Another great interview from the archives. This with Bruce Allen and was conducted during the Jon Gruden era.
He sits at the right hand of one of the true football gods, Raiders’ owner Al Davis.
Bruce Allen doesn’t get the publicity afforded a head coach or a high-profile NFL owner such as Davis, but he is just as important to the Raiders organization. As the team’s “senior assistant,” Allen handles a variety of duties for the franchise, from negotiating player contracts and managing the team’s salary cap, to coordinating marketing and community relations projects and answering media inquiries. The son of the late George Allen, record-breaking coach of the Redskins, he brings a passion and work ethic to the job only equaled by the Raiders’ new head coach, Jon Gruden.
Probably no employee, other than Davis himself, knows more about the day-to-day operations of the Oakland Raiders than Allen. An articulate representative of the Silver and Black, Allen spoke to Raider Nation Journal’s Randy Shillingburg on May 5 about the team’s draft and prospects for the 1998 season. Following are excerpts from this phone interview which probed into the inner workings of pro football’s most dynamic organization:
RS: What are you working on today, Bruce?
BA: We’re working on a number of things. We’re looking to fill out our 80-man roster and we’re also looking at some marketing and community relations activities.
RS: Which players are we looking at today? Can you tell?
BA: No, we don’t do it that way. As you know, we like to keep our objectives quiet until they’ve been conquered.
RS: But you are talking to some players?
BA: Yes we are.
RS: Will the Raiders be active (in free agency) after June 1?
BA: If the right players become available that we feel can help us. With our new coaching staff — they have spent an extensive amount of time implementing their new terminology and their new schemes to our players since February. It can be difficult for a new player to come in late in June or early July and get up to speed that quickly. It is a complete change in terminology for us, and it’s something that needs a lot of work and repetition. The players are still here working on it.
RS: If I would call the Raiders office about 4 o’clock in the morning, would I reach Jon Gruden?
BA: (Laughing) If you had his direct dial, you would. Some days he gets in late, around five.
RS: (Laughing) He’s sleeping in those days?
BA: (Laughing) Usually you can get him between four and five pretty easily.
RS: It sounds as if he’d be a tough guy to try to keep up with.
BA: Well, he’s got so much energy, and it’s creative energy. We feel fortunate to have landed Jon here, because he’s brought some adrenaline to the team that has been needed.
RS: Almost everyone has alluded to the fact that returning this team to its rightful place among the league’s elite will require a major rebuilding job. Does the team have a timetable with a series of goals?
BA: Our timetable is to be as good as we can be each week. There is some great history that shows quick turnarounds in this new salary cap era. We’re just going (to) try to play one game at a time. We open with Kansas City, and Jon has all of his focus on that game and (to) do the best we can. When the coaches came in here, they wanted to have these early mini camps. In fact, we had one before the draft even, and they were pleased with our talent. Offensively, we have some explosive weapons that excite the offensive coaches, but defensively we also (have) a nucleus that can be built around with some solid, young talent.
RS: What does Jon Gruden bring to the Raiders?
BA: He brings intelligence. He brings passion. He brings discipline, and he brings energy.
RS: What does Bruce Allen bring to the Raiders?
BA: Definitely the passion and the ability to look at any possible contractual problem from different angles and be able to solve it. As with everyone in the organization, that burning desire to win.
RS: What do you think the chances are of having Charles Woodson signed before training camp starts? Do you get the feeling that both Charles and his agents want him to be in camp on time?
BA: Well, in talking to Charles, you feel that. There’s no way to predict that far off. Last year, we were fortunate that Darrell Russell signed the day camp started. He was the first of the top six draft choices to sign. None of those other draft choices signed for, I don’t think, for another week or so. We’ll work at it and attempt to compensate him fairly and come up with a deal. It takes two to make an agreement.
RS: What is it like to work with Jon Gruden? What are your impressions of him? Do you feel that the team has turned around under his leadership?
BA: Results are what turn around a team. Chemistry is an often-used phrase. I’ve only seen teams that win that have good chemistry. That (having team chemistry) will be when we get on the field and outscore our opponents. I don’t want to put too much on Jon too early. But are we headed in the right direction? Absolutely.
RS: Who have been your biggest influences in football?
BA: Well, my father was probably number one and number two. After that, I would probably say a lot of his players, who I grew up as friends to, and Al Davis. Al is every coach’s idol in that he was a Coach of the Year, successful coach, but he ended up owning a franchise. I don’t think — now that George Halas and Paul Brown are gone — that we’ll ever see this again in sports. The value of the franchises has gotten near a billion dollars.
RS: What does Al Davis bring to the Raiders? Of course we know his knowledge of the game and all of that, but what else does he add to the team?
BA: His incredible experience at doing every facet of an organization — working in every facet of the organization — is invaluable. His ability to see the big picture and clearly project what our future holds is really kind of amazing. Some of the new coaches call him Karnac. Some of the owners in the league at the last league meeting called him E. F. Hutton. He had predicted that television income was going to double — two years ago. Everyone sort of laughed at that and sort of thought he was just talking. And then it happened. He has great insight and great vision. He is the person that lights this flame in everyone around this organization. When he comes by — not intentionally and not directly — but his burning desire to succeed motivates everyone in this place.
RS: He’s an extremely loyal person, from everything that I’ve read. He’s the type of boss who, once you prove to him that you have the same passion, he has extreme loyalty to you.
BA: You know, it’s funny. John Madden says that if he had (only) one phone call to make, he’d call Al Davis. He actually gives you that loyalty before you’ve entered the Raiders organization. He won’t ever let me explain some of the things he does for people in need, or people that are looking for assistance of some kind, whether it’s someone in the community, or a former Raider, or a former coach who just coached in college. His generosity would shock people.
RS: That’s what I had heard. I remember hearing a story one time that he picks up the tab whenever he enters a restaurant and sees any of his players there.
BA: That is minor compared to some of his acts of goodwill. If anyone that he knows is sick or their family has a problem, somehow he finds the time to research extra medical help and help people. When my wife was going into premature labor, Al Davis was the person calling the doctor before I even got home to take her to the hospital.
RS: (Laughing) I can just see some doctor at Cedar Sinai Hospital or the Mayo Clinic handing the phone to another doctor: “It’s Al Davis on the line for you.”
BA: (Laughing) That’s right — making sure that we have the right doctor. It’s incredible how widespread his generosity is, but it’s also because he believes in people, and he likes helping people who are less fortunate — not only less fortunate in terms of money but also less fortunate in terms of knowledge.
RS: It sounds as though you enjoy working with him.
BA: I love it. I really do. The relationship is more than just football, although that’s the centerpiece of it. I enjoy asking him questions from World War II history to great leaders in our world, current events, political events, propositions that are on the ballot, and hearing his analysis of it, and then making side wagers as to which side is going to win. I haven’t won many of them.
RS: What was it like being in the war room during the draft? What was everyone’s reaction when Charles Woodson was available and the Raiders selected him?
BA: It was easy on the Woodson situation because we had a definite feeling that it was either going to be Andre Wadsworth or Charles Woodson, and we were going to be happy either way. Maneuvering and getting everybody’s opinion on who the next player we wanted — that was exciting. And then when we were able to complete the trade with Tampa and get Mo Collins — you would have thought it was Cinco de Mayo in the draft room. It was a great celebration.
RS: Was it nice to not only get a great player (Collins), but also beat San Francisco to the punch?
BA: Beating San Francisco just means that their scouts evaluated him in the same way that we did. We know that there was a team ahead of San Francisco that was going to draft him.
BA: So, it made it necessary to trade to the spot we did in order to get Mo. But, once again, that goes into the preparation by all of our scouts and coaches, and under Al’s leadership, making sure that we know everything there is possible to know about a draft situation.
RS: What was the reaction when the Raiders picked up Leon Bender?
BA: We were hoping that he would last until that spot. That supplemental pick we got from the league, we could not trade. We were concerned about the two spots above where we were selecting. Our happiness was small when compared to the happiness once we saw him at mini camp. He’s a big man whose explosiveness off the ball is rare.
RS: He doesn’t have the greatest 40 time, but he is apparently extremely quick.
BA: Yeah, extremely quick. Other than Wadsworth, I don’t know if there was a quicker big man in the draft.
RS: Do you think he’ll be a star in this league if he works hard?
BA: It’s too early to say that. We have two quality defensive tackles in Darrell Russell and Russell Maryland, but this gives us a third man in the rotation that should be able to help us for many years to come.
RS: What was the reaction in the war room when Jon Ritchie was available?
BA: We wanted Jon, and we knew that some other people wanted Jon. We had an offer to trade down, but the coaches were looking to grab (him) as a fullback. We decided to take Jon right there. Many people (in the organization) feel this way probably after the first mini camp: He was everything we were hoping he would be.
RS: Do you think he’ll be a good short-yardage runner?
BA: Oh, the great part about Jon is that he doesn’t care if he ever runs the ball. He’s a blocking fullback who has very soft hands, which is important in Jon Gruden’s offense. He (Ritchie) can do that (short-yardage running), yes. We were really looking for a lead back for Napoleon (Kaufman) and Harvey (Williams).
RS: I think that one of the sentences in my column this week about Ritchie is, “Aren’t unselfish players great?”
BA: (Laughing) Yeah.
RS: It sounds as though he doesn’t care if he gets the ball two or three times a game as long as he has a chance to knock a couple of linebackers, a couple of defensive linemen and a couple of cornerbacks on their ass.
BA: I don’t know if he cares about getting it that one time a game. He said that coming in and that’s his attitude, which is refreshing.
RS: This draft was kind of an attitude adjustment. The team picked players who are a little cocky, who have the feeling that they want to be part of a team — not so much the individual glory or anything — but that they really enjoy being a part of a team and making a contribution.
BA: When you look at our first three choices, they came from Michigan, the national champion; Florida, last year’s national champion; and Washington State, this year’s Pac-10 champion. So, we added some players who are accustomed to winning, who know what it takes to win, and are driven to win. That’s what we’re looking for here. At the end of last season, we knew that we could go one of two ways. We could go back into free agency and try and pick up some players, but the players that were out there really didn’t excite us. We felt we got the best corner in free agency in Eric Allen via trade. We decided to concentrate and spend our money and time in the draft, and we ended up with three high draft choices and really three first round choices. We’re as happy as we can be about those guys.
RS: If the defense last year would have given up one less touchdown per game, which still would not have put it among the league’s leaders or even the division leaders, the team would have finished at 9-7. The Raiders were blown out the last few games of the year when the season was essentially over. Do you think that an 11-5 or 12-4 season is possible or even realistic to think about at this point?
BA: We’re not in the prediction business. As I stated, we’ve got to focus on beating Kansas City. We play them there in a Sunday night game as our opener. The beginning of our schedule is a wake up call for coach Gruden. Our defense was number eight in the NFL in 1996. We finished last (for) last year and really, personnel wise, all we did was improve it with the addition of Eric Turner and Darrell Russell. I think we need to get some confidence back. We need to get our aggression back, and I think having (new defensive coordinator) Willie Shaw gives us a chance to do that.
RS: Tell us a little bit about Willie Shaw. What would you like to tell Raider fans around the world that will give them confidence that he is going to turn this defense around?
BA: Well, there are two things. One, at age 19, he was a sergeant in the Army. Number two, the New Orleans Saints last year had the number four defense in the NFL. Now that’s an impressive statistic, but when you couple the fact that the New Orleans Saints had the 30th ranked offense, and turned the ball over 55 times, it almost becomes statistically impossible to have the number four defense. That and his proven record within our division. When he was with the Chargers, they went to the Super Bowl. Those few points really should give people comfort and it gives us great comfort.
RS: He turns around defenses quickly. He turns vanilla-type defenses into ball-hawking defenses that create a lot more opportunities for his offense.
BA: He does it because he has a great rapport with players, but a very disciplined rapport. People know that he’s the coach who’s in charge. We’re pleased to have him. If Jon is in here at four, Willie is having that second cup of coffee around here.
RS: (Laughing) So Willie is staying overnight, too?
BA: (Laughing) Yes he is.
RS: It sounds as if things are turning around, or are in the process of turning around. I know that people who are writing for and reading Raider Nation Journal are some of the most rabid fans you’d ever want to meet. My second son, believe it or not, his name is Todd Davis. I’ll just give you one guess as to who he was named after.
RS: Todd Christensen and Al Davis. I’ve been a Raider fan for a long time. I mean a long time.
BA: I visited the site (Raider Nation). The reason you all got a hold of me is that I visited the site, and I was reading (it). Our fans are the greatest. No matter what survey the league puts out, the Raiders stand tall internationally as really the flagship of the NFL. We spread across every race and nationality. It’s amazing to the other teams when they see our popularity. It’s something we’re proud of, and it’s something that we have to live up to. It’s based on the great players, and the great coaches of the past, the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. We know right now that we’re challenged to live up to the greatness that has been built up here. And that’s what we fight for. We like it. It’s a great pressure to be under.
RS: When you look at the great players, how can you not be in awe when you have Howie Long and Ben Davidson, Willie Brown and George Atkinson, and Jim Otto. Just being around those people, you almost have to have goose pimples anytime you see them.
BA: Al Davis received the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the NFL Alumni (Association) for the way he treats former players. I believe we have 14 former Raider players working within the organization, as well as what he’s done for players outside the organization. And we feel that is our duty to take care of those players and those former coaches. Coach Madden is still a consultant. Tom Flores works in our broadcast booth. We owe them a debt of gratitude for what they’ve created, not only for the Raiders, but for the NFL. That type of feeling is special, but when you’re standing on the sideline in a pre-game warm up next to George Blanda, Willie Brown, Fred Biletnikoff, and Al Davis. I don’t know where else you can do that but with the Raiders, and it’s special.
RS: Can you tell Raider fans any scoop today, or are you going to save it for Ann Killion?
BA: (Laughing) No, I’m not gonna — I’m certainly not gonna save it for her. We’re just going along with our business. The one great part is this off season program — for the four years I’ve been here — has the most players involvement of any of them. As I’m sitting here right now, I can see the offensive line out in the field. That’s exciting.
RS: Who’s out there today?
BA: All of them, except the rookies can’t be here until June. They’re all out there.
RS: So you’ve got Wisniewski . . .
BA: And Lincoln (Kennedy). I see (Pat) Harlow. I see Rick Cunningham. I see Barrett Robbins. There’s Tim Kohn. (Adam) Treu. And Scott Whittaker. Everybody’s here. And then we signed Darryl Ashmore, who was with the Redskins last year, for some depth.
RS: He was drafted originally by the Rams, wasn’t he?
BA: Yes he was.
RS: Have you seen any young players that you think that we should keep an eye on — that maybe they have a chance to be something special?
BA: We drafted somebody last year, Calvin Branch, who was a good college running back, and we converted him to corner. These coaches have moved him to safety. I don’t know if this will be his breakout year, but maybe the following year. He’ll make a significant contribution on special teams this year. I think in another year you’re going to see another one of these Raider projects (Branch) become a very good player.
RS: What about Scott Whittaker?
BA: Scott is battling for our starting right guard spot. He and Tim Kohn are (competing for the starting position). I think that’s why they both are here. Each one of them is trying to get the edge on the other, which is great. Scott has a chance to be our starting right guard this year.
RS: That’s great. I’ve certainly enjoyed this, Bruce.
BA: Well, we’ll do it again during the season.
RS: What do you think would be the possibility of talking to either Al Davis or Jon Gruden sometime?
BA: Jon, we’ll probably try and schedule, and I don’t think you’ll get Al.
RS: Even for a long-time Raider fan?
BA: Possibly, but he might want to do something in June. I’ll mention it to him. Remember that there’s a guy named Larry King who calls once a month, trying to beg to get him on also.
RS: (Laughing) Larry doesn’t get him?
BA: (Laughing) No.
RS: (Laughing) Well, let Randy Shillingburg get him.
BA: (Laughing) We’ll work on it, Randy.
RS: Thanks for talking with me, Bruce. It’s been a lot of fun.