Fresno muralist Omar ‘Super’ Huerta tackles painting of local football hero Tom Flores
The Pro Football Hall of Fame has a unique way of notifying its enshrinees — something Tom Flores hopes he becomes on Saturday.
That’s when the former Raiders coach will find out if he’s been chosen for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019.
Just like each of the other 15 finalists, the ex-Sanger High and Fresno City College standout will be in an Atlanta hotel room. He’ll be with his wife, Barbara, while waiting for the knock on the door from Hall president and CEO David Baker.
Finalists must be named on 80 percent of the selection committee’s ballots to win enshrinement in Canton, Ohio.
Flores has never been this close; until this year, he never had made the semifinals.
“This year was a new experience, and the final 15 that’s really a big experience,” Flores said. “The other years, it would be over by now and I’m just relaxing and concentrating on the offseason and not pay attention to the Hall of Fame at all, unless it was a friend of mine.”
His regular-season coaching numbers are impressive. Flores won 97 games, including an 83-53 run with the Raiders from 1979 to 1987.
But he was even better in the postseason, where his 8-3 record for a .727 winning percentage ranks second to Vince Lombardi among those who have coached 10 or more playoff games.
Trailblazer? He has that covered, too, as the first Latino head coach in NFL history.
Uniqueness? Flores and Mike Ditka are the only men to have won Super Bowls as a player, assistant and head coach.
Still, Flores knows Hall of Fame disappointment all too well. He was stuck in place for nine years, unable to get past the November cutdown to the 25-man list of semifinalists.
“This whole dynamic changes when you get this far,” he said. “If I get to the big step, it will change even more so dramatically because all of a sudden, the Hall of Famers are no longer just former players. I don’t think that far ahead and try not to fantasize about it. I’m enjoying where I am with an optimistic view.”
The players’ perspectives
Allen was just a rookie when he was drafted by the Raiders with the 10th overall pick in the 1982 NFL draft. By his second year, he helped the Raiders to a Super Bowl title following the 1983 season. In 1985, he was league MVP. He gives a lot of credit for his success to Flores.
“Not only did he put me in a position to succeed, more importantly he gave me the confidence to reach my desired goals,” Allen told The Bee in an email. “My eventual induction into the Hall would not have been possible without his coaching, guidance, leadership, and faith that served me throughout my career.”
Haynes played his first seven full seasons with the New England Patriots, then joined the Raiders midway through that 1983 Super Bowl season.
Among his Flores memories are a simple moment a day before the Raiders were to play for the AFC championship against the Seattle Seahawks.
“I was really curious to see what he would say,” Haynes said. “His thoughts and his comments were like very surprising to me. He called everybody up like he did every Saturday before the game and he said, ‘Well, guys, another big game tomorrow. We play in a lot of big games. Another big game tomorrow and I’ll see you at the hotel at 6.’
“I was like, ‘What?!’ That’s it? You got to be kidding me,’ But that was it. It made everything come clear to me. Coach Flores really introduced me into a different way of thinking about sports. Coach Flores to me is one of the greatest coaches that I ever played for, without a doubt.”
Lofton joined the Raiders in Flores’ final season as the team’s coach in 1987, in a trade from the Green Bay Packers. Lofton is also one of the voting committee members. He recalled a conversation the two had.
“I expected to sit down with him and have a 30-minute conversation. He said, ‘Well, glad you’re here. We’re going to use you and get a lot out of you.’ To me, he was a straight shooter. There wasn’t a lot of rah rah or BS out of him. He knew how to compete. He knew he wanted his players to compete and that’s what he expected from you.”
Think the biggest milestone in Flores’ coaching career was that 1983 Super Bowl season?
Not even close.
Instead, it was the 1980 team, which also won the Super Bowl. The Raiders went 11-5 but needed the wild card just to qualify for the playoffs, then beat the Houston Oilers, Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles in Flores’ second year as coach.
Flores rattled off the names of longtime Raiders who had made that dream season come true: Upshaw, Shell, Hendricks and Cliff Branch.
Then there were the free agents and players acquired in trades, including Kenny King, Bob Chandler and Burgess Owens.
The Raiders traded Jack Tatum and two draft choices for King, who played for the Oilers. And Owens was acquired from the New York Jets.
Chandler came to Oakland in April 1980, following a trade with the Buffalo Bills.
The Raiders had traded away Ken Stabler prior to the season and Dave Casper midway through the year.
But castoff quarterback Jim Plunkett and the cast coached by Flores became champions.
“We were a team that were in kind of a rebuild mode and were able to put it together,” Flores said. “We had guys that knew how to win with the veterans we had. The organization knew how to win, so we were used to winning. ‘83 was a great team, but the ‘80 team was a special team.”
How will Flores handle Saturday in Atlanta? Will his palms be sweaty? Might his nerves overcome him?
Probably not; like any good coach, he has a plan.
“I don’t think that far ahead and try not to fantasize about it. I’ve been to the Hall of Fame inductions when Ray Guy got in, Ron Wolf and almost for all the Raiders. This year, maybe they’ll come out for me and we’ll have a party there.”
Allen, Haynes, Lofton and many other former players will be rooting for him to get that knock.
“Not only do I think Tom is an incredible human being, but also an outstanding coach and contributor that elevated the landscape of the National Football League,” Allen said.
“I personally feel indebted to Tom because he believed and trusted in me as a young rookie eager to make my mark in the NFL.”
Said Haynes: “He had individual relationships with the players. I love him for that; he was able to step out of his coaching role and talk to me as a friend, in a way that I can really understand him in his mind and what was important to him. He deserves to be in the Hall.”
Joining the Pro Football Hall of Fame means many things to those who are enshrined. For Flores, it’s pretty basic.
“It’s an acknowledgment of prestige in your life: You made a difference; you were a part of history,” he said. “I feel I’ve been part of history, especially in the AFL, 10 years as a player. Only 20 guys did that. And win four Super Bowls at every level. They can’t take that away from you, and that’s part of history.”