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Saunders, in New Role, Proves Himself Old Pro on the Sidelines

November 03, 1986|MARC APPLEMAN | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Al Saunders stood with his arms crossed and showed no emotion as Nick Lowery's game-winning 37-yard field goal sailed through the uprights.

Only seven seconds remained in an emotional roller-coaster of a game for Saunders, who made his debut as Charger head coach against the Chiefs Sunday.

Outwardly enthusiastic through most of the game, Saunders rarely displayed frustration.

When Lowery made his kick, Saunders appeared to either be in shock or be incredibly composed.

"Emotion, when you're working, is something you can't afford to have too much of," a drained yet patient Saunders said after his team's 24-23 loss. "In terms of the game situation, when you get emotional that way it clogs your thought process. The thing that I was thinking of was, 'If they kick that field goal what will we do?'

"We felt like we should run it out of bounds and get at least one offensive play and hope to get pass interference and get it down there again."

Saunders never stopped plotting, motivating, encouraging and enjoying his new position from the moment he arrived at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium Sunday morning.

After a pregame meal and meeting at the team's hotel, Saunders arrived at the stadium at 10:15, which is about the same time he did when he was assistant head coach.

Pregame: Wearing a white shirt with blue and gray striped tie and blue pants, Saunders, 39, looked as much a corporate executive as a football coach.

Was Saunders nervous as he led his team onto the field?

"I didn't feel that way," Saunders said. "Maybe I was preoccupied."

Saunders has been caught up in preparing for the Chiefs since he replaced Don Coryell as head coach late Wednesday afternoon.

He spent Wednesday night working at the stadium and said he did not get home until two or three in the morning Friday and Saturday. On Saturday night, he got to bed by midnight.

"I haven't had time for reflection," Saunders said. "The most important thing was trying to get the boat steered in the right direction."

First quarter: Saunders is walking the sidelines for the first time since he was an assistant coach at Cal in 1979.

He wears a headset just as he did when he was up in the coaches' box. Only this time he often finds himself trying to avoid tripping on a cord as he quickly paces from one end of the sideline to the other.

Tom Flick misses badly on his first three passes. Saunders pats him on the helmet and chats with him.

Saunders shakes hands with Billy Ray Smith and pats him on the shoulder after the Charger linebacker makes a hard hit on quarterback Bill Kenney.

"It's not a conscious thing," Saunders said. "I'm an animated person. I enjoy the emotional part of the game."

Saunders slaps palms with punter Ralf Mojsiejenko after Mojsiejenko booms a 62-yard punt.

"That's Coach Saunders," free safety Gill Byrd said. "He's like that at practice every day. I don't see why he would change on game day. He has that outgoing, upbeat personality."

Even after the loss, Saunders kept smiling and saying, "We have to keep our heads up."

By losing, Saunders maintains a Charger tradition. All five Charger coaches hired during a season have lost their first game.

Second quarter: Saunders continually takes notes on a big white sheet of paper that he also waves in the direction his offense is moving.

When his offensive and defensive units come off the field, Saunders walks to their bench and chats with them.

"He was in control of the sidelines," veteran wide receiver Charlie Joiner said. "He was the way a head coach should be."

At one point, Saunders gave Byrd a hug as he ran off the field. And he handed him something.

"Gill is a very religious kid," Saunders said. "I was walking along the field and this (a crucifix) was stuck in the carpet area. I pulled it out and showed it to Gil and said, 'Somebody might be watching over us today.' "

Halftime: The Chargers lead, 16-0.

"He (Saunders) was very intense," Byrd said. "He gave us a speech. He talked about us being on top and playing with the same intensity as we did in the first half."

Said Saunders: "I told them how much I appreciated how they'd worked this week. And how I appreciated the concentration level that they had developed."

Third quarter: The boos get louder and louder as the Chargers continue to run the ball. Tim Spencer left, Gary Anderson right.

"We felt going into the game that passing was not the best way for us to attack Kansas City because we did not have Dan Fouts or Mark Herrmann. Tom Flick is a fine quarterback but is limited to the number of opportunities he has had to work."

The boos continued and the runs continued.

When he was second-guessed by reporters after the game, Saunders remained pleasant. "It's something we thought we had to do to be successful," he said. "I thought that was the way to go. . . . The total accountability and total responsibility is mine. I accept that responsibility."

Saunders added that this three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense was by no means a permanent replacement for Air Coryell.

"I hope not," Saunders said. "Offensively, today was a little different than what we would normally do under different circumstances."

Fourth quarter: When the Chiefs take a 21-16 lead with 1:46 to play, Saunders puts his arm around Flick. He chats with the inexperienced quarterback, who has completed only two passes up to this point.

Flick scores on a one-yard bootleg, a play that Saunders added this week. With 1:06 remaining and the Chargers leading, 23-21, Saunders waves his fist high in the air and hugs Joiner.

Saunders hugs Flick. And he hugs anyone in sight.

Moments later, Lowery kicks a field goal to beat the Chargers.

"It was exciting," Saunders said. "I'm just disappointed for the guys that we couldn't pull it out for them."

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