Long ago, before San Diego ever thought of playing host to anything as important as a Super Bowl, a more modest dream took shape: landing a professional football franchise. Actually, a team in any pro sport would have been fine since the city had none, but football seemed the most logical choice. It was 1960, the first year of the American Football League, and one of its charter teams had just sprung up 125 miles up the coast in Los Angeles. It was called the Chargers.
The team was owned by a group headed by Barron Hilton, the hotelman, and some say that its name was a play on the Hilton corporation's credit card, Carte Blanche, as in "charge it." The Chargers won the AFL Western Division that year, but they averaged fewer than 16,000 fans per home game in the vast Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
So in 1961 the Chargers went south to San Diego, a city whose idea of big-time football until then was Hoover versus San Diego High. San Diego was a sleepy Navy town with nice beaches, a famous zoo and wall-to-wall retirement homes. It had no idea of what it was getting into. For what Hilton brought with him was not just another football team but a new era in the history of the sport.
It didn't last long—from 1960 through '65, in fact—but it was a time of innovative brilliance. In those days pro football was controlled by the legions of the Midwest—champions like Green Bay and Chicago who made their living playing mean, nasty football. But out in the West, a team of remarkable athletes was coming together. Dressed in baby-blue jerseys with streaks of golden lightning down the shoulders and on the helmets, they played a brand of football as dazzling as the San Diego sunshine.
February 1, 1988
It was a team with a stunning pass catcher named Lance Alworth, who looked like a boy but could race downfield and soar to incredible heights to pick the ball out of the sky, and a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, Ron Mix, whose blocking was so technically precise that the line coach called him the Intellectual Assassin—a name that made him sound like the official poisoner for the House of Borgia. It was a team with a coach named Sid Gillman, whom many consider the father of the modern passing game, and a monstrous defensive line, one of the early Fearsome Foursomes, led by 6'9", 317-pound Ernie Ladd, the biggest man then in football. It was a team with a training camp infested with rattlesnakes and a part owner with a 14-inch mustache who regaled the players with pizzas and huge pork chops. But above all it was a team that put it all together in one glorious championship game, Jan. 5, 1964, with an eruption of 51 points and an alltime playoff record of 610 yards.
Gillman was the team's first coach, and he assembled what may be the best four-man staff ever. Joe Madro, who had coached under him for 13 years on several teams, directed the offensive line; Jack Faulkner, who later became coach of the Denver Broncos, handled the pass defense; and Chuck Noll, who would one day pilot the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl wins, was responsible for the running defense. The fourth slot, receivers coach, was filled by a young former USC assistant with a gift for recruiting—Al Davis, the future managing general partner of the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders.
"Al Davis? He was a darling, just a cute kid," says Esther Gillman, Sid's wife. Sid is 76 now, and he and Esther live in La Costa, Calif. "Once in a while I'd go up to the office, and I'd hear them all shouting at each other and I'd say to Sid, 'Dear, how can you let them shout like that?' And he'd smile and say, 'That's what I want.' "
"Oh yeah, there was a lot of yelling and arguing," Faulkner says. "Sid instigated everything; he'd get you stirred up. But talk about a hard worker. Midnight was early for him.
"You know, there was more to coaching in those days. We all went out signing players, naturally, but we were also in the business of selling tickets. I'd walk into a hotel or a bar with some posters and try to get the owner interested in setting up a combination brunch and bus ride to a game. Most of them didn't understand what it was all about. They'd say, 'What is this league?' and 'How come you moved from L.A.?'
"I'd say, 'This is a nice, prosperous area. It's our team now. Someday maybe we'll merge with the NFL.' And they'd say, 'Ah, you're full of crap.' "
When draft day came around, other AFL teams would produce lists of fancy names, such as Roman Gabriel or Fran Tarkenton, both of whom ended up playing in the NFL. The Chargers usually went after lesser-known players, either through the draft or by trade, but at least they were able to sign them. Mix, who played in the AFL All-Star Game in eight of its nine years, came via the league's first draft, in 1959. The Chargers had traded with Boston for his rights and made a similar deal with Oakland for Don Norton, a gifted receiver. When the Chargers did go after a big name, they made sure they could meet his price. They outbid the NFL Giants (and won a court battle) to get Charlie Flowers, an All-America fullback from Ole Miss. "Signing a guy like that gave our whole league credibility," says Davis.
Davis signed Paul Maguire, now an NBC-TV commentator but then a tight end, linebacker and soon-to-be league-leading punter. They had met five years earlier when Davis, then an assistant coach at The Citadel, had persuaded Maguire to play at the Charleston, S.C., military academy.
"Al brought me down from Youngstown, Ohio, to visit The Citadel and told me I wouldn't have to wear a military uniform," Maguire says. "And sure enough, the guys were walking around the campus in civvies. I wasn't smart enough to figure out it was vacation time. As soon as I showed up for keeps they slapped a uniform on me so damn fast...."
With Paul Lowe the Chargers got lucky. A halfback from Oregon State, Lowe had been cut by the 49ers and was working in the mail room of the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. He called Barron Hilton and begged for a football job.
"At our first training camp Sid always got Paul Lowe confused with Luther Carr," Maguire says. "He'd call him Luther, and Paul would say, 'No, Mr. Gillman, I'm Paul,' and Sid would say, 'Whatever.' We had six weeks of two-a-days before our first exhibition game, and every day Sid would tell Paul, 'If you don't do something pretty quick, you're gone.' Then, on the opening kickoff of that game, against the New York Titans in the Coliseum, Paul ran it back 105 yards. He went over to Sid on the sideline and said, 'How's that?' "
The Chargers' quarterback was future U.S. Congressman Jack Kemp, whose long-ball style fit perfectly into Gillman's stretch-the-defense attack. Kemp led the AFL in passing in 1960 and made first-team All-AFL. His most productive receiver that year was Dave Kocourek, one of the first oversized wideouts.
Kocourek loved to tease Davis. "I could always get Al going. I'd say, 'You feeling all right, Al?' He'd say, 'Why?' and I'd say, 'Well, you don't look good.' And he'd go right over to the mirror."
"I remember when Al went to Oakland in '63," says Maguire, "and we were playing them in San Diego. We were standing around on the field before the warmups—Al, me and Dave. Dave said, "Lemme see the game plan,' and Al handed it to him. It took Al a second to realize what he was doing, and he grabbed it back. Then Al said, 'Seriously, what does Sid think about the job I'm doing up there?' and Dave said, 'Well, I'll tell you...nah, I'd better not. I've got to go,' and he sprinted across the field. Do you know that Al called him every night at home for a week?"
In 1961 San Diego and Buffalo were the only two AFL teams to sign their top two draft choices, and the Chargers got themselves a pair of future all-leaguers. The first pick was Earl Faison, a massive pass-rushing defensive end out of Indiana; the second was Keith Lincoln, a brilliant, slashing runner from Washington State. Farther down on the 1961 list was Ladd, from Grambling, who, along with Faison, would form the cornerstones of the Fearsome Foursome. The other two members were 277-pound tackle Bill Hudson, an Al Davis import from the Canadian Football League, and Ron Nery, a slender (6'6", 244 pounds) speed rusher. The Foursome averaged 6'6", 274 pounds per man and applied so much pressure that the 1961 Chargers picked off 49 passes, still a record for either pro league.
"I invented the moving pocket because of those four guys," says former Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram. "They'd knock down five or six passes a game, so I rolled the pocket and had our linemen block down on them or cut them."
The first time Kocourek saw Ladd was at the AFL's first championship game, which Houston won 24-16 over the L.A. Chargers on New Year's Day 1961. "Al had him in tow. I thought he was a basketball player," says Kocourek. "Next time I saw him, he was digging a ditch, along with Jacque MacKinnon, one of our tight ends, and Maguire, at Balboa Stadium. And he was big. They had pumped him up."
Several players had off-season jobs building the upper deck of the team's first San Diego home, which had been constructed for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. But when opening day rolled around, Sept. 10, 1961, the work still wasn't finished. The design irked the meticulous Gillman. "What a place!" he says now. "The seats were all stone. People froze their bottoms on them. If someone spilled a Coke in a top row, it would run all the way to the bottom. The restrooms, both men's and women's, had no individual toilets, just a row of 20 of them, side by side."
The Chargers finished their first season in San Diego with a record of 12-2, best in the league, but they never filled Balboa's 34,500 seats. They tried all sorts of promotions, including sending new parents souvenir Charger contracts for their babies. Gillman was so unhappy with the home attendance that he threatened to move the team.
"Sid lived out in La Mesa," says Al LoCasale, the Chargers' former director of personnel. "From his window you could see a hill with a big cross on it. It was used for communal services and things like that. Sid used to say, 'See that. It's my inspiration. If we don't win and make money, I'm gonna be the next Jew nailed up there.' "
Gillman could be tough at the bargaining table. "I went to him for a raise after the '61 season," Kocourek says. "I said, 'Gee, I've had a pretty good year, Sid.' I'd led the team in receiving with 55 catches for 1,055 yards. He said, 'Dave, you've got to be in the league four or five years to get more money.' So I waited another few years and went to see him again. He said, 'Ah, you're too old to start talking about money.' Then he traded me.
"But I never would have been as good a receiver playing for anyone else. He was the best passing coach ever. He had films of all the great receivers, and he'd devote a reel to each particular pattern. He'd say, 'O.K., here's the post pattern,' and you'd see Tom Fears, Dante Lavelli, Billy Wilson, all of them, running it."
Gillman was interested in film because his father had owned movie theaters in Minnesota. In the late 1950s, when he was head coach of the Rams, he started the first film exchange program in the NFL.
He was also one of the most creative coaches in the league. "With Sid's offense, it was just a matter of time," Alworth says. "The only thing we worried about was who was going to get the ball next. Every week Sid would draw up a game plan, and he knew it would work, and we knew it would work, and so did the guys we were playing."
Gillman could be mean, though. In 1963, the year after Faulkner left to take over the Broncos, the Chargers scored a touchdown to go ahead of Denver 56-20 in the dying moments. Gillman ordered a two-point conversion and ended up beating his former assistant 58-20. Afterward Faulkner said to him, "Thanks a lot, Sid, you son of a bitch."
"Oh yeah, he liked to pour it on, but I did, too," says Stram. "Sid and I had this pregame ritual. We'd meet on the field and he'd point to my game plan. He'd say, 'Let me see that damn thing,' and throw it on the ground and step on it. Then we'd bump bellies."
Relentless on the field and relentless in its search for fresh talent, Gillman's machine ground on. For the 1962 season the Chargers brought in John Hadl, a talented young quarterback from Kansas, and Alworth, who soon became the most dazzling Charger of them all. Alworth had been a wing-back at Arkansas and had not caught a lot of passes, but Gillman said he saw in him "the look of a thoroughbred."
There was a famous TV shot of Davis signing Alworth to a contract under the goalposts after the 1962 Sugar Bowl, with NFL scouts gnashing their teeth in the background.
"Lance was on TV, and who grabbed him but that alltime Arkansas graduate, Red Hickey," Davis says. Hickey was head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who had drafted Alworth No. 1 in the NFL. "Alworth pulled away from him. You couldn't believe the intensity of the warfare between the NFL and AFL in those days. There was a lot of fighting between us in the locker room that day, and I mean real fighting. Of course, what they didn't know was that I'd already signed Alworth earlier in the fall."
Before the AFL draft, Davis had gone to Fayetteville to talk contract with Alworth. Davis called Gillman to get an O.K. to spend big bucks. "I'm going to have to go over budget on this one," Davis said.
"Barron won't go for it," Gillman told him. Finally he said, "The hell with it. Go ahead and sign him."
"I already did," Davis replied. It was a two-year contract at $20,000 per year, with a $10,000 bonus. Alworth was then drafted by Oakland, which traded his rights to the Chargers.
Alworth's nickname was Bambi because of his youthful appearance and the way he moved. When he first showed up at the office, LoCasale remembers, "he looked 15 years old. My secretary said, 'We're not giving you the money, because we're not getting the paper.' She thought he was the newspaper boy."
Like Ladd, Alworth was one of Davis's protègès. "Being a receiver in the pros never entered my mind until Al talked to me about it," says Alworth. "One night [before Davis signed him] we were having dinner, and Al started drawing these diagrams on a napkin. He put down an X, Y and Z for the receivers, and he drew a circle around the X and said, 'As soon as you sign a contract this is your position, and no one's going to take it away from you.'
"Well, during my first meeting with all the receivers in camp, Al was called out of the room, and Norton and Kocourek went up to the board and started drawing X's and Y's and Z's. Norton drew a circle around an X and said, 'O.K., Kocourek, this is your position, and no one's going to take it away.' I remember thinking, Uh-oh, I've been had."
Alworth shrugged that off and soon turned into one of the game's greatest receivers. The post pattern was his favorite, but he was a skilled possession receiver, too. He ran short patterns with the same exuberance he did long ones, pulling down anything near him with his giant hands.
"Bambi," says LoCasale dreamily. "I used to love to watch him line up and take his stance, his free hand shaking, all the adrenaline pumping, all that energy, waiting to explode."
Alworth's first season was not his most spectacular. Early in '62 he hurt his right thigh kicking field goals after practice and missed 10 games. Other players were injured that year, too, and the Chargers finished with a 4-10 record—their only losing season of the '60s. To shake things up, Gillman decided to move the Chargers' training camp in 1963 from the University of San Diego to a half-completed dude ranch named Rough Acres.
The camp was on a desolate patch of scrub grass and desert exactly 78 miles east of the Chargers' San Diego office. Once Bob Hood, then the team gofer and now a member of the Super Bowl special task force, was playing table tennis with Jesse Murdoch, a defensive back and running back. The ball rolled between the flagstones, and when Murdoch reached down for it, he saw a coiled rattlesnake. Gillman ordered all the flagstones cemented over.
"You couldn't grow grass on the practice field," says Hood. "It was desert. So one day Gillman ordered sawdust spread to soften the field. We spent the entire night working, and in the morning the sawdust was gone. The wind had blown it half a mile away and piled it all up against a fence, like a snowdrift."
Despite the conditions, indeed perhaps because of them, Rough Acres set the tone for the '63 season. As Hood puts it, "It was hot and miserable, but, you know, that was the only year the Chargers ever won the championship."
And they won it in crushing fashion, 51-10 over the Boston Patriots, while gaining a record 610 yards. Lincoln alone accounted for 349—an AFL postseason record. The team also got a lift from two first-year Chargers: No. 1 draft pick Walt Sweeney, a future All-AFL guard from Syracuse, and CFL veteran Tobin Rote, the All-AFL quarterback that year. (When the Chargers won the league rights to Rote on a coin flip with Denver, Faulkner was so mad he threw a beer mug through the window.)
The Patriots had worried Sid. San Diego had beaten them in the regular season, 17-13 and 7-6, but their blitzing defense had been troublesome. Fortunately, the Chargers, as division champions, had an extra week to prepare, while Boston was beating Buffalo 26-8 in a playoff game.
"That's all Sid needed, that extra week," Kocourek says. "He put in a motion scheme that just ate 'em alive. We gave them slot formations and trips to one side.... They never knew where we were coming from."
Alworth's wife, Betty, had given Lance a movie camera for Christmas, and when the score got to be 44-10, he started running out on the field during timeouts to take pictures of his teammates. After the game Rote threw a party for his teammates. Early in the proceedings, Gillman stepped to the microphone and announced, "Fellas, the party's over." Then he summoned the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d' and said, "Give them the check for everything up to now, and give me the check for everything after. From now on, this party's on me."
San Diego was a great party town in those days. The team fetes often took place at Dion's Bar of Music, a club at College and El Cajon owned by Dion Rich, who later became infamous for sneaking into Super Bowl locker rooms and having his picture taken with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. For good eats the players went to George Pernicano's Casa di Baffi, the Toots Shor's of San Diego—except the food was better.
Pernicano, the part owner who had his handlebar mustache insured by Lloyd's of London for $50,000, owned 10 pizza houses in the San Diego area, but the Casa was his shining jewel. The place had porterhouse steaks and pork chops the size of Ernie Ladd's shoulder pads, abalone from Mexico and veal that Pernicano brought back with him on team flights from Boston or New York.
"Five minutes before our plane would leave San Diego," Kocourek says, "Pernicano's truck would pull up, and they'd load on 15 pizzas. And on the way back we'd have sausages or steaks or whatever he'd picked up on the trip."
Pernicano, whose heart was as big as his porterhouses, always had compassion for the visiting team. One night after the Chargers had blown out the Jets, he was sitting around with Gillman and Jerry Wynn, the team p.r. man, and said, "You know, I really feel sorry for those guys, getting whipped so bad and having to take that long flight back to New York. I feel like bringing some food out to their plane."
"The hell with them," Gillman snarled. "Send 'em on their way."
Later that night, as the Jets' plane was beginning to taxi down the runway, the players shouted, "Stop the plane!" A small truck had pulled up alongside, and a little man with a gigantic mustache emerged, loaded down with salamis, cheeses and long loaves of Italian bread. When Pernicano boarded the plane and handed out his goodies, a tremendous cheer went up.
The Chargers won the next two AFL West titles, but lost the championship each time to the Buffalo Bills, quarter-backed by ex-Charger Kemp. In the '64 finale, at Buffalo's frigid War Memorial Stadium, San Diego scored on its first possession, but on the next one Lincoln was knocked out of action when a shot by linebacker Mike Stratton broke several ribs. The Bills won that game 20-7, and the following year beat the Chargers in San Diego 23-0.
It was the team's last postseason action of the Gillman era. New owners took over in 1966; the vault was closed. The Chargers failed to sign their first six draft picks. In the eighth round they chose a linebacker from Louisville named Doug Buffone. Pernicano was overjoyed. At last the Chargers would have a star with an Italian surname. So he drove to the airport to meet the plane on which Buffone was supposed to arrive. But Buffone never got off. The Chicago Bears had signed him first.
In the six-year period from 1960 to '65, San Diego won five AFL West titles and one championship. What kept them from becoming a true dynasty? Who knows? A touchdown here or there and maybe we would be talking about them as one of the dominant teams of all time.
In 1971 Gillman was succeeded by Harland Svare, who passed on the torch two years later to Ron Waller. The Chargers finished with a 2-11-1 record in '73, and after the season eight players were fined by the NFL for using drugs. Then came Tommy Prothro, who went 21-39 over 4¼ zany seasons.
Well, the Sid Gillman days are memories now. Pernicano still has his pizza parlors but opens the Casa only on weekends and for special occasions like the Super Bowl. Alworth has a successful warehouse business in San Diego. Kocourek is in real estate sales on Marco Island, Fla. Maguire is a rising television star. And Gillman? He just finished a season as passing consultant at the University of Pittsburgh, and he still spends a lot of time studying the game.
"I love football and I love to sit at home with Sid watching all the weekend games on TV," Esther Gillman says. "We get videotapes and watch maybe six or seven pro games a week. He has his worksheets, same as always, and he makes notes, always finding something new, something different. It's a very happy time for me."
And for Gillman, too. "I'm still working," he says. "If anyone wants a passing coach, my bags are packed."