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And Sealed With a Loss : Henning Era to End With Firing Today

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“I like everything about Dan Henning except for his won-loss record.”

--Taylor Smith, Falcons executive, September 1986

Dan Henning’s Chargers football teams have thrown a mighty scare into the opposition and they have refused to surrender.

They have done everything, but win for Dan Henning.

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He has gained the attention of his players, who worked hard to the very end in this 4-12 season, he has earned the admiration of his peers, and he has General Manager Bobby Beathard’s respect for standing tall in difficult times.

But sources within the National Football League said Sunday night that Dan Henning will no longer have a job today as head coach of the Chargers after meeting with Beathard today.

“He’s a great guy, Bobby really likes him and this has been tough,” said an NFL executive, “but what can you do with that record? Bobby has to do something.”

The Chargers are expected to dismiss their entire coaching staff along with Henning, although several coaches will be recommended for rehiring to Henning’s replacement.

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Each of the assistant coaches, with the exception of defensive coordinator Ron Lynn and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, have one more year remaining on their contracts with the team, and those contracts will be honored.

Henning, who compiled a 16-32 record during his three-year tenure here, signed a five-year contract with the Chargers when he was hired. The final two years, however, are not guaranteed.

Henning never mentioned his situation to his team before or after Sunday’s game, and he brushed aside questions about his future after the Chargers’ 17-14 loss to Denver. “I’m not going to discuss that,” he said. “That’s Bobby’s business right now.”

Beathard also declined comment on his final decisions, but he said, “I’ve talked with Dan and we’re going to meet sometime (today). I’m going to go home and sleep on this and talk again to (Alex and Dean Spanos).

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“We have had several discussions. I talked to Mr. Spanos up in the (owner’s) box, and I said I would call him tonight. He’s left the decision to me. I’d rather not say anything, or comment or speculate tonight; I’d rather just wait until (today) when I meet with Dan.”

A club source said Beathard has anguished over the decision of whether to replace Henning. He said as recently as last week he had made no final decision. He also said that Spanos has shown remarkable restraint and has left the decision entirely in Beathard’s hands.

Beathard reacted angrily to an NBC-TV report Sunday that indicated he was going to fire Henning and replace him with Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Ross.

“I told the coaches before the game it was absolutely erroneous information,” Beathard said. “It isn’t true. It’s not going to be anything like that.

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“There have been a lot of reports, and that was a disturbing report. It’s absolutely not true, and I didn’t even have the chance to respond to those reports because nobody asked me about it.”

Ross, who turns 55 today, has an Aloha Bowl date with Stanford on Christmas Day.

“Until I have formally heard from somebody that says, ‘Hey, we are offering you a job, and specifically these are the terms,’ I don’t pay that much attention to it,” Ross told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday. “I don’t know whether they have an interest or not. I don’t know that because I’ve been working this job.”

Ross, who has a 30-26-1 record in his five years at Georgia Tech, including an 11-0-1 mark in 1990, was asked if he has had any contact with the Chargers?

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“Not directly to me,” Ross said. “I’m not going to comment on it beyond that.”

Sources within the league said Beathard has an interest in Ross, University of Miami Coach Dennis Erickson and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren. The names of Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon and Stanford Coach Denny Green have also been linked to the Chargers.

Erickson is believed to be a leading candidate to replace Chuck Knox in Seattle, but Beathard has been known to admire Erickson’s work.

Ross, who has four years of experience in the NFL as an assistant with Kansas City, still appears to be Beathard’s top choice to become the Chargers’ ninth head coach.

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Beathard’s only previous experience in hiring a head coach came in Washington in 1981. As general manager of the Redskins he dismissed Jack Pardee and replaced him with Chargers offensive assistant coach Joe Gibbs. Gibbs has taken the Redskins to three Super Bowls, and Washington’s favored this year to advance to a fourth Super Bowl.

If only the results had been different in San Diego . . .

Bobby Beathard wanted Dan Henning to succeed as head coach of the Chargers. Before last season, he said, “I’m telling you, I think the guy’s a terrific coach.

“If I had been in the same position as Steve Ortmayer, Dan Henning would have been the guy that I would have recommended to Mr. Spanos that the Chargers hire as head coach.

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“Had anything happened with Joe Gibbs in Washington while I was there, Dan would have been the guy that we would have named to replace him. And it wouldn’t have been a tough decision.”

Ortmayer, the Chargers’ former director of football operations, hired Henning on Beathard’s recommendation. Henning replaced Al Saunders, a Spanos protege, who compiled a 17-22 overall record.

Henning’s arrival drew immediate criticism from fans, who refused to accept his 22-41-1 record as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

"(Henning) will be the man to take us all the way,” said Spanos upon Henning’s hiring Feb. 9, 1989.

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But from the very beginning things went wrong. Running back Gary Anderson held out for more money, and Henning inherited a football team that featured Mark Malone, a limping Mark Vlasic and a rookie Billy Joe Tolliver at quarterback. A trade for an undisciplined Jim McMahon did very little to solve the problem.

After Henning’s very first regular-season game as head coach of the Chargers--a 40-14 loss to the Raiders--Coach Mike Shanahan offered a hint of what was to come: “They play with a lot of effort.”

The Chargers went on to play hard and lose nine games by seven or fewer points in Henning’s first season to finish 6-10 overall.

At season’s end, Ortmayer was fired and replaced by Beathard. The firing and hiring prompted a dramatic change in front office philosophy and contributed to yet another 6-10 performance in 1990. Beathard immediately asked Henning to fire offensive line coach Larry Beightol, who was also Henning’s best friend.

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The Chargers went into 1991 debating the merits of who should be the team’s starting quarterback. Beathard and Spanos pushed for John Friesz; Henning, whose job was in jeopardy, was fighting for Billy Joe Tolliver.

Tolliver, however, faltered in exhibition play. Despite no work against a first-string defensive unit, Henning agreed with Beathard and promoted Friesz to starting quarterback only days before the opening of the regular season. Hours later, Beathard traded Tolliver to Atlanta.

The Chargers lost in Pittsburgh to open the season, and Henning fired offensive coordinator Ted Tollner. Beathard supported the move, but the Chargers went on to lose the first five games of the season.

An overtime loss to Cleveland in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium dropped the Chargers’ record to 1-7, and sources in the organization said there was thought given to replacing Henning at that time.

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The Chargers’ front office was not happy with Henning’s attention to detail. They thought players lacked practice discipline, and were concerned that the team might collapse down the stretch.

But Henning remained rock solid in his focus each week, and despite public disenchantment and front-office concerns, his players responded to his dedication.

“He never gave up,” said center Courtney Hall. “He never quit, and you have to admire someone like that, especially with so much negativity around him.”

Punter John Kidd said, “It’s just incredible, absolutely incredible to see him stay focused and so even-keeled each week on winning with all the speculation and rumors. To stay so consistent on the way he handled things was just amazing.”

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The Chargers kept playing for Henning, despite hitting the bye week with a 1-8 record. They knocked off Seattle, shocked New Orleans, and while nodding off against the Jets, their final four games against playoff-seeking teams were decided by a total of 16 points.

“I think change would be a setback and not a step forward,” guard David Richards said. “The only thing left for us to do is learn how to win.”

Nose tackle Joe Phillips shook his head in agreement: “Call us the San Diego Changlings.”

Running back Rod Bernstine, who was a tight end before Henning’s arrival, said, “I think he deserves another season. We have holes, but I think we still need to have the continuity of the ballclub to keep progressing.”

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Henning has preached continuity since his arrival. He spent part of four seasons with the Chargers in the mid-1960s, and he has always kept an eye on this organization. He has watched the Chargers miss the playoffs for nine-straight seasons, and he has pointed to the change in head coaches, and the constant front office turnover.

“The impatience of the organization is on trial, not me,” he said this past July. “I think the walls are closing in on Mr. Spanos when it comes to me, and that’s where the test is.

“I think part of the organization’s problems over the past seven or eight years has been that impatience. Lack of continuity can kill you.”

Dan Henning’s Coaching Record

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Year Team W L T 1983 Atlanta 7 9 0 1984 Atlanta 4 12 0 1985 Atlanta 4 12 0 1986 Atlanta 7 8 1 1989 Chargers 6 10 0 1990 Chargers 6 10 0 1991 Chargers 4 12 0 Totals 38 73 1

Should He Stay, or Should He Go ? 1989 RECORD: 6-10

HIGH POINT: Anthony Miller’s 91-yard kickoff return for TD on Sunday night TV propels Chargers to 14-12 win over Raiders. LOW POINT: Chargers improve record to 4-6, but go on to collapse and lose next four contests by a total of 15 points. GOOD DECISION: Henning makes an every-down runner out of Marion Butts, a seventh-round pick tabbed to play special teams. BAD DECISION: Jim McMahon gets into battle with media and Henning remains the player’s coach, refusing to intercede. EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES: ’88 MVP Gary Anderson never plays for Henning. Team makes switch from Mark Malone to McMahon to Billy Joe Tolliver. 1990 RECORD: 6-10 HIGH POINT: Chargers win three in a row to go 5-5 with chance to earn share of the AFC West Division lead with a win over the Chiefs. LOW POINT: Five turnovers in Kansas City result in 27-10 pounding, and Chargers never recover, going on to lose five of last six. GOOD DECISION: Henning makes mistake in keeping Fuad Reveiz, but rebounds by hiring John Carney, who hits 19 of 21 field-goal attempts. BAD DECISION: Chargers’ 14-10 fourth-quarter lead in season opener at Dallas turns into a 17-14 disaster as fake punt is botched. EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES: Transition from Steve Ortmayer to Bobby Beathard results in player turnover and debate on Tolliver’s future. 1991 RECORD: 4-12 HIGH POINT: John Friesz marches team length of field against Saints’ highly regarded defense and Carney kick completes upset. LOW POINT: Chargers open with defeat in Pittsburgh and two days later Henning announces he has fired popular Ted Tollner. GOOD DECISION: Although his job rests on achieving a winning record, Henning starts Friesz, a virtual rookie, at quarterback. BAD DECISION: Fourth-and-10 call for a Ronnie Harmon draw against the Rams gains seven yards and a whole lot of second-guessing. EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES: Lee Williams is traded, Butts holds out, Friesz lacks experience, Miller can’t catch, Leslie O’Neal disappears.

A Legacy? Chargers 6-22 in Games Decided by 7 or Fewer Points DATE: Sept. 17, 1989 OPPONENT: Houston SCORE: 27-34 COMMENT: McMahon is intercepted 3 times DATE: Oct. 8, 1989 OPPONENT: Denver SCORE: 10-16 COMMENT: Two-minute drill ends on McMahon interception DATE: Oct. 15, 1989 OPPONENT: Seattle SCORE: 16-17 COMMENT: Bahr PAT & field-goal attempt blocked DATE: Oct. 22, 1989 OPPONENT: Giants SCORE: 13-20 COMMENT: Fake punt backfires, sets up game-winner DATE: Oct. 29, 1989 OPPONENT: Seattle SCORE: 7-10 COMMENT: Seahawks march 71 yards for winning score DATE: Nov. 5, 1989 OPPONENT: Philadelphia SCORE: 20-17 COMMENT: Bahr hits 49-yarder with 4 seconds left DATE: Nov. 12, 1989 OPPONENT: Raiders SCORE: 14-12 COMMENT: Offense runs final 4:21 off the clock DATE: Nov. 19, 1989 OPPONENT: Pittsburgh SCORE: 17-20 COMMENT: Two-minute drill ends on McMahon interception DATE: Nov. 26, 1989 OPPONENT: Indianapolis SCORE: 6-10 COMMENT: Final drive ends short of end zone DATE: Dec. 3, 1989 OPPONENT: Jets SCORE: 17-20 COMMENT: Bahr misses from 37 with 10 seconds left DATE: Dec. 10, 1989 OPPONENT: Washington SCORE: 21-26 COMMENT: Chargers run out of downs at Redskins’ 6 DATE: Dec. 17, 1989 OPPONENT: Kansas City SCORE: 20-13 COMMENT: Interception in end zone preserves win DATE: Dec. 24, 1989 OPPONENT: Denver SCORE: 19-16 COMMENT: Bahr connects from 45 on final play DATE: Sept. 9, 1990 OPPONENT: Dallas SCORE: 14-17 COMMENT: Fake punt sets up Cowboys’ winning drive DATE: Sept. 16, 1990 OPPONENT: Cincinnati SCORE: 16-21 COMMENT: Miller fumble with 2:47 left ends rally DATE: Nov. 25, 1990 OPPONENT: Seattle SCORE: 10-13 COMMENT: Pair of Cox fumbles aid Seahawks’ cause DATE: Dec. 23, 1990 OPPONENT: Kansas City SCORE: 21-24 COMMENT: Chiefs go 85 yards; Tolliver intercepted DATE: Dec. 30, 1990 OPPONENT: Raiders SCORE: 12-17 COMMENT: LA marches 80 yards for go-ahead score DATE: Sept. 1, 1991 OPPONENT: Pittsburgh SCORE: 20-26 COMMENT: Steelers beat blitz for 89-yard TD DATE: Sept. 15, 1991 OPPONENT: Atlanta SCORE: 10-13 COMMENT: Carney misses 47-yarder with 5 seconds left DATE: Sept. 29, 1991 OPPONENT: Kansas City SCORE: 13-14 COMMENT: Chargers out play Chiefs, but lose DATE: Oct. 13, 1991 OPPONENT: Rams SCORE: 24-30 COMMENT: Safety, fourth-down draw play invite criticism DATE: Oct. 20, 1991 OPPONENT: Cleveland SCORE: 24-30 COMMENT: Friesz’s poor pass returned for TD DATE: Nov. 10, 1991 OPPONENT: Seattle SCORE: 17-14 COMMENT: Defense holds; Carney hits 54-yarder DATE: Nov. 17, 1991 OPPONENT: New Orleans SCORE: 24-21 COMMENT: Friesz pass sets up Carney game-winner DATE: Dec. 1, 1991 OPPONENT: Raiders SCORE: 7-9 COMMENT: Scott Davis blocks 44-yarder by Carney DATE: Dec. 8 ,1991 OPPONENT: Kansas City SCORE: 17-20 COMMENT: Vlasic rallies Chiefs from 14-0 deficit DATE: Dec. 22, 1991 OPPONENT: Denver SCORE: 14-17 COMMENT: Three interceptions for Friesz on off day

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