ALAMEDA, Calif. — Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, regarded as the godfather of bump-and-run coverage, died Tuesday at the age of 78 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Brown had been one of the closest confidantes of late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, as well as a trusted adviser to Mark Davis, who took control of the team upon his father’s death in October 2011.
“He,” Mark Davis wrote of Brown in a text, “was a Raider.”
Undrafted out of Grambling State in 1963, Brown initially signed with the Houston Oilers before being cut and then signed by the Denver Broncos. He came to the Raiders, along with quarterback Mickey Slaughter, in a trade for defensive tackle Rex Mirich and a third-round draft pick in 1967.
Brown had already been perfecting his version of bump-and-run coverage.
“I didn’t know anything about backpedaling and running with the receivers,” Brown said in 2013. “But if I got my hands on him, the receiver can’t get open.”
Al Davis, after returning to Oakland following his stint as AFL commissioner, based his bump-and-run coverage on John Wooden’s defensive principles when his UCLA men’s basketball team was in a full-court press. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Brown was big for a cornerback at that time, and his physicality complemented fellow cornerback Kent McLoughan.
“That reflects back on the staff and the players, and Al Davis was the backbone of it all,” Brown said. “The opportunity he gave me when he traded for me, he gave me free reign. I’m in 10 halls of fame and it started with an opportunity.”
Brown had 15 interceptions in four seasons with the Broncos. In 12 seasons with the Raiders, Brown added 39 more, tied for most in franchise history with Lester Hayes, who would refer to Brown as his personal “Yoda.”
As a player, Brown was approached by 10 defensive coordinators who wanted him to teach them the intricacies of bump-and-run.
Davis was incensed.
“Hell no, you can’t teach those guys,” Davis told Brown, who howled with laughter at the memory.
“I didn’t play DB in college,” Brown said. “I just knew that if you beat the hell out of the receivers coming off the line of scrimmage, that was going to affect whether they could catch the ball or not.”
The first quarterback Brown intercepted in his professional career was the Raiders’ Tom Flores, on Dec. 15, 1963, when Brown was 23 years old. The last QB he got was the New England Patriots‘ Steve Grogan on Sept. 24, 1978, when Brown was almost 38.
His favorite quarterback? Brown said it was fellow Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, whom he victimized for a 75-yard pick-six in the fourth quarter of the Raiders’ 32-14 defeat of the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI, the “Old Man Willie” play immortalized by radio broadcaster Bill King.
“They were in that hurry-up offense, so I knew he was going go to throw the ball to Sammy White,” Brown said. “I’m a gambler, and I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I told Ted [Hendricks] to stay inside and I told Jack [Tatum] to stay deep. And that’s where he threw the ball.
“All I’m thinking is, I’ve got to score. I knew nobody could catch me because there wasn’t nobody else out there. We’ve got the game in hand, just don’t get caught.”
The leader of Oakland’s “Soul Patrol” secondary, which included “Assassin” Tatum, George “Hit Man” Atkinson and “Dr. Death” Skip Thomas, Brown joined the Raiders’ coaching staff as a defensive backs coach after retiring following the 1978 season. He later was head coach at Long Beach State in 1991.
“Coach Brown was a solid man,” said Gerard Brooks, who played defensive tackle for Brown at Long Beach. “Also an inspirational guy. When he was with us he was coaching full time while working on his master’s, but still made time for you. … He had a huge impact on my direction. Blessed to have been around him.”
Brown, who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984, returned to the Raiders in an administrative role when the team returned to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995, and he also served as an assistant before becoming the team ambassador — a position in which he served until his death.
He was also known for his tradition of wishing a happy Mother’s Day to all the moms when announcing the Raiders’ second-round pick at the NFL draft.
Brown is the second iconic Raiders figure and longtime Davis family friend to die since training camp opened. Wide receiver Cliff Branch died Aug. 3, two days after his 71st birthday.