We have gone through a number of Head Coaches during my time as a Chargers Fan. One of the most interesting to me is Al Saunders. Below is my take on a largely forgotten man in the annals of Chargers history.
On October 29, 1986, Donald David Coryell resigned as Head Coach of the San Diego Chargers ending an era full of such promise, yet ultimately delivering false hope and despair amongst its fan base. However, despite the seemingly abrupt resignation by a beloved figure, there was still a sense of hope as his replacement was thought to be the Golden Boy. Al Saunders had been HC-in-waiting for the last year at the point that Coryell resigned. Saunders had been hired to be WR coach in 1983 and added Assistant HC to his portfolio in 1986. Coryell signed an extension prior to the 1986 season with a team option for the 1987 season, but with the understanding that 1986 was, in all likelihood, his final season as the HC of the Chargers.
Going into the 1986 season, Saunders was held in extremely high regard by the only person that really mattered, Alex Spanos. Behind the scenes, and unknown to fans and many players, Saunders was actively engaging in HC duties (meeting with the GM, sitting in on contract discussions with senior team leadership) prior to Coryell’s departure. Only 39 during the 1986 season, Spanos viewed Saunders as the future of his beloved franchise. The problem was timing.
The 1986 season started with optimism and the season opener did nothing to mute it. The Chargers stomped the Dolphins 50-28 and it was not as close as the lopsided score appeared to make it. This was the game with Gary Anderson’s famous somersault TD run. Unfortunately, Week 1 marked the last victory as Chargers HC for Coryell. After a 23-7 loss at Philadelphia, the Chargers fell to 1-7 and Coryell fell on his sword, resigning mid-week. Al Saunders was named HC on Thursday, October 30, 1986 and thus began the bizarre 39-game odyssey that was his HC career.
Obviously, taking over an NFL team three days before a game against the Chiefs was no small task. (The Chargers lost a close one, 24-23.) However, Saunders rallied the troops to finish the season with a 3-5 record (three of those losses were by total of 9 points, including OT loss to Raiders.) Going into the next season, hope was abundant and seemed to be justified as the Chargers started the season 8-1 despite the interruption of the players’ strike. However, the tenth game of the season was one of the low points of franchise history. (See this FanPost.) The team came out utterly flat and were destroyed by the Seahawks 34-3. Not only did they not win again the rest of the season - finishing on a 6-game losing streak and ending the season 8-7 - but the closest margin of defeat for the remainder of the season was 15 points. They utterly fell apart and Saunders could never get the team back. (Would a more experienced Coryell been able to? We’ll never know.)
The 1988 season rolled around and Saunders found himself with yet another enormous obstacle to overcome. Dan Fouts announced his retirement during the previous off-season and Saunders was now looking at a QB competition between Mark Malone and Babe Laufenberg. As a side note, only three years before was the famous QB draft of 1983 during which we owned THREE first round picks. Maybe we should have drafted a QB in preparation for Fouts’s retirement? In all fairness, we did pretty well in that draft’s first round: Billy Ray Smith, Gary Anderson and GILL BYRD! Despite this, the Chargers muddled to a 6-10 season and Saunders was let go in favor of the more experienced Dan Henning. The notion that HC was too big for Saunders has followed him around ever since. He has coached every year in NFL since being fired, but never again as HC.
Given that in each of the three years Saunders was Chargers HC, he had to deal with a huge problem and it was his first crack at being a HC, it is no wonder that the Saunders era did not go so well. His first year, he took over for legend mid-week and mid-season. In his second year, there was the Players’ strike. And in his third and last year, Fouts retired leaving the Malone-Laufenberg combo at QB. In reality, his 17-22 career record is not so terrible given the consistently lousy hands that he was dealt. Apparently, Mr. Spanos saw something in "the kid" to accept Air Coryell’s resignation mid-week and put a fresh 39-year-old in charge. Unfortunately, through poor luck, bad timing and unforeseen circumstance, we never really got see whatever it was that the old man saw.