No Laziness : No Disorganization : No Vices : No Weaknesses : Nothing but Perfection : Al Saunders Has Very Big Plans for Himself and the Chargers
The same words keep coming around, like an endless loop, or a mantra. Organization, detail, drive, discipline.
Al Saunders, the new Charger coach, defines himself in those terms. Friends and associates invariably bring up those qualities.
“He is a very complex person,” said his wife, Karen. “On the one hand, he is sincere, caring and sweet. But he is also very driven and competitive. It’s an odd combination, but it works.
“Friends tease me about living with someone who seems so perfect. They know to have Perrier on hand if we visit, because he almost never drinks any alcohol. He’s almost too nice. . . . But then that deep inner drive takes over. He always finds more film to go over, another reason to stay an extra hour at work. He never has nothing to do. He is never finished. It is never over. We did have a weeklong cruise to Acapulco last year. It was wonderful. No phones, no film. That’s the only way he will let go.”
To understand Saunders, it is necessary only to know his goal. He wants to win more games than any man in pro football history. Although he fears that may sound presumptuous, because he hasn’t won even a single game yet, this is a man who is not afraid to go for best ever.
For 16 years, or ever since he became a graduate assistant at USC, he has been plotting his rise. When he was named head coach Wednesday upon the resignation of Don Coryell, he became the youngest head coach in the National Football League at age 39.
Organization. In a room at his Scripps Ranch home, he has filed every set of practice notes and every game plan he has ever compiled. He has indexed all the material and can quickly locate any piece of information he desires.
On Thursday, after spending the night at the office before his first full day on the job, he reshuffled the duties of three assistant coaches. In an innovative move, he divided responsibility for special teams among several coaches.
“We desperately need more organization and structure,” he said. “There has been a great cleavage among offense, defense and special teams. We need more of a team concept.”
Detail. In high school, he caught a friend peering over his shoulder and copying the answers on a multiple-choice test. He deliberately marked a few incorrect answers, then went back and changed them when his friend wasn’t looking. He got a perfect score on the test.
Drive. Before proposing to the woman he would marry, he asked permission of the head coach for whom he worked. At the time, he was living in the athletic dorm and didn’t want to be disruptive by bringing a woman into an all-male environment.
“It was so typically Alan,” said Karen, laughing. “It took him three years after we met to decide if I fit his life’s agenda. Then, because he felt such loyalty to his head coach at the time, he thought he needed permission to marry me. I wasn’t real appreciative, but he felt it was the right thing, and I guess it was pretty comical.”
Discipline. In the fifth grade, he was caught smoking a cigarette. His father made him finish the entire pack in a sputtering, coughing fit. He hasn’t smoked since.
A little later, when he became a competitive swimmer, he worked under a coach whose methods included standing at the edge of a pool with a piece of rubber tubing and whacking lazy swimmers on the posterior. Saunders became a junior Olympic champion and national record holder in the sprint freestyle before tiring of swimming after about six years.
Defensive line coach Gunther Cunningham has known Saunders for nearly 10 years. They have sat in hotel rooms, and Cunningham has listened as Saunders described what he would do when he became a head coach one day.
“When we went on the field Wednesday and Al spoke to the team about his plans and goals as coach, I felt as moved as I ever have as a player or coach,” Cunningham said. “He put it just like he had always put it to me. I clapped my hands and said to myself, ‘Damn!’
“He’s going to do whatever needs to be done here. Nothing will stop him. . . . But, I’ll tell you, it puts a lot of strain on you internally to always try to do your best, to meet his standards. That can be incredibly hard.”
Saunders has endured similar stress over the past 10 months since owner Alex Spanos appointed him assistant head coach. Answerable to the owner but loyal to head Coach Don Coryell, Saunders was taxed, according to his wife.
“Alan tends to internalize things, like most men,” she said. “My role is to listen, to agree most of the time, and occasionally to disagree. I can feel it when he needs to talk something through.”
When he gets home from the office about midnight, Saunders finds the lights on in the kitchen, a snack on the table and a wife who’s prepared to listen to his frustrations.
The midnight chats, about the only private time for husband and wife for seven months of the year, have been particularly important this season.
“He works very hard at being strong and not needing support,” Karen said. “He is so good at handling himself, and supporting other people, he almost feels he can’t show the need for support himself. We’ve been having a lot of late-night talks this fall. It has been very stressful for Alan. He wants so badly to live up to the expectations of Alex Spanos and he tried to be loyal to Don Coryell. He didn’t want to be caught in the middle.’
Last spring, Saunders discussed his new responsibilities with an old friend and former boss, Phil Krueger, who is now assistant to the president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A dozen years ago, when Krueger was coach at Utah State, Saunders had gone to him for the OK to marry Karen, which still causes Krueger to chuckle in mock disbelief.
“I know what a difficult situation it was for Al and Don,” Krueger said. “It seemed to be handled very well, because Al is very bright and is in no way a devious man. Both men seemed to handle it very graciously.
“Al reminds me a lot of a young Dick Vermeil. He is fair, optimistic, never despairing and he will not let anybody run over him. We tried to hire him the same year he went to San Diego from the University of Tennessee (1983). I gave him an unqualified recommendation and said he might be an heir apparent to Coach (John) McKay.”
While at Utah State, Karen and Al Saunders would baby-sit Krueger’s daughter, Christie. One day he took her fishing and she caught her first fish, an albino trout. She is now in television news in Sarasota, Fla.
The Saunders family made a favorable impression at a later coaching stop, Tennessee, where Coach Johnny Majors was as taken with Karen as with Al.
“The first time I met Al, he talked so intelligently, he had such a gift for gab, I didn’t know if I could keep up with him,” Majors said. “I interviewed him at a coaching convention, and he was just immaculately dressed in a gray sport coat. The Lord didn’t make everybody that handsome and articulate. . . . He had his syllabus and his game plans and his organization book for quarterbacks, and I was very impressed.”
Majors brought Saunders to Knoxville for what turned out to be only one year. They lived in a large new home on a huge wooded lot. Saunders proudly shows pictures of the house, which is about as close as he comes to a sign of weakness. His wife also loved life in the South.
“When I met Karen, it really solidified my feeling about Al,” Majors said. “The vibes were so good, they were so family oriented. Karen is just so neat and cute and so much fun.
“I didn’t want to lose Al. I used to get mad and take it personally when a man left me, but I understood Al’s ambition. There was never any question he was going to become a head coach. If I had any advice, it would be never detour from what you believe and know is sound.”
There isn’t much chance of that happening, according to Karen Saunders.
Born in England, Saunders has inherited a staunch tendency to adhere to what he believes is the proper thing.
From his father, who took the family to Canada, then later to San Diego and San Francisco in search of a better life, Saunders acquired his drive and refusal to quit until a goal is attained.
His father worked a blue-collar job by day and doubled as a night watchman before eventually becoming a successful salesman.
His mother was always home while her son and daughter were growing up. Later she became a beautician by trade and a golfer by choice. She and her husband now live in Hemet.
Doing the proper thing in the proper English way is a laudable objective, but one Al Saunders has not always met.
Consider his courtship with Karen.
They met in 1970 at a bar called The 901 near the USC campus. Karen picks up the story:
“Al sort of flirted with me from afar while I was talking with his friends. I never took my eye off him. But since I was just a sophomore and a sorority girl, he didn’t want that much to do with me, so I had to pursue him. I learned his routine and planted myself where I knew he was going to be.
“After we finally started dating, it was three years before we got engaged. After he got it OKd to marry me, we were wed in Palos Verdes, and that night we were going to start the drive back to Utah State. We had a reservation to stop in Santa Barbara, but we ran low on gas and couldn’t find any station that was open, so we wound up in some little out-of-the-way motel. That was our honeymoon.”
For all his attention to detail in football, Saunders can be quite forgetful and absent-minded about more mundane matters. Once he returned from a trip and forgot where he parked his car. He thought it was at the stadium, but it turned up at the airport.
He frequently comes home without clothes or personal effects he took on the road. He also has a tendency to lock his keys in the car.
He is, however, highly conscious of his appearance. Shortly after learning there would be a press conference to announce he was taking over as coach of the Chargers, he broke the news to his wife along with a request to please bring him his favorite gray tweed sport coat.
Out of necessity, he has turned over nearly all domestic responsibility to his wife. She pays the bills, organizes their home life and finds time to be a mother of three.
“Al’s goal is to keep their lives as normal as possible,” Karen said. “I’d guess our children’s friends wouldn’t even know what he does for a living. He feels guilty at times because he is gone so much, but when he is home he gives all of himself to the kids. He’ll turn down Friday night social things to stay home with them.”
At the press conference Wednesday, Saunders told of a special report his oldest son had recently written on the first moon landing. He noted how the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, was 39 years old, his age. He talked excitedly of how Al Davis, Tom Landry and Chuck Noll were in the same age bracket when they first became head coaches.
“He’s always looking straight up to the moon,” running back Lionel James said. “He wants to climb the hill with no downhill thoughts. He makes us believe everything is headed up. It’s a new outlook on football for all of us. And if nothing else, it makes our job a lot more interesting.”