Former NFL player, national champion and the lawyer of Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, and Sylvester Croom - Exclusive sit down with LawInSport - Part 1
How does a former College & NFL player become a sports lawyer, and more importantly why would they want to become a lawyer after a successful playing career? These were just some of the question that sprung to mind when I received a press release announcing that Richard (Rick)T. Davis, a former football player for the University of Alabama and the Cincinnati Bengals, joined the Birmingham office of Baker, Baker Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC.
Rick has spent the last 30 years advising American college football and NFL coaches and players including legendary coaches Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, and Sylvester Croom.Being fascinated by the unconventional journeys taken by some sports lawyers, I wanted to find out how Rick became a legal advisor to some of the biggest names in College football and NFL coaches.
To give you some background, Rick, during his four years at Alabama, won four Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships and one national championship under legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.1 Following his senior season in 1974, he was elected as permanent co-captain by his teammates. Rick was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1975 and played four years in the National Football League. In 1983, he graduated from the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.
My first client - Ray Perkins
Starting out in college football and then progressing to the NFL Rick never required the services of an agent; agents were not so common place in those days. However, a friend of Rick’s from his freshman days at Atlanta, Robert Fraley, a lawyer and agent, encouraged Rick to go to law school, Rick explains:
“Robert and I were teammates at Alabama. He was practicing law while I was playing in the NFL, and Robert encouraged me to go to law school, which I did when I finished playing. Robert left the firm that he was with and we started our own law firm in Orlando, Florida in January '83. It was almost by accident that we started acting for football clients.
This was a risky start to Rick’s legal career: “Robert had already been practicing law, he was working for a good firm down in Florida called Holland & Knight, which at the time, was probably the largest firm in Florida. But for me to just go right out of law school and do something like that, from a legal learning standpoint probably wasn't a very smart thing to do. But from a business standpoint it was a real world education; I learned a lot in three and a half years that I otherwise would not have learned with a big firm. I don't think that's the right route for everyone, but I'd been playing in the NFL for four and a half years and and Robert and I decided to take a chance and see what we could do.”
To start off with Rick and Robert worked out of Robert’s house for the first five months until they had their own office.” Rick’s first piece of sports law work was for Ray Perkins when Ray got the head Coach job at the University of Alabama in 1983. Rick went on to explain:
“Coach Bryant at Alabama announced that he was retiring in December 1982, as I was coming out of law school. Coach Bryant picked Ray Perkins, who was then the head coach of the New York Giants. Ray had played for Coach Bryant at Alabama and a lawyer out of California represented him. We didn't know Ray, but some friends of ours knew him so we had these guys get in touch with Ray and they provided an introduction for us. We convinced Ray that it would be better for him for two former Alabama football players to represent him rather than a California lawyer and it evolved from there.”
“Ray was our first sports client, the head football coach at Alabama - so that was a pretty good opportunity and that accelerated our practice from there. Not may people were doing this kind work with coaches. Ray was pleased with the work we did for him so he called Bill Parcells, who had been named the head coach with the New York Giants when Ray left. So Bill Parcells became a client. Bill Parcells called Joe Gibbs, Joe was the head coach for the Washington Redskins. Joe Gibbs became a client. It was just kind of a snowball effect. From that first client with Ray it just evolved. We picked up 4 or 5 other coaches, NFL head coaches as a result from doing work for Ray Perkins. Ray is still a good friend and client.”
Advising college football & NFL clients
Rick went on to specialise in advising college football, NFL coaches and coaches from other college sports although I sensed he prefers to stick to the sport he knows best:
“I’ve represented basketball coaches in college. In football we represent both college coaches and some in the NFL. We haven't but we could represent college baseball. The game is a little different, but negotiating contracts and evaluating counsel are similar and the same type of things need to be considered no matter what the sport is. A lot of people probably view me as just a football advisor, but I have acted for other sports, but because I played football that's the association I have. As far as the other services Baker Donelson offers, I think it’s a great asset being a part of a large firm. If we need quality legal counsel available for the coaches, it's not like they have to start scrambling around or with an agency that will have to find an attorney to do certain things. We have people here, maybe not in the Birmingham office, but in one of the 18 offices Baker Donelson has, we have attorneys who can handle just about anything that a coach may come across.”
I asked Rick if there was any substantial difference between advising college and NFL coaches. Rick explained that some coaches like the interaction with the players on a regular basis that they get in college football:
“In college, the players go to class, they’re a student and the coaches have more involvement with the players on the college level than they do at the professional level. Some coaches that I've represented have been in college and then decided to go to the NFL. After a while in the NFL they decided they didn't like it as much because of the lack of involvement with the players away from the field. The players come in in the morning [in the NFL], they go to meetings, practice and then they go home. In college there’s more interaction between the coaches and the players; I think some of the coaches like that, some of the coaches don't. Some prefer the NFL because they don't have to recruit etc. There are different aspects to it that need to be considered. That’s a part of what we do – we try and be sure that the coach has considered these and other issues”
This is where Rick’s experience comes in: “I've seen college coaches go to the NFL and they didn't like it and their wife didn't like it because the wife all of a sudden becomes completely removed from the whole situation in the NFL. Whereas in college the wives are involved with recruiting and meeting the players and the player’s families when they're on recruiting trips. Some wives don't want to be a part of it, but others really like that part and they miss it when they go to the NFL. At either level, the time demands on these guys are just tremendous; it's a brutal lifestyle from the number of hours during the day that they put in.”
A special moment
I asked Rick what is his favourite matter he has worked on. Rick was fortunate to be involved with the appointment of a former teammate, Sylvester Croom. Sylvester was the first black head coach in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Rick explained the significance of this appoint which has been captured in a recent ESPN special2:
“I grew up right outside Birmingham in the 60's and '71 was my freshman year at Alabama. In the 60's the civil rights movement and integration and all those things were just blowing up. Sylvester was an African American who grew up in the South; we were the same age and in the same freshman class at Alabama in 1971. Coach Bryant had just started signing black players. Of the 40 or 50 players that Alabama signed in our class Sylvester, Mike Washington and Ralph Stokes, were the only three African American players. Sylvester and I were co-captains in our senior year, he's a great friend of mine, and I have represented him since I got out of law school. When I found out the head job at Mississippi State was coming open, I talked to the athletic director and gave him Sylvester’s name. They were very interested in Sylvester and ended up hiring him. Sylvester was the first African American head football coach in the Southeastern Conference. Right now of the last 8 or 10 years I think the last 6 or 7 national champions have all been won by a team from the SEC. Three of the last four, Alabama has won the national championship. Alabama's won, Florida's won, LSU's won and Auburn’s won. So the SEC is dominating college football. Sylvester was the first head football coach in the SEC that was from African American heritage and that's something I was really proud to be associated with. Sylvester is a great individual and a great football coach. To be a part of putting something like that together was special. Being at the press conference, in Starkville, Mississippi, a small Southern town, to see Sylvester sign was special, to be able to witness that historic moment. Everyone who knows Sylvester and deals with him walks away impressed. He and I talk and we talk about the life experiences of me growing up, a white kid in Bessemer, Alabama and him growing up a black kid in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and the different things that happened, how our lives growing up were so different because of the things he was subjected to. And to see all that and then for him to become a head football coach in the SEC was something I was really proud to be a part of.”
In part 2 Rick tells us the key to negotiating NCAA and NFL contracts and gives three cruicial pieces of advise for sports lawyers.
1During his 25-year tenure as Alabama's head coach, Coach Bryant, amassed six national championships and thirteen conference championships. Upon his retirement in 1982, he held the record for most wins as head coach in collegiate football history with 323 wins.