The lost San Diego legacy of Alex Spanos
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The lost San Diego legacy of Alex Spanos

Chargers irascible patriarch died identified as Los Angeles Chargers owner

Photo: San Diego fans cheered Dan Fouts but booed Alex Spanos the day Fouts' No. 14 was retired in 1988.

Alex Spanos died on Tuesday at age 95 and reports across the nation identified him as owner of the Los Angeles Chargers. What a complicated yet fittingly sterile final chapter to his legacy as a National Football League franchise owner.

He should be remembered for the team's storied San Diego years.

Upon hearing the news of his death, my first memory, thinking back as a young sportswriter for a San Diego suburban newspaper that no longer exists (that’s how long ago was 1984), vividly pictured Spanos casually seated in a golf cart at the Chargers’ training camp on the UC-San Diego campus.

This was the informal setting in which the media first met Spanos after it was announced he bought the team from Gene Klein.

We learned he was an apartment construction magnate who still lived in his humble hometown of Stockton, Calif. He was said to still drive a used station wagon around town despite his multi-million dollar wealth.

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He answered questions with a Mayberry “ah, shucks,” persona. One question was about his humble beginnings that included selling sandwiches to migrant workers in farmland surrounding Stockton.

“Oh, don’t bring that up,” he said with a good-natured wave at the question.

If only he had remained that friendly figure while he ran the Chargers. He might have been beloved in San Diego.

But his impulsiveness and his bluster was his undoing. For all of Spanos' good qualities, most notably his love of family, his NFL legacy requires the Maori custom in New Zealand of remembering the dead for their faults as well their good deeds. 

Yes, it was actually his son Dean Spanos that moved the team from San Diego to L.A. in 2017, and we don’t know if Alex was aware of the move. He had turned over franchise operations to Dean in 1994 and remained an absentee owner in Stockton. But in 2008, he announced through writing a letter he had been diagnosed with dementia.

By then it was too late for him to leave behind a beloved San Diego legacy.

Ray Kroc, who saved Major League Baseball's Padres for San Diego, died a beloved owner. He lived in San Diego and purchased the Padres in 1973 to prevent them from moving to Washington, D.C. He set the foundation for the franchise’s first National League title and World Series appearance in 1984, the year he died – living in San Diego’s upscale La Jolla.

Klein, who bought the Chargers in 1966 as an absentee owner living in Los Angeles, eventually won over Chargers fans once he sold his business holdings and moved to San Diego. He concentrated his efforts on the team, and his Air Coryell Chargers coached by Don Coryell – a San Diego icon from his San Diego State days – won three straight AFC West titles, 1979-80-81, and advanced to a fourth post-season in 1982.

Klein's final gift to San Diego was securing the city's first Super Bowl despite objections to the stadium's size and facilities. Klein said he pulled in all his markers to get owners to vote for Super Bowl XXII to be staged in San Diego.

Super Bowls are awarded years ahead of time, and Klein had sold the Chargers to Spanos by the time the game was played Jan. 31, 1988. The NFL Network's Charley Casserly erroneously gave that credit to Spanos in an NFL Network Tuesday interview. 

When Klein died in 1990 he was at least adored if not beloved like Kroc. He had remained a San Diegan, living in upscale Rancho Santa Fe.

But instead of Spanos building on his first impressions, he belied them with a temperament that surfaced and for the way he meddled with the franchise’s operation.

He was the guy that fired Coryell in 1986. He was the guy fans booed at halftime of a 1988 game as Dan Fouts, the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback of the Air Coryell teams, had his No. 14 retired.

Spanos, Kroc and Klein were all charismatic, irascible, rich and generous with philanthropic endeavors, but Kroc and Klein were better at tempering or directing their bluster with charisma.

Klein aimed much of his bluster at Al Davis, his rival Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders owner.

“He’s like Goebbels, throwing anything at the wall to see what sticks,” yelled the World War II bomber at a stadium press conference during a time he and his fellow NFL owners feuded with Davis over his attempt to move the Raiders to Los Angeles.

Chargers fans loved his fight with Davis since they hated no team more in the league.

Spanos, on the other hand, was friends with Al Davis before and after he bought the Chargers. He was proud of it, too, and it was no secret to Chargers fans.

Spanos too often directed his bluster at the players, coaches and the city for failing to build a modern stadium. The fans felt criticism by extension. His temper also was infamous around Chargers' office employees and well enough known in the public. He wasn't above embarrassing employees in front of others. 

Spanos was more like Donald Sterling than Kroc or Klein. Sterling bought the National Basketball Association Clippers in 1981 from Irv Levin.

Levin had tried to make pro basketball work in San Diego. He traded ownership of the Boston Celtics for ownership of the Buffalo Braves, which he promptly moved to San Diego in the 1978-79 season. He brought home San Diego icon Bill Walton when he signed him from the Portland Trail Blazers.

But in those free agent days, the NBA stripped the Clippers of talent to compensate Portland. Then Walton’s fragile feet gave out.

Once Levin sold the Clippers to Sterling in 1981, Sterling, despite promises to “make San Diego proud,” proceeded to run the franchise into the ground. That enabled his move to Los Angeles in the 1984-85 NBA season.

Sterling has remained a despised figure in San Diego, and he became one throughout the NBA. He was forced to sell the Clippers in 2014 as a consequence of his racist remarks.

What a fateful year 1984 was for San Diego pro sports. 

Sterling, a despicable person, moved the Clippers to Los Angeles.

Alex Spanos bought the Chargers and soon began an irritating and alienating his fan base. The final insult was his son Dean moving the team to Los Angeles.

And that’s how Alex Spanos died -- identified in obituaries as owner of the Los Angeles Chargers.

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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu

-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

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Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom has also written for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Chargers.com, Rivals.com, and Gameday Central. He has won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003 and USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter its President’s Award in 2000.

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