NFL Bolts to LA, and coming up, Viva Las Vegas

HOUSTON — I feel sorry for San Diego, which though it has more wonderful assets than almost any city in America, has lost a valuable one, its professional football team.

Oakland, you and I know what it feels like to be abandoned by a team you’ve rooted for since childhood. I was living here when the Oilers left for Nashville. It seemed so senseless, a football franchise giving up the fourth-largest market for a city that’s never been big-league in anything but guitar-picking.

The Oilers’ owner, Bud Adams, alienated Houston with his demands for a new stadium, just a couple of years after the Astrodome was expanded to his stated satisfaction.

Many Houstonians, including a popular mayor, Bob Lanier, and two daily newspapers, Chronicle and Post, seemed content to let the Oilers go, confident the NFL soon would be back, surely with a more competent owner than Adams, who in three decades of trying never attained Super Bowldom. Until he moved to Nashville.

So it didn’t turn out like we thought it would. After the Oilers departed in 1996, H-Town was without an NFL team for seven years.

And so far the Texans, whom we welcomed with open arms and wallets, have not been an upgrade. They’ve given us nothing comparable to the Luv Ya Blue era of the Eighties, when Earl Campbell was running through everything but the Steel Curtain.

And by the way, the Astrodome that was so inadequate for Adams has been abandoned, supplanted by not one but two stadiums, at considerable taxpayer expense.

The NFL transfer from San Diego to Los Angeles seems as absurd as the shift from Houston to Nashville. LA already has a pro football team, if you count the Rams. And that’s a city that’s never cared much for pro football anyway, which is why the Rams left once before, as did the Oaklandish Raiders. As did the Chargers themselves.

Yes, the LA Chargers were one of the original eight members of the American Football League in 1960. They were 10-4 in their inaugural season, but when it was over they sensed little appreciation, so they moved down the interstate.

Seems to me Tinseltown needs another football team like it needs another Ben Affleck movie.

It’s not like millions of Angelinos lamented the absence of the Chargers. When polls were taken on which NFL team they wanted, Chargers ran a distant third behind Rams and Raiders, who, true to their vagabond nature are plotting to jump to Las Vegas, which some NFL owners see as fraught with peril. The league has a history of gambling scandals, so you land a team on The Strip?

For now, let’s have a respectful farewell to San Diego, which had something of a tradition going with its Chargers, who are also called – now more appropriately than ever – the Bolts. Once they were the team of lightning offense. Now they’re bolting.

The Chargers’ beginning was promising. With innovative Sid Gillman as coach, they won the AFL West in their San Diego debut, and in 1964 they won the AFL championship. That was the only time a professional sports team in San Diego has won a championship.

Asterisk: The fledgling AFL was not considered truly big-league. But anyone who saw Gillman’s Chargers, with fleet running backs Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe, deep-strike quarterback John Hadl and Hall of Fame receiver Lance Allworth was viewing the dawn of a new era. Gillman opened up the passing game to include the entire field, vertical and horizontal.

He was ahead of his time in many ways, including racial justice. The ’64 championship team had seven African-Americans when most pro teams limited themselves – unspoken rule — to two or three.

Gillman was also in the forefront of strength-training. He hired the first strength coach, who quickly introduced the players to anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs obtained from the Olympic underworld.

ESPN’s T.J. Quinn quoted All-League guard Walt Sweeney: “It was like the wild, wild West. There was speed, painkillers, steroids.”

After the Gillman era ended in ’69, the Chargers went into decline, but returned to prominence in the late ’70s-early ’80s with Air Coryell and Dan Fouts in the playoffs four consecutive years.   Don Coryell’s rhythm-passing system was the forerunner of the quick-tempo West Coast Offense of Bill Walsh.

The Chargers at times were on the brink of greatness. They reached the Super Bowl in 1994, and from 2004 to 2013 they were in the playoffs six out of ten years. This is hardly a Cleveland Browns-type of ongoing disaster.

The San Diego Chargers were profitable every year, though it was not unreasonable for billionaire owner Dean Spanos to think he needed a new stadium. Qualcomm is a half-century old.

But ponder this absurdity: the Chargers will play for the next two years in Carson, Calif., in the StubHub Center that seats 30,000. After that, they will be tenants in a new arena to be built and owned by the Rams.

It seems the Chargers are destined to be No. 2 in LA. Until they flee for a second time. What are the odds they go back to San Diego?

Perhaps the corporate and political powers will figure out a way to make it happen, as Houston did, so belatedly. San Diego may find, as we did, that pro football is worth more to a city’s culture and vibrancy than we realized. San Diego voters may regret that tax referendum.

It’s always about stadiums. Every couple of decades they’re obsolete, because Corporate America wants more luxurious suites and more of them. The owners feel they shouldn’t have to foot even half the cost of a new stadium. But the taxpayers don’t want to subsidize teams raking in billions of dollars.

Studies show that football teams playing once a week do not have the economic impact of Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association playing much more often. And it’s not like San Diego is short on tourist sites, with its World’s Greatest Zoo, white beaches, bustling Seaport Village and romantic Gaslamp Quarter, all to be enjoyed in relentlessly balmy weather.

Still, something important has left town. The game that was lost is played with political footballs. It results in teams relocating, heartstrings pulled, videos of fans tossing Chargers jerseys into bonfires and fireplaces. Seems like a sad way to run a booming business.

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