When the San Diego Chargers finally captured their 400th franchise victory several weeks ago against the Philadelphia Eagles, the occasion elicited myriad memories and one bold, brash question: which Chargers era has been the greatest in the team’s 53-year history?
While San Diego is reeling this season in yet again another woebegone campaign, believe it or not, there have been years of glory, years of championships, and years of joy in the Chargers Nation. But which period of time was the most successful?
Was it in the team’s formative years when it won five division titles and its only championship? Was it during the Don Coryell run, famously knows as Air Coryell? Or the Bobby Ross years that included a Super Bowl appearance? How about from 2004 to 2009 when the Bolts under Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner, reached the playoffs five times in six years?
The answer may be shrouded in debate, but the numbers are crystal clear: give the team’s mythical Glory Years Crown to the Sid Gillman era. As documented in my book, “Finding Frank: Full Circle in a Life Cut Short,” the Gillman years stand alone as the Chargers' greatest for a variety of reasons.
Simply put, the team’s early years—1962 through 1967—shine as the Chargers' brightest of times. The fact that San Diego's lone championship came in 1963, strongly bolsters that hypothesis.
At no other time in the team’s history has it accumulated a better winning percentage than during those six seasons. The Chargers rolled up 47 wins in those years and while that number exactly matches six-year runs by future Chargers teams coached by Ross and Schottenheimer, those seasons saw a 16-game schedule, while Gillman’s time saw a regular season of only 14 games. From 2007 to 2011, the team went on an all-time best ride with 49 wins under Turner, but again, that’s with an additional two games per year, meaning a total of 10 games more overall than during the Chargers’ pioneer years.
That all-time high winning percentage takes into account the team’s dreary record in 1962, dipping to a low of just 4 wins versus 10 losses—by far Gillman’s worse year as the head coach. The ’62 season was an anomaly when compared to the two years it was sandwiched between; 1961 saw the team go 12-2, 1963 brought the American Football League Championship with its 11-3 mark.
If one were to put a microscope on those early years, 1965 would stand out like a beacon in spite of the team’s embarrassing season-ending loss. The Chargers led the AFL in both defense and offense that year and were heavily favored to beat the Buffalo Bills in the league championship game, having already bested them 34-3 in their first matchup earlier in the season, and then playing to a 20-20 tie in their second meeting.
As the football gods would have it though, the Bills trashed San Diego 23-0 for the AFL title in front of the Chargers’ home crowd at Balboa Stadium. The Chargers offense—and defense for that matter—didn’t show up that day as Buffalo’s Jack Kemp (later Republican Congressman Jack Kemp of supply-side economics fame and a future vice presidential running mate with presidential candidate Bob Dole in 1996) threw two touchdown passes and Hungarian soccer-style kicker Pete Gogolak added three field goals.
Even minus their supposed guaranteed championship in ’65, the early Chargers were still the franchise’s greatest teams. They dazzled with statistics and stars, led by future Hall of Fame players Lance Alworth and Ron Mix, and future Hall of Fame coaches Gillman and Chuck Noll, who led the defensive unit and later went on to the Pittsburg Steelers to become the only head coach with four Super Bowl wins.
So let the debate rage and cast your vote: What era was the greatest in Chargers lore? The groundbreaking Gillman years, Air Coryell, the Bobby Ross run or the Schottenheimer-Turner teams?