SAN DIEGO — The same words keep coming around, like an endless loop, or a mantra: Organization, detail, drive, discipline.
Al Saunders, the new coach of the San Diego Chargers, defines himself in those terms. Friends and associates invariably bring up those qualities.
"He is a very complex person," said his wife, Karen. "On the one hand, he is sincere, caring and sweet. But he is also very driven and competitive. It's an odd combination, but it works.
"Friends tease me about living with someone who seems so perfect. They know to have Perrier on hand if we visit, because he almost never drinks any alcohol. He's almost too nice.
"But then that deep inner drive takes over. He always finds more film to go over, another reason to stay an extra hour at work. He never has nothing to do. He is never finished. It is never over. We did have a weeklong cruise to Acapulco last year. It was wonderful. No phones, no film. That's the only way he will let go."
To understand Saunders, it is necessary only to know his goal. He wants to win more games than any man in pro football history. Although he fears that may sound presumptuous, because he hasn't won even a single game yet, this is a man who is not afraid to go for best ever.
For 16 years, or ever since he became a graduate assistant at USC, he has been plotting his rise. When he was named head coach last week after the resignation of Don Coryell, he became the youngest head coach in the National Football League at 39.
Organization. In a room at his Scripps Ranch home, he has filed every set of practice notes and every game plan he has ever compiled. He has indexed all the material and can quickly locate any piece of information he desires.
Last Thursday, after spending the night at the office before his first full day on the job, he reshuffled the duties of three assistant coaches. In an innovative move, he divided responsibility for special teams among several coaches.
"We desperately need more organization and structure," he said. "There has been a great cleavage among offense, defense and special teams. We need more of a team concept."
Detail. In high school, he caught a friend peering over his shoulder and copying the answers on a multiple-choice test. He deliberately marked a few incorrect answers, then went back and changed them when his friend wasn't looking. He got a perfect score on the test.
Drive. Before proposing to the woman he married, he asked permission of the coach for whom he worked. At the time, he was living in the athletic dorm and didn't want to be disruptive by bringing a woman into an all-male environment.
"It was so typically Alan," Karen said, laughing. "It took him three years after we met to decide if I fit his life's agenda. Then, because he felt such loyalty to his head coach at the time, he thought he needed permission to marry me. I wasn't real appreciative, but he felt it was the right thing, and I guess it was pretty comical."
Discipline. In the fifth grade, he was caught smoking a cigarette. His father made him finish the entire pack in a sputtering, coughing fit. He hasn't smoked since.
A little later, when he became a competitive swimmer, he worked under a coach whose methods included standing at the edge of a pool with a piece of rubber tubing and whacking lazy swimmers on the posterior. Saunders became a junior Olympic champion and national record-holder in the sprint freestyle before tiring of swimming after about six years.
Defensive line coach Gunther Cunningham has known Saunders for nearly 10 years. They have sat in hotel rooms, and Cunningham has listened as Saunders described what he would do when he became a head coach one day.
"When we went on the field (last) Wednesday and Al spoke to the team about his plans and goals as coach, I felt as moved as I ever have as a player or coach," Cunningham said. "He put it just like he had always put it to me. I clapped my hands and said to myself, 'Damn!'
"He's going to do whatever needs to be done here. Nothing will stop him. . . . But, I'll tell you, it puts a lot of strain on you internally to always try to do your best, to meet his standards. That can be incredibly hard."
Saunders has endured similar stress over the last 10 months, since owner Alex Spanos appointed him "assistant head coach." Answerable to the owner but loyal to Coach Don Coryell, Saunders was taxed, according to his wife.
"Alan tends to internalize things, like most men," she said. "My role is to listen, to agree most of the time, and occasionally to disagree. I can feel it when he needs to talk something through."
When he gets home from the office about midnight, Saunders finds the lights on in the kitchen, a snack on the table and a wife prepared to listen.
The midnight chats, about the only private time for husband and wife for seven months of the year, have been particularly important this season.