End of the line
Chargers fire Riley after nine-game loss skid to end yearPosted: Monday December 31, 2001 1:11 PM
Updated: Monday December 31, 2001 5:52 PM
The San Diego Chargers fired head coach Mike Riley on Monday, one day after the team lost its ninth consecutive game -- a 25-22 setback against Seattle -- to wrap up a 5-11 season. The team's season is finished because it has a bye the final week.
As first reported by Sports Illustrated's Don Banks on Friday, Riley's firing looked like a foregone conclusion, thanks to the losing streak that ruined San Diego's 5-2 start.
As for Riley's successor, among the candidates believed to be under consideration by Chargers general manager John Butler are three defensive-minded coaches: New York Jets assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, former Buffalo Bills head coach Wade Phillips, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Cottrell, a former Bills defensive coordinator, appears to be the front-runner.
"It came down to one bottom line, and that was winning football games," Butler said at Monday's news conference. "Unfortunately, that didn't take place as much as we'd hoped this year, and in previous years.
"It just became what you knew in your heart, a change had to be made," Butler said. "I thought this was better than a 5-11 football team."
Riley had never held an NFL job before being hired by then-general manager Bobby Beathard in January 1999. Riley had a six-game losing streak in his rookie season of 1999 and an 11-game losing streak to open 2000, but survived last year's 1-15 disaster.
Butler said he did not have any idea who Riley's successor would be, but did indicate that offensive coordinator Norv Turner is still under contract for "several more years." The rest of the team's coaching staff was dismissed. Turner has three years remaining on his deal, but reportedly has the ability to opt out of that contract within the first two weeks after a new head coach is named.
Turner is considered a candidate to become Miami's offensive coordinator, a position which will open once the Dolphins season ends. Current Miami offensive coordinator Chan Gailey accepted the head coach position at Georgia Tech on Saturday. With the Dolphins, Turner would be working for head coach Dave Wannstedt, his defensive counterpart on the Dallas Cowboys' staff in the early 1990s.
Turner is not expected to be a candidate for the Chargers' head-coaching job.
"Right now, the only thing I have in my mind is that I want a winner. A proven winner," said Butler, who added he had no timetable in naming a new head coach and that previous NFL head-coaching experience is not a prerequisite.
In choosing either Cottrell or Phillips, Butler would be deepening San Diego's many ties to the Bills, the team all three men worked for recently. Cottrell spent 1994-2000 in Buffalo, and led the Bills' defense to overall rankings of No. 1 and No. 3 in 1999-2000. In his first year with the Jets, he has received much credit for New York's strong defensive resurgence from mid-October on. In its last eight games, New York has allowed just one opponent to score more than 18 points.
Phillips was out of the NFL this season after being fired as Buffalo's head coach at the close of 2000. He went 29-19, with two playoff berths, in his three-year stint as the Bills' head coach, which followed three seasons as the team's defensive coordinator.
The selection of Phillips would be interesting, in that Butler and Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie were at different ends of the nasty Flutie versus Rob Johnson debate in Buffalo. If Phillips is the choice in San Diego, it most likely would be an indication of the team's plans to go into training camp with 2001 second-round pick, Drew Brees, as its starting QB. Flutie would remain as the team's veteran backup.
As for Riley, one of the league's preeminent nice guys, finished with a 14-34 overall record in San Diego, having gone 6-25 the past two seasons. His .292 winning percentage is the worst in team history.
All 11 of San Diego's losses have come by 10 points or fewer. The Chargers were 1-8 this year in games decided by eight points or less.
"There are a bunch of 10-9 and 20-17 games in the NFL and the good teams win those," Riley said. "We got one when we beat Buffalo (27-24 on Oct. 28), but we didn't win any more after that."
In November, Riley reportedly turned down an opportunity to become San Diego State's head coach. However, he denied the reports. He has two years remaining on his contract at about $1.5 million per season.
Chargers president Dean Spanos also denied that Riley was interested in returning to college.
"I never heard from him he ever wanted to leave here," Spanos said at Monday's news conference. "I'll take it from him that he always wanted to be here."
Riley expressed a desire to keep his family on the West Coast and will not rush into taking a coaching position.
"I want to see what's going on a little bit," Riley said. "I'd like my next job to be my last one. I'd like to build something and leave something there that's good."
When asked what he accomplished, Riley said: "I don't know, but I did it my way. I treated people the way I wanted to, and I coached the team the way I wanted to. I feel good about that."
After Butler and Spanos told Riley he was fired, Riley said he thanked Spanos for the opportunity to coach in the NFL.
"The best deal in a thing like this is to be grateful," Riley said. "I told Dean Spanos, 'Not many people get a chance like this.'"