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Ex-Charger Owner Klein Dead at 69

March 13, 1990|BARRY M. HORSTMAN and DAVE DISTEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — Eugene Klein, the combative and colorful former owner of the San Diego Chargers who never won a major event in sports until he turned to thoroughbred racing, died early Monday, apparently after suffering a heart attack at his Rancho Santa Fe home.

Klein, 69, a native New Yorker who made a fortune on the West Coast in diverse business ventures ranging from automobile sales and real estate to movie production and book publishing, was stricken at his home at 3:50 a.m. After paramedics were unable to revive him, Klein was taken by ambulance to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, where he was pronounced dead at 5:35 a.m., according to a hospital spokesman.

An autopsy will be performed on Klein, who suffered two previous heart attacks in the early 1980s.

"He made a great contribution to the league, not only in San Diego, but on the television committee, where he was a visionary," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said of Klein at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla. "He was a valuable and valued owner and he will be missed."

Though best known for his 18-year ownership of the Chargers, it was in horse racing that Klein finally achieved the success that eluded him in professional football. From 1983 until November, when he auctioned off 114 of his horses for $29.6 million to devote more time to travel, Klein was a three-time winner of the Eclipse Award, given to America's leading thoroughbred owner.

Flying blue-and-gold silks with a lightning bolt logo borrowed from the Chargers, Klein's horses won 11 championships, seven Breeders' Cup races, a Preakness and a horse-of-the year title. But the moment that Klein singled out as the most exciting in his nearly quarter century in sports came on the first Saturday in May in 1988, when his horse Winning Colors won the Kentucky Derby by a neck, becoming only the third filly to capture the nation's premier racing crown.

"I never won a Super Bowl, so I can't relate to it," Klein said. "But one of 28 teams is going to win the Super Bowl every year, (and) only one of 50,000 foals can win the Kentucky Derby."

Wayne Lukas, the nation's top money-winning trainer and the man who guided Klein's racing dynasty, said Monday that few owners have matched Klein's success. In 6 1/2 years, Klein estimated that his horses won more than 300 races and $25 million.

"I don't think in the history of racing an owner ever had a six-year run like Gene did," said Lukas, who talked with Klein on Sunday and planned to have lunch with him today. "He proved you don't have to belong to the Jockey Club or inherit a band of broodmares to win a lot of races."

In an interview last year, Klein said he decided to get out of racing because he no longer wanted to commit the energy and attention necessary to maintain the unprecedented success that he achieved in tandem with Lucas.

"I thought at first that I could scale back, not be quite so involved," Klein said in June. "But that's not my style. I found out I couldn't lighten my load and still be competitive in the sport the way I wanted to be."

An imposing 6-foot-5 man with a shock of white hair and mustache, Klein became active in horse racing just as he was curtailing his career in professional football.

In 1966, Klein, then a multimillionaire Los Angeles businessman who headed National General Corp., a film and theater conglomerate, bought the Chargers from hotel magnate Barron Hilton for $10 million. But Klein, who in 1984 sold his interest in the Chargers to Alex Spanos for a reported $40 million, did not become involved on a day-to-day basis with the club until after a succession of losing seasons, capped by a dismal 2-11-1 record in 1973.

Over the next several seasons, the coaching and management team that Klein assembled--head coach Tommy Prothro, general manager Johnny Sanders and assistant general manager Tank Younger--put together the successful drafts that created the nucleus of teams that would win AFC Western Division championships from 1979-1981.

The final piece fell into place when Klein replaced Prothro with Don Coryell early in the 1978 season. Coryell, who gained immense popularity in San Diego while coaching at San Diego State, introduced the high-powered offense that became known as Air Coryell and made the Chargers one of the most exciting and successful teams in professional football in the late 1970s.

Klein's tenure also was marked by several controversial salary disputes with top players, including quarterback Dan Fouts in 1977 and receiver John Jefferson and defensive end Fred Dean in 1981. Fouts sat out much of the year, but the others were traded--showing, some argued, that Klein the businessman did not retire when he became Klein the sportsman.

Arguably Klein's greatest triumph during his years with the Chargers came, not on the field, but rather in a hotel conference room in Washington, D.C, in May, 1984, when San Diego defeated 12 other cities and was awarded the 1988 Super Bowl game.

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