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Ortmayer on the Line in Head Hunt

Dave Distel

December 22, 1988|Dave Distel

WANTED: Blue-collar coach with experience in either the National Football League or the State Department ... preferably both. Contact Alex Spanos or Steve Ortmayer at (619) 280-2111.

Al Saunders may the most irreplaceable 17-24 head coach in the history of the NFL, but not for any reasons normally associated with running a football team.

Saunders, you see, was not fired because he could not coach. He was not fired because his team was not making progress. He was not fired because he did not make the most of talent on hand.

As I understand the explanations, Saunders was fired because he had excessive ego and insufficient social graces.

What?

Guys like Billy Martin get fired for breaches of etiquette.

But Mr. Neat? What did Mr. Necktie do to hang himself?

Did he pull a John Riggins? Did he call the mayor "Mo Baby" and fall asleep on the floor at a black-tie dinner?

Not that I know of.

Indeed, Saunders' firing sounds more like a divorce to me. It sounds as if he was unhitched because of irreconcilable differences, Saunders generally being on one page and everyone else in the Charger hierarchy in a different book.

Saunders' superiors grew to perceive him as a devious chap who complained out of school both in public and private about his trials and tribulations. In fact, he is almost portrayed as a Michael Fay of football.

He certainly would have been better off if he had paid a little more attention to Don Coryell, who never dealt in negatives when it came to his own team or organization. He hardly dealt in neutrals, for that matter.

Coryell was always upbeat about his players. For example, during the days when the defense was constantly letting him down, he would stiffen at suggestions that anything was wrong with the players, coaches or system. He was so protective that you rarely saw the other team score a touchdown on his television show.

And it was not just his own team. Coryell was equally effusive in his praise of the opposition, which he invariably described as very, very good and very, very well-coached.

Indeed, to Don Coryell, there was simply nothing negative about the game of football.

OK, so a lot of it was pure baloney, but Coryell never offended anyone . . . and everyone loved him.

Saunders was different. It particularly appalled Alex Spanos, the owner, and Steve Ortmayer, the director of football operations, when Saunders had the audacity to say he would rather go to war with the Raiders' players than with his own.

This was a reasonably accurate assessment of which organization possesses the most talent, but it was an incredibly stupid thing to say.

Ortmayer's job, of course, was to assemble players, and this was a slap at both him and the players he assembled. The rift between Ortmayer and Saunders, which Ortmayer finally acknowledged Tuesday, was certainly deepened by such an inopportune observation.

What became obvious to Saunders' bosses was that he had to go.

Ortmayer, in fact, took his own slap at Saunders when he said Tuesday that coaching in the NFL is a blue-collar job. This was a thinly veiled swipe at Saunders' starched white shirts and neatly knotted ties as well as a suggestion that Saunders was not enough of a hands-on coach.

Remarkably, since this firing has seemingly been etched in granite for a few weeks now, Ortmayer also said he has no one in particular in mind as a new coach.

Thus, he commences a search for a rather complex individual. This will have to be someone who can get his hands dirty coaching and clean up in time to take tea with the boss, and know which spoon to use for the sugar. The Chargers probably need someone who is a blend of Emily Post, George Allen and a foreman from one of Spanos' construction crews. This will have to be someone who can rock the team without rocking the boat.

The search is all the more challenging because Ortmayer cannot take forever to conclude it. This football team has made strides, and it cannot afford to undergo a complete transformation of coaches. The remaining assistants cannot be sure of their security until a new boss is in place, and any offers they get in the interim will be much more attractive than uncertainty here.

And so Ortmayer is now the man on the spot. He will sink or swim with the individual he chooses.

This will be \o7 his\f7 hire. Saunders was Spanos' hand-picked choice as successor to Coryell, and Ortmayer came on the scene to discover that they had goals in common but little else . . . such as how to attain them. His chore now is to find an individual with whom he can be compatible.

In short, Steve Ortmayer is setting out in search of himself.

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