Tom Flores was at the optometrist in August, eyes dilated, when the legendary Raiders coach felt his phone buzzing in his pocket.
“I was bouncing off the walls and I said, ‘There’s something going on here,” Flores recalled with a chuckle to Yahoo Sports in a recent phone interview. “I see all these missed calls and they were from football people, and friends.”
One of them included David Baker, the president and CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When Flores called him back, he got some good news: Flores was officially one step closer than he has ever been to wearing the gold jacket that eluded him for the past two decades.
In August, Flores was chosen as the coach finalist for the HOF Class of 2021, which means that when his name is brought before the 48-member selection committee on the day before the Super Bowl in February, he needs 80 percent of a yes-no vote.
Flores, 83, was the first Latino starting quarterback in pro football and the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl. If he wins approval, he will become the first Latino head coach to make the Hall of Fame, and only the third Latino to make it period, joining former Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Anthony Munoz.
His odds are promising, given the fact the committee has traditionally rubber-stamped senior candidates.
Flores knows it takes 10 “no” votes from committee members to end his candidacy. He won’t get ahead of himself, especially after being passed over in 2019, when he was one of 15 finalists, and earlier this year with the 20-man centennial class (Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher instead got in).
“Based on what’s happened in the last couple of years, I’m a little guarded about it … even now, even though I’m the only one on the ballot for the senior coaches,” Flores said. “Based on what happened two years ago and based on what happened last year, I thought sure I’d be in last year having made it all the way to the very end the year before. And when it didn’t happen I was dumbfounded, really, and a little upset and a little hurt. Angry. So I just said, ‘Forget it, I can’t let this ruin my life.’ So I went on with my life.”
While Flores was content not to talk about it for a while, all his friends couldn’t help themselves.
“They want to express their sympathies and condolences and everything, and you’re like, ‘I didn’t die!’” Flores said with a laugh.
He also got to experience the flip side of this in August, when he got that call that led to a parade of early congratulations. There are reasons to think he’ll be fine when the committee meets on Feb. 6, 2021.
The case for Tom Flores
Flores’ case begins and ends with his success with the Raiders, where he was a key figure for one of the NFL’s most successful franchises throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Flores worked under John Madden for seven years and won the 1976 Super Bowl as an assistant before he was promoted to head coach in 1979 and won a Super Bowl in 1980 and 1983 seasons.
Flores is one of 13 NFL head coaches to win two or more Super Bowls, and of those 13, eight are in the Hall with the ninth, Bill Belichick, a cinch when he’s eligible. That’s great company.
His first Super Bowl title was also historic because that 1980 group was the first wild-card team to win the championship.
The latter was particularly satisfying because of how challenging it was. It was the team’s second year in Los Angeles, and with Raiders owner Al Davis embroiled in a lawsuit against the NFL over the move, there was no shortage of distractions.
“I won one in two cities, living in a hotel for 14 months,” Flores said with a laugh.
Indeed. In 1982, the year before Flores’ second Super Bowl, the Raiders practiced in Oakland while commuting to Los Angeles for home games. When looking back, Flores takes particular pride in his ability to keep that team focused all year long. The Raiders went 12-4 and beat a Joe Gibbs-coached Washington squad that was the defending champion and would go on to win two more Super Bowls over the next eight years.
“Probably the stability I gave the team, because Al liked to stir the pot a lot,” Flores said, when asked what his greatest contribution was to that group. “We were constantly talking about moving to L.A., moving back to Oakland, and a lot of things were going on there that could disrupt most teams. But we had stability at head coach; John Madden was 10 years and I was nine years. That was a long time — 19 years, only two coaches.”
And in those 19 years, three Super Bowl victories and nine AFC championship game appearances.
“That shows the strength of the organization, and whoever is in charge of leading that organization — and I was one of them — had the strength and ability and following by the players,” Flores said.
Flores was also charged with keeping a raucous locker room together. The Raiders arguably embraced misfits and outcasts more than many other franchises of the time.
“People are always giving guys credit for their Xs and Os, but being a head coach is much more than that — it’s managing people,” Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen told Raiders.com. “I think ultimately, the thing that really created closeness is that he trusted us.”
“There was a lot of trust and there was a lot of love,” Raiders great Lester Hayes told the team’s site. “And Coach Flores’ teams always won.”
Yet, there’s a reason why it has taken Flores so long to get in, too.
The case against Flores
For all of Flores’ success with the Raiders, the case against Hall bonafides revolves around two critiques: the overwhelming presence of Davis, and Flores’ lack of success in his second act in Seattle years later.
Davis coached the Raiders in the AFL from 1963-1965, and was generally regarded as the engine behind the franchise’s success. He was a brilliant football mind who served as the club’s general manager for 45 years while giving the team its identity thanks to his strong personality and obsession with winning.
“If you ever worked for him, you would realize he’s not an easy guy to get along with,” Flores said. ”But when you get into his crew, he’s a very loyal guy because he’ll work hard with you but he also demands a lot of you. It was always going to be Al’s team, it never was going to be your team. And because of that, he got credit for everything and the rest of us were there.”
This perception even hurt Flores’ predecessor, John Madden. Though Madden became eligible for the Hall in 1983, he didn’t get enshrined until 2006, when the senior committee pushed him through. Flores’ 83 wins with the Raiders are the second-most in franchise history, behind only Madden’s 103.
“I think some were misled to believe Al was still coaching the team on the field and during the game and he wasn’t,” Flores said. “It was his team, he was involved in the drafting, the trades and he watched every practice. He was a football guy, it would be foolish not to use his knowledge.”
And use it he did, right up until he joined the Raiders’ front office in 1988 and bolted to become the president and general manager of the Seahawks in 1989. The team owners who bought the team — Ken Behring and Ken Hofmann — were friends of his.
After three more years during which the Seahawks went 23-25 under coach Chuck Knox, the owners decided to make a change on the coaching staff.
“We were kind of old and we needed to rebuild,” Flores said. “The owner said, you are my first choice, but if you don’t want to do it — hire somebody to do it. So I started thinking about it. I talked to my wife and decided I may never have a chance to do this again, so I did.”
Flores told Behring and Hofmann it was going to be like an expansion team. The Seahawks were old and they needed rebuilding. They’d have to draft young players and develop them. This would take time. The first year was awful, 2-14, and the second year was bad, 6-10, but Flores thought Seattle was going to be good in 1994, at least over .500. They even started 3-1.
“Then all of a sudden, we had 24 guys on injured reserve, and that tells you everything there,” said Flores, who was fired after the Seahawks finished 6-10 again. “I thought we had a lot of the pieces in place. But we just struggled all year because every time I turned around, somebody went down and we had to replace them. We had to go through three or four quarterbacks.”
The ownership group sold the team a few years after his dismissal, but Flores’ final act in Seattle was the one that stuck with some Hall of Fame voters. Hence the reason, while Flores became eligible for the Hall in 1999, he was only a finalist twice over the next 20 years.
Flores’ legacy is secure either way
Now, Flores is hoping the third time with a charm.
“It kind of is a surreal experience when you think about all the guys that have played the game and participated in the game and the very small number that are in the Hall,” Flores said. “So it would be an honor, a lifetime honor for a lifetime of love and passion for a profession.”
Regardless of what happens in February, Flores has already made his mark on Latinos everywhere.
His legacy has left a lasting impression, for instance, on Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera, one of only two Latino head coaches in the NFL (along with Miami’s Brian Flores).
“Growing up as a kid on the West Coast and being a Raiders fan and knowing who Tom Flores was, he was one of my early idols — he was a guy that I looked up to and aspired to be,” Rivera told Yahoo Sports in a statement.
"Then as I got into football and knowing I played against the teams he coached and then becoming a coach and getting an opportunity to emulate who he is and hopefully someday get an opportunity to win a Super Bowl like Tom did, that means a lot to me, it really does. Because he was the perfect role model for me as I grew up in California.”
Flores has always felt honored that he could be a symbol of what can be done.
“It’s not something you start out to be in life,” Flores said, “but if you end up in that position, then it’s a great feeling.”
Being immortalized in Canton in four months would also be a great feeling, largely because of all the people he wants to share the moment with, many of whom were devastated when informed of his past denials from the Hall.
“I’ve been close so long, whatever happens is going to happen,” Flores said. “All I know is if it does happen, the feelings I have will be good. Because if I go in, I’m not going in alone. I’m going in with all my friends, all my family, my fans. We’re all going in together.”
So it’s really just a matter, he says, of simply hoping for the best.
“When [I got the call], I was excited about it to a point,” Flores said, “and if it happens the day before the Super Bowl, I will be really excited about it. But I’m going to hold it all in until then.”