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Saunders Trying to Meet Challenge

September 30, 1987|Dave Distel

Football coaches are a worrisome lot. They exhaust themselves watching tape, contemplating strategy and meeting with players . . . and then wake up in the middle of the night wondering what they have forgotten.

Al Saunders, the Charger coach, is no different than his colleagues.

However, things are a bit different for National Football League coaches this fall. They have been told by owners to go about their business.

You know: "Hey, don't pay any attention to those guys with pickets . . . "

Just coach the football team. Maybe not the football team, but a football team nevertheless.

On Tuesday, in fact, Saunders was introduced to a gathering as the coach of the so-called Chargers.

"These aren't the so-called Chargers," he said. "These are the only guys we've got. These are the re-Chargers."

While the striking regulars stalk the stadium sidewalk with pickets, Saunders and his staff are preparing a replacement team for a Sunday game in Cincinnati. This, by gosh, will be a gen-ewe-wine National Football League game. Counts in the standings and everything.

"A challenge?" Saunders said. "No question. We have no idea what our opponents are likely to do. We have no idea who our opponents are."

In fact, Saunders will be lucky if he knows the names of all of his own players by Sunday. This might be the first time in football history that the coaches need to buy programs.

"No one knows the strengths or weaknesses of any given teams," he said. "There's no frame of reference."

Saunders, though a lad of 40, is in his 18th year of coaching football. This was not what he envisioned when began as a graduate assistant at USC in 1970. This is more like what his parents meant when they cautioned that it wouldn't always be easy.

Like all of his NFL colleagues, Saunders is encountered by a barrage of questions. What will be the level of play, Al? How about rating it on a scale of 1 to 10? Could these guys beat Oklahoma? How about Otterbein?

These are ludicrous questions, but Saunders takes them in good humor. He tries to deal in perspective, neither building up nor tearing down the young men he is trying to shape into a semblance of a football team . . . if not a National Football League team.

This, after all, is serious business to Al Saunders.

"There's a moral obligation," he said. "I feel an obligation to the players on strike, because these games will be on the record when they come back. And I feel an obligation to the replacement squad to get them prepared as thoroughly as they can be prepared."

And Al Saunders, by profession, considers himself to be a teacher. All coaches, in essence, are teachers.

"Guys in coaching," he said, "are in it for the love of the game. You don't get into this business for fame or wealth. You get into it for satisfaction, like an elementary school teacher or a high school teacher or a college professor. There's a personal sense of accomplishment in teaching someone to perform a task better. It's a warm feeling, a good feeling, to have success in that environment."

Today's environment is a bit more primitive than an NFL coach is accustomed to encountering.

"Well," Saunders said, "we don't have our regular pupils. We don't have the top of the class. The guys we have, as a group, are at a level below what we usually have, but there's still the thrill of coaching and there's still the challenge."

The idea is to take the lesson plan, known in these circles as a game plan, and simplify it. The same goes for the textbook . . . or playbook.

Al Saunders and his staff are not dealing with dummies, but they certainly lack the time to introduce sophisticated NFL schemes. However, all coaching staffs are in the same predicament. Therein lies the challenge.

Who can best prepare these replacements in such a short period of time?

Who knows? Las Vegas doesn't. The most tentative of odds have been posted. The Chargers, for example, are 2 1/2-point underdogs.

The uncertainty is underscored by a concern expressed by Lou D'Amico, who heads the sports book at Caesar's Palace. The New York Giants have been established as 3-point favorites over the San Francisco 49ers . . . but United Press International asked D'Amico what would happen if Joe Montana showed up to play quarterback for the 49ers.

"That is always in the back of our minds," he said. "The threat of an impact player showing up on Sunday makes it very, very difficult."

That very threat, that very concern, is also on Al Saunders' mind.

"My nightmare," Saunders said, "is that we go back to Cincinnati on Saturday and have Cincinnati's real team show up on Sunday."

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