A Look Back At — Tom Flores
Tom Flores the quarterback ranks sixth on the Raiders all-time passing list with 11,635 yards and 92 touchdown passes. Flores the head coach led the Silver and Black to two World Championships of Professional Football with victories in Super Bowls XV and XVIII. Flores currently serves as the analyst on the Raiders’ radio broadcasts each week during the football season. Flores was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.
SVT: When did you first start playing football?
Tom Flores: The first time I ever handled a football was in the fifth grade. Somebody had a football that was half filled with air; I just picked it up and threw it. We had to wait sometimes for the air to fill back up in the ball before we could continue playing. It was never any organized ball at the time, we just kind of played pick up ball and I was probably about nine or 10. Then, when I went to junior high, I started playing flag football when I was in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade. I then continued on to high school where tackle was introduced.
SVT: When did your coaching career start?
Tom Flores: Coaching started in 1971 kind of by accident. I couldn’t find any team that I felt I had a chance to make as a veteran, so I decided that it was probably best to get on with the rest of my life. I had taken a job with a friend of mine in Oakland, [while I] looked around to see if there was anything available in football, but nothing at the time was, so I did that; and was doing a little work trying to get into some sporting news on weekends on television. Then all of sudden in July, I got a call from Buffalo. The head coach there had quit about a day or two before training camp had started so they asked me if I’d come back to help coach for that year, because they knew I knew the system. So overnight I became a coach in the NFL.
SVT: As a player, how did you become a Raider?
Tom Flores: In 1960 when the league started, I had been in Canada for two months in ‘58 and had been released. I came back and had surgery on my throwing shoulder. In ‘59 I tried out with the [Washington] Redskins and failed because the shoulder just wasn’t ready. During that time I had gone back to school, I was working on my Master’s Degree in Education and the AFL started, and they were taking anybody who was warm and could walk. Oakland was the last franchise to be established and I got a call, I said ‘what the heck, I have nothing to lose, I have the rest of my life to work,’ so I might as well give it one more chance to do something that I have always had a passion for. So there we were 11 quarterbacks in camp the first day.
SVT: What was the pressure or competition like at that time with 11 quarterbacks at camp in 1960?
Tom Flores: There was no real pressure, because we were a bunch of guys in a league that according to some experts had no chance to succeed. Everybody was either labeled a reject or a wannabe, the NFL had the established the name, so there was not a lot of pressure. We were having a good time in doing so and a lot of great stories came out of that. It was a low budget operation, but there was a lot of competition when you have 11 quarterbacks the first day, then all of a sudden in about two days it was down to four, then eventually it came down to just two guys that were left standing at the end. I ended up with Babe Parilli who was veteran at the time, he had just been released in Canada, he and I became the quarterbacks that year, and I became the starter. I started the very first game for The Oakland Raiders ever.
SVT: What did it mean to you to play for the Raiders?
Tom Flores: Well at that time, it just meant that I was doing something that I loved to do. We had no way that we could ever possibly conceive that it would grow to be what it is today. Football as a whole wasn’t as big as it is [today], even the National Football League, but because of television and only one league, now all of a sudden a new league and we were televised by ABC and eventually NBC, so we got a lot of coverage of that respect. Then all of a sudden with each year, you got the feeling that this was going to work and we started becoming more proud of what we were doing.
SVT: In your playing career, is there a moment or play that stands out?
Tom Flores: There were two games, one in ‘63 when I threw six touchdowns. I was facing George Blanda with the [Houston] Oilers and at halftime it was 35-35, it was just a wild game. I threw six touchdown passes and I think he threw five. It was won with a field goal in the later minutes of the game by Mike Mercer, our kicker at the time. That was a memorable game for me because of all the different things we could do offensively. Then in ‘66 we were playing in Shea Stadium and Joe Namath is the quarterback and I’m the quarterback and we were driving at the end of the game, there was very little time on the clock and at Shea Stadium down in one end zone it’s so noisy because it’s right next to the airport, and were on the one-yard line, I’m trying to audiblize and the players can’t hear me so I’m running down the line of scrimmage yelling the audible hoping they don’t jump offside, and then I get up to the line and the backs hadn’t heard me so I had to turn around and tell them. Then we ran the play, scored and won the game. We needed a touchdown to win. I looked up and there was like :06 left on the clock, I said ‘whoa, I could have been standing here and the clock would have run down it would have been all over.’ After the game it was euphoria in the locker room, because it was such a neat game.
SVT: As a coach, what moment or game stands out in your career?
Tom Flores: There are a lot of them as a coach, because we went to two Super Bowls. Our 1983 team was a great football team. We had great players, it was one of the best teams that I have ever been involved with. Our ‘80 team was a great team, but we worked hard to get there because we were a Wild Card. My second year we had a lot of players that were resurrected including Jim Plunkett, and he turned out to be one of the great players all-time also, and it is hard to say, there were a lot of games. Nothing gets bigger than when you win. There were a lot of great moments.
SVT: As a player and a coach, is there any team that you enjoyed playing against the most
Tom Flores: I enjoyed playing San Diego because we played them twice a year and it was always a great game, especially when head coach Don Coryell was there and he had such great offenses, we always felt if we had the ball last we could win. Big plays were made, even when [John] Madden was coaching. There was always a lot of excitement in those games, and that goes back even to when I played San Diego, because they were always our big rivalry. [There were] other teams that I enjoyed playing, but didn’t like. I never liked Denver. I respected them, but I never did like them.
SVT: What was it like to become the head coach of the team you used to play for?
Tom Flores: I can’t say that it was a dream come true, because I never thought about being the head coach until John Madden retired. I felt that if I had a chance to be head coach, it might have to be someplace else. I didn’t want to leave the area, because when you spend seven years with a team as a player, and then seven years as an assistant coach, you would like to stay with that team, but it just doesn’t happen. Then when John retired because he was tired and worn out, I started thinking about being the Raiders head coach a little bit more and more. Then all of sudden I thought this would be a real dream and it finally happened after several days and interviewing with Al more than once. It was a great feeling of euphoria and I celebrated with my family and my closest friends. Everybody shared in the ride.
SVT: What was it like to succeed John Madden?
Tom Flores: It wasn’t as difficult for me as it would have been for an outsider because I came from within. I had been with him since ‘72, so it was just a changing of the guard. The atmosphere didn’t change, the players knew me, I knew the organization, I knew what was expected and I thought it was pretty smooth transition even though we had some bumpy roads on the field, but that’s always going to happen.
SVT: How did it feel to be the first Hispanic head coach?
Tom Flores: That was not a big thing then. They didn’t make as big a thing out of it then as they maybe would have today. Some of the local people and some of the people around the world, especially Mexico, they were proud of it. I got a lot of fan mail, but the media did not make as big a deal out of it as they would today. I wasn’t hired because I was a Hispanic. I was hired because Al felt I could do the job. That’s the reason, and that’s the only reason I should be hired.
SVT: After being a quarterback and then becoming a head coach, what is the relationship like between the quarterback and the head coach?
Tom Flores: I think it has to be an extension with certain qualifications. For instance, your quarterback is your extension on the field if you’re an offensive minded coach. That’s the way I felt because I was a quarterback, I ran the offense. When I was on the sidelines during the game, I put myself in the huddle with the quarterback. I coached one of the last of the dinosaurs as far as quarterbacks calling their own plays. [Jim] Plunkett was that guy. Everybody else that we had in that era in the ‘60s, had never called their own plays. We were inheriting kids out of college that had never called their own play and [we couldn’t] expect them to do so at that level. We finally had to go calling all the plays for the quarterbacks when Jim [wasn’t playing]. Then in about ‘84-‘85, I ended up calling all the plays. It was just too hard for them. When you’ve gone through many meetings with the quarterback, by the time your game day comes along, they know what you want them to call anyway. A lot of them have it on their wrist and everything, so it wasn’t a big transition. It was a little bit for Jim because he didn’t like the signal system. He had never done it. Here he was, won a Heisman, two Super Bowls, and Rookie of the Year, and never had somebody else call the plays for him. So it was a big transition for him, but it was something that was necessary for us and now everybody uses it with the helmet radio. My feeling is, if you’re an offensive minded head coach, you’re running the offense and your extension is the quarterback. He’s your guy on the field. He’s on offense. Defense has got to be somebody else, whomever you pick.
SVT: How do you feel about still being a part of the Raider Organization?
Tom Flores: I love it. I enjoy it. I get my football fix. I get to call games for the team that I spent most of my career with and had most of my success with. I can be critical to a point. I can get excited and I can get upset. I get all the emotions except they are not as strong as they were before, because I’m not on the sideline doing it. But it’s fun. Ten years of doing this, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but I’ve been doing it for 10 years and Greg Papa is a great guy to work for because he brings excitement to the booth and I just get to add to what he’s saying and tell people what I really see rather than what they’re looking at on TV, because lots of times you don’t get the whole picture when you’re watching the tube because you’re not seeing it all.
SVT: You have been the first to do many things in professional football (first QB for the Raiders, first minority head coach, first Hispanic QB and head coach, first QB on the Raiders to throw for 400 yards) what are your thoughts on that?
Tom Flores: I don’t even think about those things until I am reminded of them. I think I have done pretty well. In the ‘60s high percentage throwing was not in fashion. You threw for touchdowns and threw down the field, you didn’t do a lot of just dink passes and ball control type passes in the ‘60s. You look at the percentage of completions, and even the great ones like Johnny Unitas in his career, it wasn’t that high of a percentage for completions, you look at the results of what you’ve done. When I look back and I think about it, it gives me great feelings sometimes. In ‘63 which was the break out year for the Raiders, in back-to-back games against Denver and Houston I threw five touchdowns and then six touchdowns the following week. That’s 11 in two games. That’s probably a first and probably has never been duplicated, but people weren’t into numbers in those days as much as they are today. Today a 1,000-yard season for a running back is nothing. That’s 62 yards a game. Why are they still using that as a benchmark? I argue that all the time. The benchmark should not be a 1,000 yards any longer because in those days you played 12 games and then they went to 14, now they go to 16 games. For a 16-game season the benchmark should be like 1,400 yards. But no, they still use a 1,000-yard season. It’s still good, but it’s not anything like when Clem Daniels played for the Raiders or Jim Brown in his great career. These guys made it in a lot fewer games.
SVT: Aside from doing Raiders radio, what else are you working on?
Tom Flores: One of the things that I am proud of is that I have a foundation in my hometown of Sanger. I started it in 1988 and what we do is raise money – NFL Charities has donated on a yearly basis for the last few years, I have fundraisers, a golf tournament, dinners, I will make speaking engagements and rather than collect in honorarium I will have them write a check to the foundation, same thing on signings – and what we do is we benefit 14 kindergarten through eighth grade schools in that school district and we give money in rotating years to science one year, fine arts one year and athletics one year. It’s money that they don’t have that they can use. It is a small type of foundation, we’re not going to raise $100,000 in fundraisers like some of them, but I am very proud of that and it is still going on.
SVT: How does it feel to give back like that?
Tom Flores: It is a great feeling because I don’t get a lot of recognition on that respect, but it’s a great feeling to see some of things we do, and these kids that are benefiting, they have no idea of who I am. Some of them do when they get to high school, because the football stadium is named after me and if they go through high school, they graduate in the Tom Flores Football Stadium. It really feels good when I go around and visit and see some of these kids that have grown up, they say ‘I remember when we did this because of your organization’ and that makes me feel good.