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.
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.' "