coaching experience consisted of 1 1/2 seasons as Idaho State's head coach in 1997 and '98. 'I could be mayor, on the governor's board for tourism council in Idaho, or whatever. That doesn't mean that my brain was erased. If you're out there bucking hay, you're still going to think about [football].' Likewise, Shell insists he hasn't lost his edge. He liked his job on Park Avenue, but he couldn't resist taking the road back to the Raiders. 'It wasn't like I was sitting there staring out the window waiting for an opportunity,' he said. 'Because opportunity had presented itself in the National Football League. And there always was that attraction of being on the sideline again, being in practice, working with the players. There's nothing like that.'
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