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A History of the San Diego Chargers, Part 9: Chaos

Coaching turnover, mass trades, and other bizarre front office decisions result in a lot of losing. From dominance in the early 60’s, declining to respectability in the late 60’s, the early 70’s sees the team sink to the cellar of the AFC West.

Harland Svare
Harland Svare
David Boss, US TODAY Sports

The team’s record during the first seasons of the 1970’s shows a negative trend line and three losing seasons in a row for a team with only one losing season in its first 10 years:

1970: 5-6-3
1971: 6-8
1972: 4-9-1

By the end of the 1973 season, the glamour franchise of the AFL, winner of 86 games over 10 years, was the laughingstocks of the NFL. In the first four years of the 70’s, the team’s management had taken the luster of the powerhouse decade of the 1960’s, tossed it into a dumpster on Friar’s Road, and lit it on fire. The team’s series of self-inflicted wounds during these years is lengthy and point straight back to the offices of the Head Coaches, General Managers, and Owner.

Even WORSE Drafting than in the Late 1960’s

The team had a total of 64 picks in the drafts held between 1970 and 1973. Of those 64 picks, 21 players made the team, many of the 21 playing for just a year or two with the team. Only one of those picked, a QB picked in the 3rd round of the 1973 draft, became an outstanding player at his position. By either trading down in or out of the first round, and just plain poor drafting (or poor scouting on guys that were still on the board after the first round), the Chargers left these players free to get drafted by other teams:

1970 - Hall of Fame CB Mel Blount, TE Ray Chester, and LB Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds.

1971 - Jack Youngblood (a HOF DE), Jack Ham (a HOF LB for Noll’s Steel Curtain), Dan Dierdorf (a HOF OT), Phil Viliapiano (a great LB for the rivals), Kenny Anderson, and Lyle Alzado.

1972 - Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Lawrence McCutcheon (three really good running backs), Cliff Branch (a receiver drafted by Oakland that terrorized DB’s in the league for years, especially ones with lightning bolts on their helmets) and Conrad Dobler (one of the best and nastiest Guards to ever play the game).

As much as we laugh at the drafting done by the rivals during the 2000’s (and it was bad), that particular shoe was definitely on the Charger’s foot during the early ‘70’s. It took the team 5 years from 1974 to 1978 to fix the damage from the string of unforced errors that happened over the first years of the ‘70’s.

Bizarre Trades and Front Office Decisions

Charlie Waller lasted one season (1970) as the head coach of the Chargers, leading the team to a 5-6-3 record. Here’s a taste of what the 1970 team looked like:

Gilman, after watching the franchise play their second losing season of its existence, demoted Waller to offensive assistant at the end of the year and named himself head coach for the 1971 season. He also named Harland Svare as the team’s general manager in what owner Gene Klein described (apparently with a straight face) as a "reorganization".

Harland Svare was Gene Klein’s first major hire for a team that had been under Sid Gillman’s nearly absolute control since the beginning. Svare played linebacker with the Giants (playing for the legendary Steve Owen) and Rams. In 1962 at the age of 31, he became one of the youngest head coaches ever when he was named interim coach of the Rams. In the late 1960’s, after losing the Rams job, he was briefly an assistant under Lombardi.

Klein’s reason for naming Svare as head coach and GM was simple; Svare was a man he could control. In a 1976 column by John Crittendon that appeared in the Miami Times, Klein recounts meeting Svare in 1956 at a car dealership that Klein owned. Mentally categorizing Svare as a "cherry", a person that could be easily manipulated and controlled, Klein jacked up the price of the car Svare wanted to buy by $500.00 and sold Svare the car. Incredibly, Klein was quoted later in the column, admitting that "owners always want control, but the best teams are run by professionals who are strong enough people to hold off the owner’s attempts to boss things." Apparently, knowing what a problem is and overcoming it are two very different things.

Svare’s first big move as GM, apparently with Gilman’s blessing, was to trade Lance Alworth to the Dallas Cowboys for 3 journeymen on May 19, 1971. This transaction and the earlier trade of Speedy Duncan to the Redskins effectively ended any chance of Svare ever being viewed in a positive light by Charger fans.

The product on the field did not improve. Starting the season 1-4, the Chargers showed some signs of life by going 3-1, but with a 4-5 record, the rivals inflicted an agonizing 34-33 loss on the Chargers on November 21, 1971. That was Gillman’s final game as a member of the Chargers organization in any capacity. After Gilman quit the Chargers (briefly taking over as GM and head coach for the Oilers), Svare was named interim head coach. The team was 4-6 at that point and finished the season 6-8. Svare was named head coach during a press conference right after the last game of the season, a loss to the Oilers in the Astrodome on December 19.

Some highlights from 1971:

Here's the Chargers' first loss to their rivals:

Here they are against Chuck Noll’s Steel Curtain:

The team’s descent gained momentum in 1972. Svare made 21 separate trades in the offseason, the final trade happening on September 5, 1972, when George Wright (DT) was traded to the Browns for a 5th round pick in the 1973 draft. The number of trades done by the Chargers in this one offseason remains a league record to this day.

Svare traded for malcontents like Duane Thomas, an enormously talented back that essentially stopped giving max effort for Tom Landry in Dallas and was a documented pothead. Svare traded for big names that were at the end of their careers, such as Deacon Jones, a Defensive linemen that was an All Pro level player in the late '60's. In 1972, he was nearly all used up.

Svare claimed to have a plan to rebuild the Chargers into a playoff team. He would trade for guys that had talent, but just needed a "change in scenery" to perform to their potential. He could motivate Duane Thomas where Tom Landry had failed. He would trade for veterans, by dealing away the team’s veterans that were believed to be on the downside of their careers.

Obvious flaws in this plan never seemed to be grasped by Svare or anyone else in the front office. It seemed as though during the early 70’s the Chargers were collectively struck with a bad case of a "grass is greener on the far side of the hill" delusion. The nearly constant changing of coaches by Klein and the turnover of players by Svare only made things worse.

Adding insult to injury, the Washington Redskins adopted the same sort of personnel strategy in the early to mid-1970’s, with their "Over the Hill Gang" making regular playoff appearances. In the Chargers case, the results were just the opposite.

The product on the field got worse. In the early part of the 1972 season, the team was 1-1 and played the rivals in the Oakland Coliseum. After the game, a 17-17 tie, something that had happened on the field so enraged Svare that after the game, he looked up at a light fixture on the ceiling of the visitor’s locker room and bellowed "Damn you Al Davis!" (Svare was certain that the locker room was bugged. Years later, when asked about the incident, Davis cryptically said "there was nothing in the light fixture". Later, when Jack Murphy wrote a book about Davis, it was titled "Damn You Al Davis".)

The team won their game next week, to go 2-1-1. That was the high water mark of Svare’s coaching run with the Chargers. The team promptly went on a 5 game losing streak, not winning again until the middle of November, a 27-17 road win against the Chiefs. Despite the team’s slide towards the AFC West cellar, team owner Gene Klein gave Svare a five year contract extension.

Klein did this on the sidelines during half time of the team’s 4th win of the season against the Oilers on November 26, 1972. This contract extension encouraged the team so much that they lost the last 3 games of the season by a combined score of 83-34, finishing up the 1972 campaign with a 4-9-1 record. This late season game against the Broncos is an example of how the team was playing at the end of 1972:

Blaming the team’s poor record on QB John Hadl’s 26 INT’s and 51.4% completion rate (the thought had some merit), Svare traded Hadl to the Rams at the end of the season. This left only Walt Sweeney, a perennial Pro-Bowl Guard as the only remaining Charger from the 1963 Championship team. It also meant that the Chargers would be looking for a new franchise QB in the offseason.

The meltdown at the end of 1972 and the trading of Hadl made for a lot of fans disgruntled over the decline of the team and wondering about what was going on within the organization. There was also suspicion that the worst was yet to come. The suspicion proved accurate.