Chargers’ Tom Bass Gets Hook From Spanos : Defensive Coordinator Is Fired and Replaced by Dave Adolph

Times Staff Writer

A week after criticizing the Charger defense for lack of innovation and aggressiveness, owner Alex Spanos ran out of patience Tuesday and fired defensive coordinator Tom Bass, a folksy, bearded, cigar-wielding poet who went down graciously, with a plug for his beleaguered young players.

The San Diego defense after four games was shaping up as the most ineffective in the history of the National Football League, allowing an average of 458 yards per game, which projects to 7,328 for the season, about 600 more than the previous worst. The Chargers rank 28th overall defense, 28th against the run and 27th against the pass.

Finding the situation intolerable, Spanos decided to dump Bass, who had signed a two-year contract last spring, and replaced him with Dave Adolph.


Adolph, former defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns, joined the Charger staff last March as assistant coach in charge of evaluating pro personnel and scouting future opponents. He declined to meet the press Tuesday to discuss his ideas on defense, and team officials suggested he probably would not have much to say as the season progresses.

“I initiated the move this morning,” Spanos said. “I talked it over with (head coach) Don Coryell and decided it was better to do it now rather than later. It was not an easy task.

“I’ve made a huge commitment to this team and I intend to fulfill it. I have to better the defense whichever way I can. There was no sense prolonging it. I just didn’t want to keep waiting week after week.”

Coryell, seated beside Spanos, looked emotionally upset and did not offer any comments on Bass, his long-time friend and coaching assistant.

Bass, chomping on his trademark 8-inch cigar, took the news about as gracefully as a man could do.

“I didn’t think this was coming,” he said, with a laugh. “If I had, I wouldn’t have been at my desk at 6:30 this morning.”

Bass and his staff had been summoned to a conference with Spanos last Tuesday after the owner had publicly questioned the strategy of his defense.

“Something seems to vanish in the second half,” Spanos said after the Chargers defeated Cincinnati, 44-41, in the season’s third game. “We have to be more aggressive. We’re too easy to read. We have to take more risks.”

Fearful his remarks would be taken as an indicator Bass might be in jeopardy, Spanos was careful to say last week he didn’t contemplate making a coaching change.

Bass suggested Tuesday he had an inkling there could be trouble.

“Those votes of confidence are not real good things to get,” he said. “They have a tendency to be unsteady.”

After building a reputation as a sound defensive taskmaster with the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bass was hired March 1, 1982 to replace Jack Pardee as the Chargers’ defensive coordinator. The Charger defense never did anything to enhance that reputation.

As usually happens when a popular coach is sacked, there was a note of sadness among players.

“I’m shocked,” safety Gill Byrd said. “I can’t point the finger at coach Bass. It’s on us, the players.

“I feel sorry for Tom Bass. I’d like to play for him again in the future. There was nothing wrong with his defensive system. We as players just couldn’t seem to minimize the mental mistakes that cost us touchdowns.”

Linebacker Linden King offered an even stronger supporting statement.

“I never met a better individual in pro football than Tom Bass,” he said. “He’ll back you and stand by what he says. He’s a helluva man and I’ll miss him.

“We have a lot of talent, but very few guys can come in and produce instantly in the NFL. Regardless of who’s calling the shots, it takes time. We’ve lost somebody the likes of whom you don’t run across very often in this day and age.”

Bass said he didn’t feel depressed.

“I just feel I wasted a lot of my life trying to bring a young defensive team along,” he said. “The young kids on this defense will be good players. They’ve been badgered and criticized, but I’m proud of the way they hung together.

“I don’t feel like a scapegoat. I learned a long time ago the man who has the money has the power to do as he sees fit. You buy a team, you run it as you want.”

Spanos didn’t shed much insight on how the decision to fire Bass was made.

“Please, it hurts enough as it is,” he said. “I hated doing it. We all dislike it. But I have to try to initiate improvement on defense.”

The owner also declined to discuss the merits and qualifications of his new coordinator, Adolph. He said it was not his intent, when Adolph was hired last spring, to one day elevate him to defensive coordinator.

Spanos referred questions on Adolph to Ron Nay, chief scout and trusted adviser. Nay, who said he had known Adolph for 14 years, praised the job he has done in helping to organize Charger scouting.

“He has ranked each player on each team in the league and he’s graded film on every player,” Nay said. “He’s been responsible for contacting players on the waiver wire and lining up tryouts.

“I can also tell you that Dave was recommended by Cleveland owner Art Modell and he was asked by their new coach, Marty Schottenheimer, to remain as defensive coordinator. But he had a new marriage, and he wanted to live on the West Coast.”

Adolph can be expected to employ a 3-4 defense with numerous stunts, Nay said. He probably will employ linebackers in pass coverage more than has been done, and is an advocate of man-to-man coverages.

“We have good players on defense, but we could use more,” Nay said. “I think our players will get better than what they’ve shown. Sometimes a change will help.

“Dave will do some subtle things, but I don’t think you should look for us to shut out Seattle this Sunday.”

Bass seemed to agree with Nay’s assessment of the defense.

“I think it could be a good defense by the middle of the season,” he said. “It’s a young defense, and it takes time for guys to jell. I can’t think of any team that ever turned it around with as many young people as we have in the span of four games.”

Bass, who’s never been fired before, was asked if he would have done anything differently.

“Maybe I’d have been more demanding a year ago,” he said after a pause. “But you can’t go in and change the way you do things. You have to coach the way you are. You can’t be told how to coach.”

Bass never really came close to challenging his dismissal, but did utter one slightly sarcastic thought.

“Some people in this business are realistic,” he said. “Look at Dallas. They had a bad year, but they had the stability within the ranks to overcome it.”

He admitted he had some reservations about signing on for another two-year stint. But he decided, after talking with Spanos, that the owner was committed to spending money to procure the needed talent.

Ultimately, it was that commitment by the owner that cost Bass his job. The defensive coordinator took the fall when the revamped defense didn’t perform any better than Charger units of the past four years.

The Chargers’ first four games, total yards allowed:

Buffalo 455 Seattle 489 Cincinnati 448 Cleveland 440 Charger avg./game 458 NFL avg./game 330.96