ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Tom Flores had just arrived in Canton, Ohio, in early August when his phone buzzed with a text message. It was from one of the Oakland Raiders' two-time Super Bowl-winning coach's favorite players.
Cliff Branch's text had a link to a story explaining a change in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's selection process this year, with a 20-member "Centennial Class" that earmarked two spots for coaches. Yes, that's six months after Flores was one of 15 finalists for Hall consideration.
"You're in, coach," Branch wrote.
Flores, 82, smiled and put his phone away. He'd answer Branch when he had a chance to send a more thoughtful reply.
A day later, as Flores sat in the crowd as an invited guest of Kevin Mawae, a player he drafted with the Seattle Seahawks, his phone vibrated again. Caller ID showed that it was Marcus Allen, his Hall of Fame running back. Intrigued, and because there was a break in the program, Flores answered.
Allen told Flores that Branch had died suddenly and unexpectedly, two days after his 71st birthday. Flores was stunned, and as cameras zoomed in on him while Mawae gave his speech, unknowingly echoing Branch's text as he thanked his first NFL coach -- "The legendary Tom Flores, you will be on this stage soon," Mawae said -- Flores' eyes were filled with tears.
"What a sad day," Flores said this week. "Happy for Kevin, but sad for Clifford."
In an effort to relieve the logjam of deserving enshrinees long overlooked, the Hall will add a 15-member class of 10 seniors (players who have been retired for more than 25 seasons), three contributors and two coaches to the usual modern-era class of five.
A 25-person Centennial "Blue-Ribbon" panel comprised of current Hall selectors, Hall of Famers, media members, football historians and industry experts will nominate a list of candidates for the new pool of seniors, contributors and coaches by the end of September. Two Raiders greats -- former coach John Madden and former scout Ron Wolf -- were named to the panel Thursday, along with ESPN reporters Sal Paolantonio and Jeff Legwold.
A vote to narrow the field to 20 seniors, 10 contributors and eight coaches will follow later in the fall before the blue-ribbon panel meets in person to vote for 10 seniors, three contributors and two coaches. That group of 15 will then be voted upon as a singular unit by the Hall's selection committee the day before Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 1, 2020, in Miami. A minimum positive vote of 80% gains election to Canton.
If one plus one still equals two, and with Flores and the late Don Coryell both being finalists last year, many see this as Flores' best -- and perhaps last -- chance to gain induction.
With his forebearers having survived raids by Pancho Villa's bandits in the hills of the aptly named Dynamite in the Mexican state of Durango in 1919, many see Flores as having been robbed of his gold jacket, ring and bust a century later, what with his trailblazing history in the game.
His résumé speaks for itself but bears repeating: The first Latino starting quarterback in pro football history, Flores was also the first quarterback in Raiders franchise history and is the fifth-leading passer in AFL history, with 11,959 yards, despite missing the 1962 season because of tuberculosis. As a backup quarterback with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1969, Flores won his first Super Bowl ring.
Eight years later, he won his second as the Raiders' receivers coach -- Branch's position coach -- on John Madden's staff for the Super Bowl XI victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Flores then called down from the booth the famed "Ghost to the Post" play in the 1977 playoffs against the Baltimore Colts.
In 1979, Flores was promoted to head coach by Al Davis, and in his second season, he became the first minority coach to win a title with the Raiders' 27-10 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV. Flores was the first to win a Super Bowl as a player, an assistant and a head coach (Mike Ditka would later join him).
Four years later, with the Raiders calling Los Angeles home, the Raiders won it all again, pounding defending champion Washington in Super Bowl XVIII, with Allen the game's MVP. It is the last time the Raiders won the Lombardi Trophy.
"People are always giving guys credit for the X's and O's," Allen told NFL Network in a 2006 special on the 1983 Raiders. "But being a head coach is just much more than that. It's managing people. The thing that really created closeness was that he trusted us: 'I taught you all you need to know. Now go out there and play.'"
The Raiders did that for Flores after a 9-7 start to his coaching career in 1979, going a combined 69-31 (the .690 winning percentage equates to a 112-50 record in a 162-game major league baseball season) from 1980 through 1985, including the postseason, with two Super Bowl titles. Flores was the 1982 NFL coach of the year.
Flores' career record against Coryell was 12-5, and Flores was 6-0 against Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, when coaching the Raiders. He was 3-1 against Chuck Noll, 2-1 against Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells, 1-0 against Bud Grant and 1-1 against Tom Landry. Sure, he was 3-5 against Marv Levy, but think about Flores' four rings to Levy's four Super Bowl losses. Same with the 1-3 mark against Joe Gibbs, as that one win was the Super Bowl XVIII Black Sunday dismantling of Washington.
"Tom Flores isn’t just a great coach in our league,” Al Davis said after that win. "He's one of the great coaches of all time."
Flores' combined record of 19-13 against coaches already in the Hall (.594) is better than his overall career coaching winning percentage (.539). Plus, his regular-season and postseason winning percentages of .610 and .727 in nine seasons with the Raiders eclipse Walsh’s .609 and .714 in 10 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and are better than Noll's .566 and .667 in 23 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"When you go through his complete résumé, I don't see how you can keep Tom out," current Raiders owner Mark Davis, a member of the NFL owners Hall of Fame committee, told ESPN earlier this year.
"He was an original AFL quarterback, an original Raider who helped develop and perpetuate the vertical game as a player. Then, as a coach, he coached Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch. One's a Hall of Famer, and the other should be. And as head coach, he took two totally different teams to the Super Bowl and won them. Look at his complete résumé, and the results can't be denied."
The thing is, for him to get in as a coach, the voting bloc must solely look at his coaching exploits, and things did not end well for Flores in L.A. The Raiders went a combined 13-18 in 1986 and strike-shortened 1987 before Flores resurfaced in Seattle as the first Latino president and general manager in league history in 1989. He returned to the sideline in 1992 but went 14-34 in three seasons. He drafted Mawae and Hall of Fame defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, though.
The message Flores planned to send back to Branch?
"We're both in," Flores said softly.
While there seems to be a clear path for Flores after last year's near miss, there is a growing sense that the late Branch, whose career stats of 501 catches for 8,685 yards, 17.3 yards per catch, 67 touchdowns and three Super Bowl rings rival and even eclipse those of already enshrined contemporaries John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, could get in with the enlarged seniors category -- much like Ken Stabler did in 2016, six months after his death.
That the Hall voters did not select Stabler while he could enjoy it angered many Raiders and their fans. Branch was fond of saying that he was going to live long enough to see the day he gained enshrinement.
Happy and sad? Those two emotions would run concurrent for Flores should he and Branch get in together this year.
"Cliff was always up and positive," Flores said. "That, that would be nice."