The San Diego Chargers, an unlikely mixture of alleged misfits and malcontents, are tied for first place in the AFC West. That is gilding the lily a little, since .500 is the first-place record now, but first place under any circumstances is as strange to the Chargers as many of their players.
The classic way to build a first-place team is to consult a computer and draft cleverly for many years. Instead, Harland Svare, the young San Diego coach, has welcomed with open arms the disgruntled but capable veterans of other clubs, and then oozed them into a state of euphoria. Building for the future this way took a week. In the Chargers' opener against San Francisco, Svare's Dirty Dozen veteran newcomers had not yet meshed. At home against Denver last Sunday, they had.
In the course of destroying the Broncos 37-14 the rebuilt defensive line sacked Denver quarterbacks five times and the trade winds blew so strongly in the face of the Denver passing attack that the Chargers intercepted six times.
Svare, an unflappable Norwegian who even can accept philosophically his nickname of Swede, came to the Chargers as general manager last year after 16 seasons as a player and coach in the NFL. When perennial Charger Majordomo Sid Gillman resigned as coach after the 10th game with the club 4-6 and headed inexorably for its sixth straight third-place finish, Svare took over the coaching portfolio, too. In the four games under Svare, the Chargers managed to break even, but one of the victories was a 30-14 beating of Minnesota.
"When Gene Klein [the Charger owner] and I were screening candidates for head coach," Svare said last week, "we were looking for someone to put into effect the major changes I thought we had to make. We couldn't get out of that third-place rut with small adjustments. We had to make major shifts, especially on defense. I didn't say anything to Gene, but I knew that no one would be able to execute my ideas as well as I could. When he finally did suggest I stay on as head coach, I was ready. I didn't like being general manager. You're too far from the action."
Coach Svare promptly initiated the biggest trading splurge in pro football history, topping even the legendary George Allen of Washington. He made 21 deals before the trading deadline ended, and he has continued to turn over his team; John Mackey, the disaffected tight end of the Baltimore Colts, constitutes his most recent acquisition. "I didn't set out to compete with George," Svare says. "I don't have the same trading philosophy he has, anyway. Most of the players I got are younger than the ones he traded for, and the only draft choices I don't have for 1973 are two, four and eight, and I think I've got a couple of threes to compensate for that."
The defensive line of the Chargers represents, as much as any segment of the team, the kind of players Svare wants. Only one of the four starters from 1971—Tackle Ron East—has retained his position, while three veterans, each of whom had found his previous pro coach too collegiate for his taste, have joined him. The redoubtable Deacon Jones came over from the Rams to play one end, Lionel Aldridge was acquired from the Packers to play the other and Dave Costa, a refugee from Denver, works the tackle spot next to Aldridge.
Since all three came to the Chargers with the reputation of being troublemakers, Jones promptly dubbed the Chargers' defensive line "Harland's Hoodlums," a tag they all savor. "That's a good name," says Costa, who was raised in New York. "When I was a kid, though, my crowd was actually pretty conservative. We only stole things beginning with 'a.' You know, a radio, a bicycle, a hubcap."
A square, balding, cheerful man, Costa had asked the new Denver coach, John Ralston, to trade him. "I've played pro football for 10 years," he says. "I think I know my job pretty well. And the first thing Ralston did was tell me to change my stance. I did pretty well with the old stance, and here is this college coach telling me how to play tackle."
Costa managed to down opposing quarterbacks six times and make 41 tackles in 1971 plus harassing the quarterback—rushing him into throwing the ball prematurely—39 times. He was Denver's defensive captain in each of the five years he played for the Broncos, and was also the team's player representative, which makes him one of five ex-representatives now with the Chargers.