Can you remember when our town was the football capital of the universe? The Trojans were slapping everyone around up to and including Notre Dame. UCLA had these smart, swift teams, which would pick your pocket, slip the watch off your wrist and pull your hat down over your ears.
The Rams were the scourge of the West. The Raiders took no prisoners. And so on.
Now, look at them. It's been eons since the Trojans beat anybody in the top 10, never mind Notre Dame. The Bruins run up scores against San Diego State and BYU but come up two points short against Cal and beat Stanford by three.
The Rams look like a routed army. The Raiders rely on a 38-year-old backup quarterback and a questionable clock to keep above water.
This is a town that doesn't deal in "Nice try, guys!" This is not Green Bay. This is not "Win or lose, you're our guys!" territory. This is the citadel of "Just win, baby!" We want happy endings around here. John Wayne takes Burma. Leave the tragedy to the Italian movies.
So, a few of us were sitting around with nothing better to do trying to decide what it would take to put this town on the football map again.
We came to the conclusion that change has to begin at the top. With the guy in the paneled office. Where the buck stops. Where the buck starts. The general manager's office with the fax machine, videotape, cellular phone, hot line.
We decided to ask the Godfather of the breed, an old friend, a guy who put more championship teams on the field than Knute Rockne.
Don Klosterman was top gun for such franchises as the old Chargers, where he was the original director of player personnel, the Dallas Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Oilers, Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams. Not a loser in the bunch.
Klosterman was no pencil-pusher. He was a hands-on, fade-the-shooter, double-the-bet, raise-the-ante football gambler who would put it all on the come. He played the front office like he used to play the game when he was the quarterback at Loyola who once threw 63 passes in a game against Florida and completed 50 of them for 392 yards.
It was Klosterman who helped bring the NFL to its knees in the merger fights of the 60s when he signed John Brodie, no less, away from the San Francisco 49ers, and it was Klosterman who won draft fights with the older loop, spiriting standout players out of motel windows and signing them to contracts by street light.
He was the man to bring the problem to, but he was amused at the question: "How do you build a winner?" He grinned. "The same way you do anything--with luck and dedication."
Sure, but where do you start? Where do you press your luck? Concentrate your dedication?
"Well, the first thing you have to understand is, it's going to be more difficult than ever to build a winner anywhere when the salary cap goes in next year. Some teams who are at or over the cap are going to have to make tough decisions. Who do you keep?
"Other teams that are under the salary cap ($32 million) are going to be in a buyers' market. I'm told Cincinnati is $8 million under the cap. They're going to have to spend up. So, they'll be playing with house money. They can call for cards while everyone else has to say 'I'll play these.'
"Obviously, you have to have the coach. You need a leader. On the field and on the bench. When I went to the Colts, the first thing that happened just as I got there is, we lost Don Shula to Miami. But, we got Don McCafferty and went to the Super Bowl anyway. When we got to the Rams, we got Chuck Knox. There are lots of good coaches out there--but not so many head coaches.
"Obviously, you need a quarterback. This can be a crapshoot--everybody knows who the top prospects are. But you have to have good sources. You have to remember Joe Montana was drafted in the third round. That will happen. But you would think some GM would have his ear to the ground and not let a guy of this caliber escape. Somebody should have looked up after seven or eight picks and said 'Wow! Look who's still in here! My sources say this guy can play!' "
A general manager, believes Klosterman, should have a network of agents and informants in place like the CIA. "You should be able to pick up a phone and get a 'read' on any move you want to make from someone who's close to the source. You return the favor when there's a player you can't have access to."
Is it a kind of "old boy" network? Klosterman shakes his head. "It's friendship. It's doing business."
It's information. The coin of the 20th Century.
After quarterback and coach, what's next?
"Every position is important," Klosterman says predictably. "But you have to remember the game is no longer 'Football.' It's 'Speedball.' You don't say 'How good is he?' anymore. You say 'How fast is he?' If you can't run the 40 in 4.3, try bowling."
The ability to spot a championship player from the window of a speeding train, a la Branch Rickey, is important. But, you need an informed consensus, too. "The Rams got a whole Christmas list of draft choices in the (Eric) Dickerson trade but squandered them."
The front office shouldn't fumble on the goal line, either. You can't always get Joe Montana or John Unitas, but you shouldn't end up with Cleveland Gary or Dieter Brock, either.
"You used to get the players for 10 years. Now, you get them for two or three. You have to keep them and you have to keep them happy--and do it within a budget. I don't think you'll see a Green Bay Packer franchise staying together for 10 years any more. I don't think you'll see dynasties."
So, what do you do--punt?
Klosterman never punted. I mean, why give the other guys the ball?