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Taking Charge

With Schottenheimer on Board, There's No Question Who's Calling Shots in San Diego

April 14, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Long before he was one of the most successful coaches in the NFL, Marty Schottenheimer was an English major at the University of Pittsburgh. He even got a degree.

Perhaps that's how he acquired his skill with understatement and foreshadowing--a talent he now uses to explain how he plans to coach the woeful San Diego Chargers--6-26 the last two seasons--into contention for a Super Bowl.

"We're going to be accelerating our learning curve," Schottenheimer said at a recent mini-camp for veterans as he surveyed the players he inherited from Mike Riley, who was fired in December.

Schottenheimer, 58, is one of the best accelerators in the game. His offense may not be flashy, and the knock on his tough-it-out style is that his teams tire late in the season, but in 15 seasons as a head coach he is 153-93-1 and his teams have made the playoffs 11 times, won six division titles and advanced to three AFC championship games.

If he judges a player's learning curve to be lacking, Schottenheimer is known to accelerate his departure to other teams and other lines of work. His first appraisal of the Chargers is not altogether favorable.

"We're not in good shape, frankly," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do. But I've got no doubt this is a group that is willing to work."

Only Don Shula (19), Tom Landry (18), Chuck Noll (12) and Bud Grant (12) have taken teams to the playoffs more often than Schottenheimer. But those four coaches share a distinction that has eluded Schottenheimer: All have been to a Super Bowl.

Schottenheimer doesn't fester on his lack of a Super Bowl appearance but neither does he hide the fact that the chance to take a team to the biggest game helped convince him to heed the call from Charger General Manager John Butler. He could easily have eased into retirement or back to the broadcast booth.

His financial settlement after one tumultuous season as coach of the Washington Redskins--a reported $7.5 million--could have made for a comfortable retirement. But within weeks of being dismissed by Redskin owner Daniel Snyder in a power struggle, he was bound for San Diego and talking--what else?--Super Bowl.

"Listen," he told reporters upon arrival, "if you're not interested in winning a world's championship, if that's not your goal, you should be in another business."

His reputation as a disciplinarian has preceded him, and Charger players say they already feel a chastening change from the Riley era. "Martyball"--the tag given to Schottenheimer's brand of tough defense and run-till-you-drop offense--starts with a new attitude.

"Last year we would go to practice and not really know what was expected of us," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "This year, we're going to know."

"He's already cut a lot of fat off our plate," defensive end Marcellus Wiley said. "He's so confident. You lose nine games in a row [as the Chargers did in 2001], you need a lot of things and discipline is in that dictionary."

Schottenheimer favors players who share his eyes-on-the-prize approach. One of his first acquisitions in San Diego was former Redskin tight end Stephen Alexander, who says, "I want a Super Bowl ring."

Practices for a Schottenheimer team are long and arduous. Discussion is fine, dissent is not.

"If you can get through one of his training camps," said center Cory Raymer, another recent arrival from Washington, "you can get through anything."

Reporters too have felt the change: Interviews with assistant coaches are forbidden without Schottenheimer's approval. Management speaks with one voice: Schottenheimer's.

With players he is egalitarian. He will treat linebacker Junior Seau the same as he does the rookies from the upcoming draft--a fact that suits the 11-time Pro Bowler just fine.

"He demands more of a work ethic," than previous Charger coaches, Seau said. "He's a guy who wears his personality on his shoulders. He's direct. There are no gray areas."

Schottenheimer also believes that if anyone is not comfortable with the organization or no longer is capable of a total effort, he should move on. He has done it three times himself.

He left the Cleveland Browns in 1988 after four seasons when owner Art Modell wanted him to hire an offensive coordinator. After 10 years in Kansas City, he abruptly retired after the 1998 season, saying he needed a break and that it was time for someone else to get a chance to take the Chiefs to the Super Bowl.

"I was given 10 years to get it done and I didn't get it done," he said at the time.

After two seasons as an ESPN analyst, he was lured to the Redskins last year with a four-year contract and a chance to resume his Super Bowl quest. "I want my father to leave football with a Super Bowl ring," said Brian Schottenheimer as he followed his father to Washington as quarterbacks coach. "He's earned that."

But the Redskins went 8-8--same as a year earlier--and Snyder wanted Schottenheimer to relinquish authority over player moves, a demand Schottenheimer found unacceptable.

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