Standing at the chalkboard in his size 13 sneakers, the 6’5″, 300-lb. head coach of the National Football League’s L.A. Raiders hardly looks like a gentle Mr. Chips. Yet when Art Shell begins his history lesson, the players listen like awestruck fourth-graders. “We’re going back into the twilight zone again,” Shell tells them softly, then spins another tale of the legendary silver-and-black knights of yore. The hero might be quarterback Ken Stabler, or placekicker George Blanda, or safety Jack Tatum, but Shell’s purpose is always the same: to instill in these young men the mystique of toughness and cocky self-confidence that made his Raiders the winners they were.
“We always passed down what it meant to be a Raider,” explains Shell, a former offensive tackle. “Wearing the silver and black commanded respect. The fans might boo you, they might yell at you, but you got respect.”
Shell, 43, broke a different, less glorious tradition just last month when he was named the first black NFL head coach in modern times, but he didn’t dwell on that aspect of his job. Instead he concentrated on resuscitating the 1-3 Raiders after 19 unhappy months under coach Mike Shanahan, a 1988 import from the rival Denver Broncos. Helped by Shell’s infusion of old-time Raider spirit, as well as the annual mid-autumn arrival of running back Bo Jackson, the new coach’s pupils won four of five games before hitting another losing spell. Even in the bad games, his communion with the players is obvious. Unlike more mercurial coaches, Shell doesn’t scream or throw tantrums. When things go wrong, he gently pulls the offender aside, wraps a beefy arm around his shoulder and speaks his mind quietly.
Shell is fiercely loyal to those he regards as family and almost sheds his natural reticence when describing his childhood in a “nice project” in Charleston, S.C. The oldest of five children, he recalls that “I used to be called a mama’s boy because I hung on her hand.” But when his mother, Gertrude, died of a heart attack, Art Jr., only 15, was forced to grow up fast and ease the burden on his father, Arthur, a truck driver. “He ran the house as my dad would,” recalls his sister, Eartha Smalls. “He told us life must go on and we had to pull together.”
A high school football and basketball star, Shell played both sports at Maryland State and was drafted by the Raiders in 1968. His speed and bulk made him an overpowering blocker, and he missed only five games through 15 seasons in which the team won the Super Bowl twice. “I never knew a defensive lineman who got the better of him,” says his old teammate Lyle Alzado. Shell served six more years as a Raiders offensive line coach and last January was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That became a bittersweet honor when, two days after the announcement, his father died. “I loved that man,” says Shell. “He brought us up right and gave us direction. Not too many kids can say that now in this world.”
An equally dedicated family man, Shell spends as much time as possible with his wife, Janice, and sons Art III, 15, and Christopher, 13, whose basketball teams he coaches in the off-season. “Dad always stresses the grades first, then sports,” says Christopher. “But he isn’t afraid to yell when I miss a lay-up.” Of all the congratulations he has received since his promotion, Shell treasures Art’s most. “He said, ‘Dad, I’m so proud to be named after you,’ ” Shell recalls. “That almost overwhelmed me.”
Each morning as he leaves his domestic cocoon in Rancho Palos Verdes, Shell remembers a warning from Raiders owner Al Davis: “All the great things you’ve done as a player can be lost if we’re not successful.” So far, at least, he has renewed the Raiders’ pride. “We used to go out on that field convinced we were going to win,” Shell says. If he can make his team believe that again, he has an outside shot at another benchmark—becoming the first black head coach in the play-offs.
—Jeannie Park, Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles