After 2 Seasons, Spanos Is Ready for Super Bowl : Q & A WITH ALEX SPANOS

Times Staff Writer

On Aug. 1, 1984, Alex Spanos wrote out a check for more than $40 million and purchased controlling interest in the Chargers from Gene Klein.

Since that day, he has been an activist owner, reshaping the organization to his taste, pointing toward his dream--a date in Super Bowl XXII in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

Spanos, 62, one of the nation's largest apartment builders, is an energetic man who flies an average of 6,000 miles a week overseeing his Stockton-based construction business. He usually spends two or three days a week in San Diego and recently discussed his plans for the Chargers.

Question: After two years as owner, you have your people in place in key positions and the team bears your stamp. Are you satisfied with the direction the team is going?

Answer: It's obvious--I made a commitment two years ago. I feel very, very comfortable about fulfilling it. As far as offense, we're better than we've been in past years. The defense obviously needs improvement. We're definitely going to have some improvement this year. I can say I've never been more satisfied.

Q: What has been the most satisfying thing you've accomplished?

A: It's difficult to pick just one thing. But I would say bringing discipline to this organization. I strongly believe that there isn't any organization that can work without any discipline. It's just impossible.

Q: How do you define discipline in a pro football operation?

A: We have all these divisions and offices that have to learn to work with each other. In the past one department never knew what the other did or what the problems were. Now they're able to work together. Discipline carries a lot further than that, but that's the start of it.

Q: The methods that succeeded in the construction field have been applied to football?

A: Absolutely. It's no different. Good leadership is needed in both areas, and that's what I've tried to give it. I've never been happier with our administration or coaching.

Q: Have there been surprises along the way?

A: A lot of them. It's no secret the club, what it is today compared to three years ago, it's obvious I've made a lot of changes. It's my ballclub, and we're building something here that I want to be here 20 years from now. A winning ballclub. The only thing anyone understands, and the only thing I understand, is winning.

Q: Morale seems higher than it has been in years. The atmosphere seems the way it did in the playoff years. Do you think that comes down from you?

A: Well, I hope so. I certainly like to believe that. Sometimes, I've had to be tough in making changes in coaching, administration and players in fulfilling my commitment. That has to build enthusiasm into anyone.

Q: You've made it clear you would like a playoff spot this year and a Super Bowl next year. Are those realistic goals?

A: Oh, I think so. I really do. Just the fact, if we continue to have the enthusiasm among the players, we can get there this year.

Q: In retaining Don Coryell as head coach, you elevated Al Saunders to the position of assistant head coach and gave him broad powers. Are you happy with how that arrangement is working out?

A: I think Don can answer that question better than anyone. He's never been happier or more pleased. He's still the boss. His record speaks for itself. Hey, he's been one of the top coaches since he's been in the NFL.

Q: At the same time, you are preparing for an orderly transfer of power to Al Saunders in the next year or two, right?

A: Under Don's guidance, we can't go wrong.

Q: You've hired new defensive coaches to give you a blitzing defense. It's been part of your style to educate yourself, but once you feel comfortable in a given area, you're pretty sure of yourself, right?

A: Absolutely. These coaches are young, aggressive and innovative. And well disciplined.

Q: How much more knowledgeable about the game are you than when you bought the team?

A: Oh, my God (laughs). It doesn't take long. I can't believe how much there was to learn. I didn't want to get this involved when I bought the ballclub, but I can honestly say I've really enjoyed it. With all the problems, we've corrected them and I've learned from them.

Q: Do you feel you're on even footing with other owners now?

A: I can't say I've caught up. Some of these guys have been in there 25 years. I've got a lot of ways to catch up. But I have a lot of common sense and good business sense, and I'm able to make a decision. I'm able to make up my mind about something, and accept it right or wrong, and that's the success of any business.

Q: Let's talk about some of the broader problems facing pro football--the lawsuit with the USFL, the TV contract and the collective bargaining agreement. How do you assess the dangers in terms of the profitability of each team?

A: Well, I've given it a lot of thought, but I have to admit I've been more busy trying to build my ballclub and deal with my problems here. I went back to New York and sat in the courtroom for several weeks. I saw what our problems are. Hey, it's going to be nip and tuck. But I feel confident we'll win the suit. Certainly we'll know real soon.

Q: What about the TV contract?

A: I rely on Pete Rozelle to do as good a job as he's done in past years. He's certainly shown good leadership in that area. I'm not really concerned over it.

Q: What about the possibility of a strike next year?

A: I don't know. I've heard a lot of comments as to whether there will be a strike. I'd hate to see one. I hate to think of having a strike. But, it's happened in the past and it's possible it could happen again. I don't have the answer to that.

Q: Do you see a strike as something that could disrupt the team's march toward a possible Super Bowl?

A: Well, sure. It could disrupt any organization. I think the players recognize it was a mistake to have a strike five years ago and I think they will think hard before it gets to that position again.

Q: You don't have seniority yet among the ranks of owners, but have been pretty visible. Do you plan to be increasingly outspoken and take on some of these issues?

A: Only when I have to. I've always believed the only to learn is to sit back and listen. In the last six or eight months I've been more outspoken in areas I think we're wrong, like the drug issue, I've been outspoken. I've been criticized (by the Players Assn.). I've taken a strong stand to protect these kids. What's happened in the last month is a good example. What is more important--invasion of privacy or the lives of these athletes? Before it was their health. Now we're talking about their lives.

Q: Put yourself in the shoes of Pete Rozelle or Peter Ueberroth and tell us how you would eradicate drug use.

A: Well, this is nothing I haven't told the commissioner and other owners. Pete's plan (to test players three times a year) is a great beginning, but it's not the answer. Why should we give anyone three chances? I think two chances is enough. You know, if a player is caught, we are interested in rehabilitating these kids. We will do all we can. If they get caught again, hey, that's it. Why give 'em a third chance? Why give 'em all these chances--they're just kids! They have to be treated like kids. They're 21- and 22-year-old kids. You know, random testing is the only thing that can work. A little fear has to be thrown into these kids. They have to know they can be tested at any time. Knowing that, they will be a lot more cautious. They don't want to be caught. So we will have a deterrent that maybe will eventually clean 'em up completely. I think I've said enough.

Q: Do you believe you've weeded out most of the problem players on your team?

A: Absolutely. I'm proud to say, and strongly believe, and have been told we have the cleanest team in the NFL. Now that's not to say we don't continue to have problems. Obviously we always will have problems. We're just trying to limit it and control it.

Q: There's been a slow pace in signing rookies this year. Are you going along with other owners in trying to control costs, or are you signaling an end to the "spend what it takes to fulfill my commitment" style of last year?

A: I never said I'd spend whatever it takes.

Q: You pretty much did it, though.

A: Well, I pretty much did it because I had no recourse. I think we've reached the point where the spending is ridiculous. The bottom line is very important. No business can run being in the red, and that's what's happening every year. Certainly I'm being very cautious this year. We're reducing spending as much as we can, but to a degree where it will help the whole league. Some will do better than others.

Q: Do you have other ideas on containing costs, other than cutting back on rookie contracts?

A: I have a lot of ideas, but I just can't discuss them now.

Q: A possible area of savings with the Chargers is injured reserve (18 players on the injured reserve list last year). What can be done to limit the cost of players on injured reserve, and what did that cost you last year?

A: I've done a lot of work on it. It's unfortunate we had to draft some players who couldn't pass their physicals, and I just waived three of them (Doug Landry, Matt Johnson and Drew Smetana), trying to give them a chance to go someplace else. It has to be done. You just can't sit there with a situation. . . . It cost us approximately $1.8 million last year, which was 2 1/2 times the NFL average. Let me tell you, that comes from not being on top of the injured reserve.

Q: It sounds like an area where discipline is needed.

A: That's right. You have to learn to say, "Sorry, we have to waive you." We can't help it if kids come here and they're injured and can't pass the physical. We'll make some mistakes, but we're becoming more aware in this area.

Q: What kind of record will you be happy with this year?

A: Playoffs. Playoffs. Only thing I'm looking to and the only thing that will satisfy me.

Q: Is it happening on schedule?

A: I've always set five-year goals, but I've always been able to achieve those goals in far less time. This will be my third year with the club, and I've made the commitment that we will get to the Super Bowl next year. Hey, I could be overconfident, but I have never felt as good as I do today about this ballclub.

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