February 10, 2010

1961: AFL Approves Move of Chargers From LA to San Diego

The Los Angeles Chargers of the new American Football League had a very solid first season on the field. Owned by hotel executive Barron Hilton, the Chargers entered the AFL’s first year with the best known of the new league’s head coaches, Sid Gillman, who had been in charge of the Rams from 1955-59. He also served as general manager after Frank Leahy, the former Notre Dame head coach who originally served in the position, resigned due to bad health. Unlike many of the franchises in the fledgling league, there was ample money to spend on the organization and Hilton was willing to do so.

Gillman was an innovative thinker when it came to offense in general and the passing game in particular. The Chargers had the top-ranked passer in the league in 1960 with QB Jack Kemp (pictured with Gillman below), a native Southern Californian who had played college football at Occidental and been rejected by the NFL. HB Paul Lowe was the AFL’s second-ranked rusher with 855 yards for a league-high 6.3 yards-per-carry. They were both All-AFL selections, as were rookie OT Ron Mix and CB Dick Harris. Other standouts were offensive end Howard Clark, OT Ernie Wright, DE Ron Nery, DT Volney Peters, and linebacker/punter Paul Maguire. The team easily won the Western Division with a 10-4 record and lost an exciting league championship contest to the Houston Oilers (see Jan. 1).

However, the problem was that in Los Angeles, few seemed to notice and turnout was low. Average attendance for the seven home games was 15,768, which didn’t compare badly to some of the other teams but was far too low for Los Angeles, particularly when playing in the cavernous Memorial Coliseum (capacity for football at that time was over 101,000). A low turnout of 9928 as the Chargers hosted Denver was particularly embarrassing, and just 11,457 were present for the final home game against the New York Titans.

Hilton had lost some $900,000 over the course of the season and decided before it was concluded that he would move the franchise. Jack Murphy, a respected sportswriter for the San Diego Union, became aware of the situation with the Chargers and spearheaded a drive by civic leaders in San Diego to persuade Hilton to move the club down the coast.

It was agreed that the local football field, Balboa Stadium (pictured above in 1964), would be double-decked to increase the seating capacity from 15,000 to 34,000 and that the Chargers would be rent-free tenants. On February 10, 1961 the American Football League granted approval to Hilton to move the team to San Diego. It was the league’s first franchise shift, and the only one following the ’60 season.

San Diego proved more welcoming to the Chargers, where they didn’t have to compete directly against an NFL team – or, for that matter, a major league club in any other sport - and were immediately embraced by the community. 20,216 fans attended the home opener in ’61 against the weak Oakland Raiders, and the crowds steadily grew with each game to a high of 33,788 when the Dallas Texans came to town. The overall average was 27,859 as the team again won the division title. They hosted the championship game, and lost again to the Oilers before a somewhat disappointing Christmas Eve crowd of 29,556. But the league showed its commitment to San Diego as Balboa Stadium hosted the first AFL All-Star game on January 7, 1962.

The Chargers remained an exciting and competitive team throughout the decade of the AFL’s existence prior to the merger in 1970, winning a championship along the way. Barron Hilton sold his controlling interest in the team in 1966. Sid Gillman remained with the organization beyond the merger until 1971, taking a hiatus from coaching during the ’69 season due to health issues; he returned for ten games in ‘71 before leaving the front office as well as the sideline. Overall, he accounted for an 86-53-6 regular season record, although the Chargers were just 1-4 in the postseason.