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Alex Spanos' Pipe Dream Not Just a Lot of Smoke

November 18, 1987|Dave Distel

Alex Spanos' silver crew cut bristles at the word. His jaw tightens. His fists clench. He hunches forward over his desk.

The word is a demon to be exorcised, a word which cannot be calmly uttered. Spanos veritably hisses when he says the word.

The word is lose , and all of its derivations, be they noun, adjective, verb or whatever.

"Some owners," he said, "can accept losing, but I can never accept losing. They say you've gotta lose sometimes, and I say, 'Bull.' It's not my nature to ever accept losing."

Spanos was warming up. So distasteful a subject cannot be quickly handled.

"I think we could go 16-0," he said. "They say that's impossible, but nothing's impossible if you work hard enough. I can never accept losing. I take it too hard. I hate it. I hate it with a passion."

Losing was not to be the focal point of this Tuesday morning conversation in Spanos' office on level 1A at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. And it wasn't. However, losing must be understood before winning can be appreciated.

And the Chargers of the Spanos Era have done more than what the man himself would consider to be their share of losing. They were 7-9, 8-8 and 4-12 in Spanos' first three seasons as owner, after his purchase of the club in 1984.

This had not been what Spanos had in mind when all he had was all the money he could have wanted, but all he really wanted was his own National Football League team. He didn't realize NFL could also stand for National Frustration League.

Remarkably, throughout those miserable first three years, Spanos continually looked past the mediocre present and into a glorious future.

And Spanos was not dealing with any old moment of glory. His was not an ambiguous dream. He kept saying that he could foresee the Chargers playing in Super Bowl XXII in their own stadium. It was as if he was trying to will it to happen.

I remember thinking this guy had to have a rose-colored crystal ball . . . or spiked tea leaves.

I remember thinking about what a shock it would be when he learned that building a Super Bowl team was not quite the same as building an apartment project. For one thing, when the A.G. Spanos Construction company is building a complex, it doesn't have to contend with 27 competitors trying to tear it down. That's the NFL.

I remember thinking, this guy either knows something I don't know or this guy knows nothing at all.

As we sat down Tuesday morning, I thought a positive approach might be best. I asked him what it was he knew that no one else could have known during those bleak years when his optimism was the only beacon of hope.

"Early on," he mused, "after I'd bought the ballclub, I was obviously very excited. I had achieved one of my all-time goals . . . having my own ballclub. In my construction business, we set goals, five-year goals. Knowing the Super Bowl would be in San Diego in 1988, it just seemed like four years would be long enough to get there."

When he traveled throughout the country--and he travels more than most airline pilots--Spanos became accustomed to defending his football team from good-natured kidding in board room after board room.

Sitting behind his desk Tuesday, he repeated a litany he has so often repeated: "I'm going to build a winner, and you guys remember it. When it comes time for Super Bowl '88, look for the Chargers."

If it seemed like a pipe dream after the Chargers were 7-9 in 1984 and 8-8 in 1985, it seemed almost preposterous after the 4-12 season of 1986.

That 1986 team won the season opener and then lost eight in a row. What we're talking in 1987 is a complete reversal, an opening loss followed by eight straight victories.

Obviously, Alex Spanos is a happy man.

"Here I am," he said, "coming from 1-8 to 8-1. I've taken a lot of heat for some of the changes I've had to make, but I have all the confidence in the world in the people I've put in place. I just marvel at the jobs Steve Ortmayer and Al Saunders have done. I have to credit them for where we are today."

To be specific, the Chargers are on top . . . and not just on top of the American Football Conference West. Not one team in the NFL can match that 8-1 record.

Such an amazing turnaround should be enough to make Spanos downright giddy. Not exactly. Though he said he was too excited to sleep after Sunday night's 16-14 victory over the Raiders, Spanos now has seemingly adopted a more cautious approach to the road directly ahead.

"I've been saying every week that we have to take it one game at a time," he said. "We have a big game this week at Seattle, and I just hope everyone's healthy."

Alex Spanos is obviously settling in quite comfortably as a football man. For a second there, he was almost sounding like a coach.

However, the man has too much enthusiasm and is too much of a fan to get bogged down in the mundane week-to-week concerns. He is excited by the big picture, the one beyond the one game at a time and the one year at a time.

"I'd love to build a dynasty," he said. "I'd love to have winning seasons and playoff teams from here on in. I look at this season as the beginning of all that."

This was more like it. This was the Alex Spanos who dreamed that crazy dream that wouldn't go away. This was the Alex Spanos who saw the Chargers, of all people, playing in a Super Bowl in their home stadium.

"God," he said, "how great it would be. I know I'm a lot closer than I've ever been before. But we have some tough ball games ahead. We have to take it one game at a time."

And stay away from . . . %&! You know the word.

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