Hang around Charger Coach Dan Henning for any length of time, and you will get the sneaking suspicion he is learning more about you than you are learning about him. It is not an uncomfortable feeling, because he will sense your uneasiness before you do. And he will disarm you by cocking his head and fixing you with a half-smile.
He will bum a cigarette. He will tell a story. He will make you laugh. Stay around long enough into the evening, and you will be treated to the Irish in him singing “Danny Boy” at the piano bar.
But you’ll have to hang around a lot longer than that to find out anything about him he doesn’t want you to find out.
So commanding was Henning’s understated presence at last week’s mini-camp that people in and around the Chargers were surmising Henning was already more powerful within the organization than Steve Ortmayer, the man who hired him.
There were even suggestions that Henning knew, before he took the Charger job, that Bobby Beathard, with whom Henning had worked at the Redskins, would resign as Washington’s general manager and might wind up in San Diego replacing Ortmayer.
At a meeting the night before the mini-camp convened, Henning had all the players on the team stand up and introduce themselves by stating their name and position. When outspoken Dennis McKnight, the team’s player-rep and leader of the offensive line, got his turn, he rose slowly and uncertainly.
“I just classified myself as an offensive lineman,” said McKnight, one of the best right guards in the AFC. Nothing was certain.
Camp Henning had officially begun.
“Mike Ditka had a short temper,” said Tyrone Keys, who played in Chicago before joining the Chargers last year. “Dan Henning might not be so short-tempered. He might be more controlled.”
The difference between Henning and his predecessor, Al Saunders, is the difference between Brooks Brothers button-down and an open-collared shirt.
Yet Saunders’ players saw Saunders for what he was--a rah-rah politicker with a knack for getting more out of less-gifted players than the ones with the talent.
“Everybody seems to be more confident now,” quarterback Mark Vlasic said.
Henning is decidedly more laid back than Saunders. His defensive staff was already in place before he got here, and he has no problem with that. Defensive coordinator Ron Lynn will probably be a head coach in the NFL one day. But he is above undermining Henning. Both know it.
Henning’s point man on the offensive staff looks to be line coach Larry Beightol, a feisty sort who, in his own words, will “get in your mustache” if you say or do something he doesn’t like. McKnight found this out the hard way Monday when he admitted being “bent out of shape” because he was running at second-team center less than six months after being named a Pro Bowl alternate at right guard.
What McKnight achieved last year “didn’t carry any water,” Beightol said. And when reporters challenged that in print, Beightol challenged them right back by needlessly reminding them they didn’t sit in on coaches’ meetings.
It was all pretty harmless stuff. But it allowed Henning more time to analyze the team he has inherited while somebody else served as his heat shield. And that part of it was probably no accident.
On day-to-day matters, Henning won’t hesitate to obfuscate. Asked to explain a player’s absence at practice he will answer: “A pull.”
Asked what kind of pull, he will say: “A muscle pull.”
And so forth. And so yawn.
Then there is this question of weight. More than one Charger reported to mini-camp looking as if he had spent the past five months lifting spoonfuls of Haagen-Dazs instead of weights. Henning acknowledged the problem but refused to talk about precise poundage and the excesses he saw.
Instead, he talked about “body composition” and “body fat.” When pinned down, he explained that receivers and defensive backs would be expected to have body fat content not in excess of 6-8%. Tight ends, quarterbacks and linebackers would be allowed 10-12%. Lineman: 14%.
Thankfully, Henning generally stops short of being a sphinx. “If he wants you to do something, he will tell you why,” Keys said.
And any comprehensive analysis of Henning’s coaching style won’t be complete until he has taken the Chargers through a full training camp, starting in July.
“Mini-camp is a time for introspection and for checking one’s own personal inventory of skills and what you need to work on,” said linebacker Billy Ray Smith. “Therefore, it’s really hard to ascertain any specific personality changes from head coach to head coach; from regime to regime; really from day to day. It’s very difficult.”
But it’s not hard to see differences. Rick Smith, the Chargers’ encyclopedic director of public relations, has worked for four Charger head coaches--Tommy Prothro, Don Coryell, Saunders and now Henning.
“Dan Henning seems to have a grasp for things other than football,” Smith said. “You can discourse with him on a number of subjects. Tommy did all the discoursing. Don had different interests, more or less. And I never had much time to spend with Al. But with this guy (Henning), you can talk about the people aspect of the business.”
Sometimes only on his terms. Pressed to talk about the competition at quarterback last week, Henning said, “It’s early. But now there’s a point of reference.”
That’s as far as he would go in discussing the race between Mark Malone, Vlasic, rookie Billy Joe Tolliver and former Falcon David Archer.
“I’ve got some good feelings about the quarterback position,” he said. “But I’m not sharing them with anybody.”
“Because I don’t want to be put in a . . . box by a bunch of guys (reporters),” he snapped back.
Then he walked away abruptly. On this occasion there would be no engaging half-smile.