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A History of the San Diego Chargers, Part 11: The Reclamation Project

After the nightmare season, the Chargers were a franchise that Paul Brown called “the stink hole of the league” in early 1974. Fans doubted that a new coach could fix what was wrong with the team, since a string of new coaches since 1969 had only made things worse.

Sep 19 1976; Unknown location, USA; FILE PHOTO; San Diego Chargers head coach Tommy Prothro on the sideline against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tampa Stadium.
Sep 19 1976; Unknown location, USA; FILE PHOTO; San Diego Chargers head coach Tommy Prothro on the sideline against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tampa Stadium.
Mandatory Credit: Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

After the first four seasons in the merged NFL, many Chargers fans thought that the Chargers could never be a special team again while Gene Klein was the owner. Virtually everyone in 1974 — including the staff at Sports Illustrated — thought that the Charger’s situation was “hopeless”. Most of the team’s veterans had asked to be traded at the end of the 1973 season, when the team finished 2-11-1. This was the team that Tommy Prothro agreed to coach in January 1974.

Catch Up: Part 10: "The Nightmare Season" | Part 9: Chaos | Part 8: Legacies | View All

The Hiring of Tommy Prothro

Prothro started his coaching career in the mid-1950’s at Oregon State, getting the Beavers to the Rose Bowl in his second year. He became known as a superb evaluator of talent and an excellent teacher. Prothro was very nearsighted, wore thick glasses, and played bridge as a hobby. He had a reputation for being very intelligent while also being quite aloof.

After moving on from Oregon State to UCLA in 1965, Prothro rebuilt a storied program that had fallen on hard times, raising the Bruins back to greatness. He also achieved a level of notoriety in the celebrity–crazed LA market:

In 1971, Robert Irsay convinced Prothro to try his hand in the NFL, and hired Prothro as the L.A. Rams head coach. After two very good drafts in 1971 and 1972, he was forced out by Caroll Rosenbloom after he and Robert Irsay basically traded teams. Isaiah Robertson, Jack Youngblood, Dave Elmendorf, and Lawrence McCutcheon were drafted by Prothro and became the core of a good Rams team (especially the defense) in the 1970’s. Jack Youngblood is in the Hall of Fame.

“The Chargers right now are almost an expansion team”

Out of football in 1973, Prothro toured Europe and played in bridge tournaments. He believed that his coaching career was over, although he thought that maybe an expansion team might give him another shot in the NFL. Gene Klein, with ties to LA and knowing the rebuilding work Prothro had done, called instead. Prothro recalls thinking, “Well, the Chargers right now are almost an expansion team”.

Opinion was mixed in San Diego with this hire. His detractors pointed out the Ram’s record in his two years as coach and concluded he was another good college coach that could not make it in the NFL. Others saw the growth in his draft picks for the Rams, plus his restoration of the Beavers and Bruins, and thought he might be just what the Chargers needed. Eventually, both opinions were proven correct.

Prothro struck gold when he traded for Doug Wilkerson

Prothro went along with trading a lot of the players that Klein and Svare identified as problems and all of the ones that were fined for using drugs. He struck gold with one trade: netting Doug Wilkerson, a guard that became part of what I still maintain is the best offensive line unit in the team's history. Walt Sweeney got the team a pick in the 1975 draft.

Prothro’s first draft was not extraordinary, but did get Don Goode on the team, a solid contributor at LB for years. Bo Matthews, a steady performer at fullback was also picked in this draft. A lot of the players taken in the ’74 draft amounted to warm bodies to fill out the team’s depleted 43–man roster. The team did have some hopes for a QB taken in the 6th round: Jesse Freitas out of San Diego State. The team also got lucky when the Packers cut a QB in August that was being converted into a running back. Don Wood had a great 1974 campaign, rushing for 1,162 yards and winning the Rookie of the Year award.

The 1974 Season

The Chargers did just about everything possible to break free from the nightmare season: new coaching staff, new training camp location, even a new helmet color. Despite all of the changes, the team got off to a rocky start, going 1-6.

Prothro stuck with 2nd–year QB Dan Fouts, despite his unimpressive performances – in 1974 Fouts had less than a 50% completion rate, threw 8 TD’s against 13 INT’s. He got hurt in the 8th game of the season and Jesse Freitas took over. Freitas went 2-1 in his three starts, but had similar issues with picks, throwing 8 passes to opponents and only 3 TD’s in his starts. Fouts finished the last three games of the season, also going 2-1.

Check out the familiar face coaching the Oilers in the first week of the 1974 season:

And the season’s worst lost against Denver:

And a loss against the Eagles:

If you wonder why the team stuck with Fouts, look at the Chargers first win of the season, which was a road win against a quality Bengals team. Early in his career, Fouts was maddening; flashing brilliant play and a commanding leadership presence in one game, and then making horrible choices with the football in the next:

The Chargers went 5-9 in 1974, good for 3rd place in the AFC West. After two straight years of finishing last, this was improvement. The running game, behind Russ Washington, Doug Wilkerson, and Terry Owens was superb. Unlike 1973, few of the games lost were blowouts. The team’s season point–differential was -73 points. In 1973, the differential was -198; a nearly three–fold improvement.

Despite losing too frequently, the team’s improvement was obvious:

The fans were hopeful that the team would continue improving in 1975. That improvement did not happen in the win-loss column, but 1975 laid the foundation of talent for the next great Charger teams.

The Masterpiece

1975 laid the foundation of talent for the next great Charger teams

Many of the trades done in 1973 and 1974 resulted in draft picks for the Chargers in 1975. The team had 4 picks in the first 33 overall spots. Team management focused their attention on the defense. The pattern for stout defenses in the ‘70’s was set by the dominating defensive lines of the Steelers, Vikings, Rams, and Cowboys. Prothro attempted to get a dominant defensive line in one draft. With one of the miracles that the team needed to become playoff contenders again, he did it.

Gary Johnson, a DT from Grambling, was the 8th overall pick in this draft.

Gary Johnson

DT San Diego Chargers

The next pick was used to get Mike Williams, an excellent CB out of LSU that started immediately and was in the league through 1983. The Chargers went back to the D-Line in the 2nd round, drafting Louie Kelcher, a huge DT from SMU with the 30th overall pick.

Louie Kelcher

DT San Diego Chargers

Three picks later at #33 overall, the team selected an undersized DE from LA Tech named Fred Dean.

Fred Dean

DE San Diego Chargers

This pick was questioned at the time. The 230 pound Dean was expected to play linebacker in the NFL, although there was some speculation that he could be used as a situational pass rushing DE. He became much more than that.

Mike Fuller — a long–term Safety for the team (and a good one at that) — rounded–out the team’s first 5 picks at the #73 overall pick in the 3rd round. The team was not done filling out a core group that would perform at a high level for the team for years to come: Billy Shields, the man who would protect Dan Fouts’ blind side during the Air Coryell years, was selected in the 6th round. Shields was followed by Rickey Young, a RB that became a jack of all trades in the Chargers’ offense for many seasons.

The team had not drafted such a haul of top shelf defensive players, particularly in the front four, since 1961. And just as the 1961 draft was a big reason for the Charger’s dominance in the early and mid-1960’s, so did the 1975 draft set up the excellent teams in the late 70’s and early & 80’s.

Cheerleaders should be shaking baby rattles instead of pom-poms.

Prothro’s youth movement was in full swing as he sought to turn over the roster of the 2-11-1 team he inherited. Half of the Chargers 43 man roster going into the 1975 season was composed of rookies or 1 year “veterans”. The average age of the team was 24.5 years. Some sportswriters joked that the Charger Cheerleaders should be shaking baby rattles instead of pom-poms.

The 1975 Season

A review of the Chargers’ 1975 Week 1 starters explains much of what happened during the season. Six of the starters on the defensive side of the ball were rookies or in their second year. With the first game of many Chargers’ careers coming against the defending–-champion Steelers, the results were fairly predictable:

(Note Dwight White dribbling QB Virgil Carter early in the video)

Virgil Carter had actually beaten out Fouts for the starting QB job

On the offensive side of the ball, Don Woods, the 1974 rookie of the year, was injured early and the primary rushing duties fell to Rickey Young. Young was steady and reliable, but not the game–breaking threat like Woods had been in 1974. Virgil Carter had actually beaten out Fouts for the starting QB job in preseason. He did not last one quarter against the Steelers, getting a season ending hip injury courtesy of Noll’s Steel Curtain.

With the injury to Woods, the decline of Gary Garrison, and the continued inconsistency (and injury issues) from Dan Fouts, the offense had some real problems in 1975. The team’s leading receiver was Pat Curran, a TE. The receiving corps was manned by a declining Gary Garrison and a sub-journeyman level rookie (Dwight McDonald).

Fouts’ play was especially troubling for a 3rd year QB. He threw only 2 TD passes in his 9 starts and 10 INTs. He also got injured again, missing a month of the season. Jesses Freitas was equally ineffective in his starts, going 0-4.

The Chargers did not win a game until December 7, 1975. Jack Murphy christened the 11–game losing streak to start the season “The Bataan Death March”. The first win of the season coincided with Fouts’ return from his week 7 injury. This game against the Vikings in late November is fairly typical of the team’s work that season:

Finishing the season at 2-12, with season ticket sales falling to nearly 20,000 (the lowest in the league), the Chargers remained a franchise in trouble. There were some real questions about the team’s direction, particularly with the Quarterback and other offensive skill positions. 1976 would be a year in which Dan Fouts and Tommy Prothro would be playing and coaching for their jobs.