SAN DIEGO — The questions surrounding Don Coryell's future as coach of the Chargers will be resolved by next Monday, and it appears they will be answered in Coryell's favor.
Owner Alex Spanos seemed to be hinting Wednesday that he is going to bring back Coryell for at least the final year of his contract, which expires at the end of the 1986 season.
Although Spanos stopped short of confirming that Coryell would return for his ninth season, the owner's remarks left little room for doubt about his intentions.
"We've had a great season," Spanos said in what was perhaps his most enthusiastic public statement since he purchased the team in August 1984.
"Things are looking better and better. I've never been so encouraged. We can't think about any disappointments right now. We have to forget what's happened and look to the future. I said I'd be satisfied with an 8-8 season or better--and we've got a chance to have a winning record."
Spanos said he would have a definitive statement on his plans Monday, the day after the Chargers close the season at Kansas City. A win would improve their record to 9-7--the first winning record since 1982--and would seem to satisfy the conditions for Coryell's return set by Spanos in training camp.
The Chargers have won three straight games and will be favored to make it four in a row, a closing surge Spanos isn't likely to dismiss lightly. It's possible he could reverse his field and fire Coryell if the Chargers lose Sunday and finish at .500, but such a reversal would be inconsistent with the tone of his remarks Wednesday.
It's possible the owner acted to ease the pressure on Coryell because of a knee injury suffered Sunday by quarterback Dan Fouts, who is listed as questionable for Sunday's game. It would seem foolish to risk Fouts in a game that would have no impact on Coryell's tenure.
Spanos long ago set a goal of seeing the Chargers in Super Bowl XXII to be played here in 1988, and he's not backing down.
"I'm already excited about next year. I can't wait," the owner said. "The highlight of this year, for all of us, was beating the Raiders. If we can consistently beat Al Davis and the Raiders, we'll be in the Super Bowl."
To make the leap from also-rans to Super Bowl challengers, the Chargers must dramatically improve their position at the bottom of the defensive statistics. That has been the unmet challenge of the 1980s, but Spanos vowed Wednesday to address it head-on.
"The defense will certainly have priority," he said. "I have lots of things in mind. Our commitment will be to improving the defense."
He didn't specify the extent or outline of the changes, but Spanos has demonstrated he isn't afraid to throw big sums of money at personnel shortages. His forays into the USFL this year netted Gary Anderson, Tim Spencer, Trumaine Johnson and Jerry Doerger, at a cost of more than $6 million.
Spanos also showed he was willing to absorb a loss on a contract. After awarding Tom Bass a two-year extension as defensive coordinator last spring, Spanos fired him a month into the season, naming Dave Adolph as his replacement.
Although the defense has not been appreciably improved, in terms of yardage and points surrendered, Spanos has indicated he is pleased with Adolph's work. It's conjectural, but entirely possible that Adolph will receive greater authority to reshape the defense for 1986 and beyond.
The status of other coaches under Coryell remains unknown, but there are indications that many, if not most of his assistants may be safe. There is no question about the position of assistant head coach Ernie Zampese--the chief plotter of offensive strategy--or receivers coach Al Saunders, who would be a strong candidate to succeed Coryell when a change comes.
The owner was quoted last month in a national newspaper saying that Coryell definitely would remain at the helm. But Spanos denied making that statement, which left the issue of Coryell's future as much in doubt as ever.
The subject has come up almost daily in recent weeks, and Coryell has handled it in a cool manner. Only once has he voiced any irritation. More often, he has made attempts at humor, which is something he ordinarily doesn't try on less-controversial topics.
Charger players, most notably Fouts, have been increasingly outspoken on Coryell's behalf as time appeared to be running out and the pressure on the coach increased.
Last week Fouts angrily denounced media handling of Coryell's situation, saying it was wrong for reporters to continually bring up a subject that touched a man's livelihood. "I get very emotional when I think about that man," Fouts said. "I think he's done a great job. . . . He's one of the greatest offensive coaches in football history."
Although Fouts was not attempting to make a blanket statement for his teammates, there's little question that he is the most important voice among the players. And there has been no indication that any player would favor a change of coaches.
Running back Lionel James, who emerged as one of the team's most valuable players, strongly endorsed Coryell.
"The man's a great coach," James said. "We want to win as many games as we can--for him and ourselves. We've made a lot of mistakes and had a lot of bad calls, and it seems like he's been stricken with young players who were still learning."
Charger Notes The Chargers re-signed Joe Dufek as a backup quarterback. Dufek, who was with the team earlier this year, took part in Wednesday's workout. . . . The Chargers will take an assortment of cold-weather gear to Kansas City, where the wind-chill factor at midweek stood near minus 30. . . . Fouts and Wes Chandler have been named to appear in the Pro Bowl, and Lionel James is a first alternate, the Chargers announced.