When it comes to the Oakland Raiders, Tom Flores had the exact opposite personality that people generally associate with the franchise. And yet the quiet, unassuming quarterback from Sanger, California was entrusted with the fortunes of the franchise as both a player and a coach. During his time with the Raiders, Tom Flores was a part of three Super Bowl champions and helped lead some of the greatest teams in NFL history. While others may get more credit for the success of the Raiders, he quietly led one of the most rambunctious groups in the NFL to ultimate glory. Along the way, he earned the trust of his players as they navigated the trials and struggles of the NFL landscape. This is his story.
Thomas Raymond Flores was born on March 21, 1937 in Sanger, California. After starring as a quarterback at Sanger Union High School, Flores spent two years at Fresno City College. However, despite his athletic prowess, he earned an academic scholarship to the College of the Pacific. He had a decent career with the Tigers but was unable to find a job in professional football after graduating in 1958. After being cut by the Calgary Stampeders, he played with the semi-pro Bakersfield Spoilers for the 1958 season. An attempt at gaining a roster spot with Washington proved to be for naught and Flores was forced to wait another year for his opportunity.
In 1960, a new football league began. Its arm stretched from coast to coast and thus the Oakland Raiders were born. Seeing another opportunity, Tom Flores tried out and made the team, becoming the first quarterback in Raiders history. He also became the first Hispanic quarterback in pro football history. The Raiders lacked talent in those days and rarely won.
Flores endured the expected struggles of the expansion team and won five games in his rookie year, tossing 12 touchdown passes and coughing up 12 interceptions. However, he did lead the AFL in completion percentage, completing 54% of his passes. He started every game in 1961, but went 2-12. Despite the poor record, he still managed to complete 51.9% of his passes for 2,176 yards. 1962 was one of the worst in franchise history, with the Raiders going a miserable 1-13. To make matters worse, Tom Flores was lost for the year after contracting non-contagious tuberculosis.
In 1963, the franchise went through a resurgence under new head coach Al Davis, going 10-4. He only started nine games in that year but went 8-1 as a starter and threw 20 touchdowns. Flores struggled the entire 1964 season and threw only seven touchdown passes against 14 interceptions.
While he threw more touchdowns (14) in 1965, Flores completed a career worst 45.4% of his passes. The following year was his best. He threw 24 touchdown passes while leading the team to an 8-5-1 record. It would be the last great year of Tom Flores’ career. He only started four more times in his last three years of his career. He finished his playing career in 1969, splitting time between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs, winning the Super Bowl as the Chief’s backup.
The Assistant Coach
Following his career as a player, Tom Flores spent the 1971 season with the Buffalo Bills as quarterbacks coach. The team was dreadful, going 1-13, and his quarterback, Dennis Shaw, only contributed to the losing, tossing a ghastly 26 interceptions against just 11 touchdowns. The lone bright spot was the continued development of O.J. Simpson. When the season ended, Flores was hired by the Raiders to be their wide receivers coach. In those days, the Raiders featured one of the most explosive passing attacks in the NFL, featuring the likes of Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff. The Raiders were loaded with talent at every position and had to compete in one of the toughest eras in NFL history. From the time that Flores was hired in 1972 to the time that he became the head coach in 1979, the Raiders made the playoffs every year but one and played in the AFC Championship Game five straight years.
He was on the sidelines when the Raiders were blindsided by the Immaculate Reception and he witnessed his Raiders lose to the Dolphins in 1973 and the Steelers in 1974 and 1975, ending promising seasons in heartbreaking fashion. He saw the anguish and the burden that his mentor, John Madden, carried every day, constantly searching for the answer they needed to finally reach the mountain top.
There was a different feeling in the air in the fall of 1976. While the Steelers were striving for a third straight Super Bowl, the Raiders still had the same team that they had the previous two years. The Raiders were hungry but quickly fell behind by two touchdowns to their hated rivals in the season opener. Tight end Dave Casper caught a ten-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to cut the lead in half. One possession later and quarterback Ken Stabler ran into the end zone to tie the game. After stopping the Steelers one final time, the Raiders put kicker Fred Steinfort in position to win the game. He came through and the Raiders rode that momentum to a 13-1 regular season.
The Raiders met the New England Patriots in the first round of the playoffs that year, eager to avenge their lone loss of the year. In a tight contest, Biletnikoff carried the team for most of the game, catching nine passes for 137 yards and one touchdown. Late in the game, the Raiders were down 21-17 but staged one last drive led by one of the greatest clutch quarterbacks of all time. Still, the Raiders needed a timely penalty against the Patriots to put them in the red zone. Stabler then ran in the game winning touchdown with just seconds left on the clock.
While that game was exciting, one team stood in their way from reaching the Super Bowl: the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the Steelers were plagued with injuries, they were still formidable and featured one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. Undaunted and featuring a powerful running attack of their own, the Raiders scored first and never looked back. While Stabler only completed ten of his 16 passes, three of those completions went to Cliff Branch for 46 crucial yards. The Steelers were ultimately overwhelmed by a great team and succumbed to a 24-7 defeat. At last, the Oakland Raiders had defeated their arch nemesis and were headed to the Super Bowl.
The Raiders were ready to claim their long awaited championship on that sunny day of January 9, 1977 in Pasadena, California. Their great offensive line did not let them down against the Minnesota Vikings terrifying defensive line and helped pave the way for 266 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. However, it was one of Flores’ receivers who received MVP honors. Fred Biletnikoff only had four catches but he gained 79 yards and earned the game’s MVP. Due to a total team effort, the Raiders won their first Super Bowl 32-14.
After years of trying in vain to win the Super Bowl, John Madden began to feel the stress of the job and suffered through ulcers the final two years of his reign as the Raider’s coach. The team made the AFC Championship Game in 1977 but lost to a resurgent Denver Broncos team. It was a final shot at glory for John Madden as the Raiders missed the playoffs in 1978. He retired from coaching following that year and Tom Flores was hired as his successor.
The Head Coach
The Oakland Raiders went through a transition during Tom Flores’ first couple of years at the helm. Stabler and Casper were getting older and the departure of Madden left a massive void in the culture of the Raiders. Little did the public know that in 1978, the Raiders had signed former Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett. The former top overall pick in the 1971 draft from Stanford University had rarely been given the talent he needed to succeed in the NFL and had been discarded by two franchises as a bust.
Going to the Raiders, it was expected that Plunkett would sit back and learn the offense in at least the first year. He hardly played his first two years in Oakland, quietly waiting for his opportunity. In Plunkett, Tom Flores saw himself; an intelligent quarterback of Hispanic ancestry who had not had much success in the NFL but had the physical tools to lead his team to victory.
The Raiders missed the playoffs again in 1979 and traded Stabler for Houston’s Dan Pastorini in the offseason. The Raiders got off to a slow start in 1980 and Pastorini was lost for the year in the fifth game. Plunkett finally had his chance to shine and Flores’ career as a head coach would soon take off. Plunkett used the resources around him to lead the team to the playoffs where they would defeat the Oilers before heading over to Cleveland for the Divisional Round.
Cleveland was particularly frigid that afternoon and neither team could get a large lead. Eventually, the Raiders went ahead 14-12 but the Browns drove the down the field for a potential game winning score. The Browns kicker struggled throughout the game and instead of kicking a field goal, the Browns elected to throw one more pass into the end zone. Named “Red Right 88”, the play was designed to go to tight end Ozzie Newsome. Quarterback Brian Sipe tossed the ball into the end zone where Newsome was waiting with anticipation but safety Mike Davis had other plans and intercepted the pass. Miraculously, the Raiders were headed to the AFC Championship Game against the heavily favored San Diego Chargers.
Facing one of the league’s greatest offenses, the Raiders faced a daunting task but were ready for the challenge. Plunkett was responsible for three touchdowns in the first quarter and led the team to a 34-27 upset. All season long, the Raiders had faced adversity and in their rambunctious way had dealt with each and every challenge. Leading the charge was their coach who was calm and collected in the midst of the storm and now he and his Raiders were headed to the Super Bowl.
Earlier in the season, the Raiders had lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 10-7. Yet despite the loss, they felt that they were ready to win the Super Bowl. It was a well known fact that the Eagles coach, Dick Vermeil was very demanding of his team and had not allowed his team to have any fun in New Orleans (the host city) before the Super Bowl. Tom Flores on the other hand had given the Raiders some flexibility and had allowed them to enjoy themselves for the first couple of days before getting serious about the game. At kickoff, it became evident that the Raiders were better prepared for the Super Bowl as they were more relaxed. They jumped to a two touchdown lead and never looked back, winning the game 27-10. Jim Plunkett won the game’s MVP, instantly becoming an inspiration for many.
The 1981 season was disappointing for the defending champs. They had drafted quarterback Marc Wilson in the first round of the 1980 draft and wanted to give him some starting experience in his second year. While he did go 5-4 as a starter, it was too little too late and the team went 7-9, missing the playoffs.
The following year was marred by a strike as the Raiders also left Oakland for Los Angeles. While they played their games in L.A., they still practiced in Oakland. Between the considerable travel and the strike, the season was bound to blow up. In the midst of the turmoil was the calm presence of Tom Flores. The team was inspired by his calm demeanor and went 8-1. However, despite their impressive record, a season’s worth of struggle and turmoil ultimately undid the team as they lost to the New York Jets in the first round of the playoffs.
The 1983 season was a special one for the Raiders yet it had a vague sense of déjà vu. Once again, a higher touted quarterback started the season and was injured. And once again, Jim Plunkett was called to save their season. Of course, it helped that he had fellow Heisman winner Marcus Allen in the backfield with him. Flores did a masterful job letting a natural sense of camaraderie flow through an organization which was drenched in talent. They had a fistful of stars on their defense including defensive ends Lyle Alzado and Howie Long along with cornerbacks Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes.
From the legendary steroid-fueled fits of rage that Alzado displayed during virtually every game to the athletic grace and genius of Marcus Allen, Tom Flores let the talent lead the way to another Super Bowl. There they faced Washington which had torn defenses apart with a powerful running attack and a lethal aerial assault all season. The Raiders were undaunted and they thoroughly dismantled their favored opponents 38-9. It would be their final Super Bowl win.
Tom Flores’ remaining years in Los Angeles were marred by Al Davis’ growing distrust and dislike of Marcus Allen. Still, Flores pressed on and led the Raiders to two more playoff appearances in the subsequent years after their last Super Bowl win. Allen even managed to win the NFL MVP in 1985 as his coach never gave up on him. After a dismal 5-10 record in 1987, Flores moved on to work in the Raider’s front office for the 1988 season before leaving to join the Seattle Seahawks in a similar capacity beginning in 1989.
After five years away from coaching the game, Flores returned to coaching in 1992 with the Seahawks. They were a dismal franchise and his 2-14 season certainly highlighted their struggles. Flores lacked a leader at quarterback and selected Notre Dame’s Rick Mirer second overall in the draft. Mirer started every game as a rookie in 1993 and went 6-10. While that record is dismal he showed promise. However, Flores could never develop him as quality NFL quarterback and ultimately Seattle management took notice. After another 6-10 season in 1994, Tom Flores was fired.
In total, he won 97 and lost 87 games as a head coach. His 83 wins with the Raiders were second only to John Madden. While he was with the Raiders, he came upon a gauntlet of personalities and managed them all with the same authoritative yet calm demeanor which became his trademark. By breaking down the racial stereotypes of the day and handling the immense pressure from Al Davis, he earned a unique place in the lore of the Oakland/ Los Angeles Raiders. Flores returned to the Raiders in 1997 as a color commentator for the Raiders Radio Network, serving alongside Greg Papa until 2018. For Tom Flores, he could always come home again.