Home Is Still Sweet for Knox

Chuck Knox was strolling down the aisle, minding his own business, savoring the grocery market experience, where life is simpler and more reliable.

Here, you want a can of peas, you buy a can of peas, you bring it home, you keep it in the cupboard for as long as you want. The can of peas doesn't suddenly jump out of the cart, screaming, 'No! I can't go! I'm staying in Houston!"

Knox was enjoying himself when a couple approached him, saying, "You look familiar. Aren't you Chuck Knox?"

To his credit, Knox fessed up.

Soon, the couple and Knox were reminiscing about Isiah Robertson and Lawrence McCutcheon, the good old days, before the conversation turned inevitably to the depressing present day.

"The team isn't moving, isn't it?" the couple asked Knox. "Please, you can't go. We've been Ram fans for years. You've got to stay."

What could Knox do?

It's not his call. The head coach of the Rams is as helpless in this one as any other Orange County supermarket shopper.

"I just told them," Knox says, " 'I hope we stay, too.' "

In the case of Georgia Frontiere and John Shaw vs. the Apathetic and Fickle People of Southern California, Knox testifies on behalf of the fans.

"I go anywhere, with my wife or whatever, and they come up to me and say, 'We really hope you stay,' " Knox says.

"They're very positive. They're just very nice about everything."

Knox believes Ram fans are "good fans. I think they support us. I think they're like everybody else: You go out there and win and there's more support, there's more pride. The team becomes something they can talk about.

"When we were here before (in the 1970s), we were winning and we put a lot of people in the Coliseum. We had 90,000 for a regular-season game against Minnesota. It was really something to go in there, and the fans were just great.

"It becomes an event--tailgating in the parking lot and all that. It's a happening."

But Ram fans were different then, right? Isn't that the party line? That the hard-core constituency dissolved once the team moved to Anaheim and was further depleted by the arrival of the Raiders in 1982. That the Southland is far too big for two NFL teams. That if the Rams don't move, the Raiders will, or vice versa, or maybe both, because they contend that they can't make it here--and if they can't make it here, they're amenable to offers from anywhere.

"Can you see yourself working for a newspaper in a town this size with no pro football?" Knox asks. "It would be very difficult for me to picture that. There's a lot of tradition here, (dating back to) the Rams coming out here to the West Coast.

"I think it would be be difficult for a lot of people to understand how this market area--one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the country--could lose two pro football teams."

Knox disputes the notion that the Rams and the Raiders can no longer co-habitate within a 40-mile radius.

"Well, this area has supported two teams. I would say that," Knox contends. "You've got the population. You've got the base.

"It comes down to winning. If we get the program turned around, if we win, the people will be into it."

And they call Chuck Knox a raving conservative.

The team must win before the fans will follow. What a concept. This is radical stuff, coming from the mouth of a 62-year-old football coach whose team's owner and executive vice president have pleaded victimization and financial hardship thrust upon them by the paying customers of Southern California.

Knox, who has seen them both, claims to see little difference between the Rams fans of the 1970s and the 1990s.

Same species, different environment, in his estimation.

"I know this," Knox says. "When I go through there now before a game and talk to them, they seem the same. The difference is that when we were winning five straight divisional titles, we were winning . Naturally, people are going to be more enthused about winning. Right now, we're just trying to get the program turned around.

"We knew when we came here (in 1992), this was not going to be a quick fix, not something you're going to turn overnight. They'd lost 10 in a row the year before we got here and won three games and won five the year before that.

"But I could see some people were excited at times last year. You take both end zones. When we're winning and making some plays, they get pretty vocal. They respond to some plays.

"That's what you got to do. You got to make some plays out there. Win some games. Get people excited. Get pride back in what we're trying to do."

That's the goal for 1994. Is it too little too late?

"It can't hurt," Knox says. "It can't hurt."

But is it realistic? What do the Rams of '94 have to offer that the inferior '93, '92, '91 and '90 editions couldn't?

"Well, I think we'll be better defensively," Knox says. "We added (defensive tackle) Jimmie Jones, who should take some of the pressure off Sean Gilbert and give him a chance to develop.

"In the secondary, our corner play should be improved. The safeties, we've got some players who can go to the football. We need to get more turnovers, more interceptions. At one point last year, we had 10 interceptions as a team and Eugene Robinson of Seattle had nine all by himself."

Jerome Bettis will be back. Jim Everett will not. These have to be two more pluses, although Knox refrains from heaping too much praise on new quarterback Chris Miller.

"See, if I reflect on that, then some people take it as a dig at Jim Everett," Knox says. "All I would say is that Miller threw the ball very, very well in the work we've been doing this spring."

Knox still wants to sign one more veteran wide receiver, and will probably have to go outside Texas to do it. Dallas dangled Alvin Harper, then made him disappear. Houston's Haywood Jeffires actually agreed to a contract, had two Ram coaches fly down to close the deal, then got cold feet and sent the coaches back to Anaheim empty-handed.

Knox isn't saying who he's pursuing now--Indianapolis' Jessie Hester, perhaps?--because "then, if we don't get him . . . see what I'm saying? I'd rather say it after we get him signed.

"It's tough to be a jilted suitor. You chase and chase and chase and all of a sudden, it's, 'I thought you were going to the prom with me.' "

Ram fans, much to their dismay, are beginning to relate.

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