Don Rogers – November 10, 1998
Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers – 1960-1964
TT – When you came to the Chargers in 1960, what did you notice about Sid Gillman’s offense that was different from other offenses that you had played in?
DR – In 1960 I was just a naive kid out of college and I came from a school where in three years of varsity football , we threw one pass. Three yards and a cloud of dust. That was our offense in college. So I really didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. We had Jack Kemp and a couple weeks into training camp they switched me from guard to center and I was with the backs and the quarterbacks most of the time. I was just kind of like, “don’t they ever run the ball?” It didn’t make any difference where we were on the field, you passed your way out of it. It was as opposite from anything I had ever experienced. And I’m serious in college all we did was run the ball. It was a totally different game. We played both ways in college and literally we ran the ball. And I’m serious. One pass my entire college career. It was just a totally different game. It was obvious from the beginning that Gillman was pretty innovative, progressive and he had other coaches, Chuck Noll, Al Davis that were also. And probably Al Davis was I believe at that time he was coaching the backs and ends and he was right up there with Gillman as far as developing this passing game. I think at that point Gillman had been previously with the Rams, although I have no idea what their offense was there, but I would imagine it was pretty similar. But it seemed to me he was always developing, always trying to improve the passing game. I think his offensive philosophy was that you used the pass to establish the run, which is totally different from anybody else. And it seemed to work.
TT – How did you see the offense change throughout your years with the Chargers?
DR – I think the offense changes with the personality of the players. I mean the strength or weakness of the individual position players. I think then you have to play your best hand. Again clearly, with Gillman, he relied on the passing game. I think we always had a strong running game. I think that the Chargers always had a good offensive line, a good blocking line. Consequently it made for a good running game, even though it wasn’t necessarily emphasized. And I think that complimented the passing game, because I think our running game was always a threat although he was always clearly emphasizing the passing game.
TT – As you had mentioned, his passing offense was very advanced. Were his blocking schemes advanced as well, or were they rather common?
DR – I think of the game as being very fundamental and blocking is blocking. There aren’t too many ways to do it. Every play boils down to a lot of one-on-one assignments and you either won them or you lose them. Again, I really don’t have anything to compare it to. I think that he also had refined a system of calling the plays where each back, each end had a name and you could make up your own play and design the blocking just by his own terminology. But again, I think that the Chargers always had a strong offensive line and I think that that in itself made the running game a serious threat. In the years, specifically when we had Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln, we had a real running threat there in addition to the fact that they were both good pass receivers. So I think it is important that the running game and the passing game did compliment themselves, again even though he did tend to emphasize the passing game.
TT – What did Gillman do that was difficult for defenses focus on? How did he really challenge a defense?
DR – Well for a guy in the pits, that’s not really my area of expertise. Just as an observer I would say that one of his strong points was the amount of time and effort he put into analyzing the other team. And perhaps the defenses weren’t quite as sophisticated as they are now. Probably the offenses weren’t quite as sophisticated either. When you play a team they don’t make that many changes. Again, they go with their strong suit and so if you break down their defense then again it becomes a question of who beats who. He always had a game plan whereby certain plays were emphasized to take advantage of either weaknesses in the defensive personnel or weaknesses in the defense itself. I suppose another way of saying the same thing is to take advantage of our strong points. The ability of our ends, our wide receivers.
TT – What were the difficulties you had in playing for Gillman? How was he difficult on his players?
DR – I never had a problem with him. I would say that compared to what I know about other teams, we worked a lot harder. We were in pads every day, full speed every day. There were other teams that after the season started they would never put the pads on. I think that was one, probably one of the bigger differences. But again I think it is probably one of the reasons that we did as well as we did. He always worked our butts off, right through the entire season. I would say for one, I was probably a player that needed that kind of work. And there are other guys that probably could have done better had practices been a little bit easier. You get tired of that grind every day, every day and you lose a little bit of that spring in the legs. But I think he may have worked us a little bit harder, I mean he worked us a lot harder. And that may, at times, have been a disadvantage also.
TT – How did the players view Gillman as a coach?
DR – I think all the players respected him for the amount of work, the intelligence, his dedication to the game. I don’t think there is any question about that. I don’t know anybody that would work around the clock like he would. Sometimes he maybe wasn’t as efficient or as organized, but he really put a lot of effort into it. A lot of effort into coaching, personnel, scheduling, everything. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
TT – Did the players at the time realize that they were part of such a big change in football, opening up the game more?
DR – I’ll tell you, when I probably realized it… I probably didn’t realize it until I was out of football, for quite a few years. In my different businesses I come across people from the East coast a lot and it amazes me. I’ll tell somebody that I was one of the original Chargers and the guys from upstate New York will say, “that was my favorite team back in the old AFL.” I’ll say, “why?” “Because of the passing game.” And he knew more about our passing game than I did. These are guys that obviously eat and sleep football. I think it was clearly the passing game of the Chargers that got the response and obviously sold us on T.V. But I’ve come across people that would be let’s say, in their teens when we were playing. They were real pro football buffs. Every one says the same thing, “the Chargers were my team.” And these are people from all over the country, not just California, not just local people. The Chargers were their team because they just loved that passing game. It just amazes me.
TT – How did Gillman make you personally a better football player?
DR – He worked my ass off. I think when I was in college and perhaps this is one of the reasons I was fortunate enough to make the team, because we had this running game. I mean it was like every play, you did the same thing. It didn’t matter if it was a sweep one way, or whatever, you blocked the guy straight ahead of you. So in college we had a lot of fundamentals. I mean we would spend two hours a day just on fundamentals. And I was kind of surprised when I got to the Chargers that Gillman also emphasized a lot of fundamentals, where I think a lot of pro teams do not. I think they say, “O.K., he’s reached this level. He’s the best player, he’s our player for this position.” Then they just kind of let them play their own game. Even with Gillman there was always a lot of emphasis on fundamentals and a lot of after the game watching the films of the previous game. There was always a lot of emphasis on correcting the fundamentals. Again, the only thing I have to compare it to, is players on other teams and getting some feedback from them. I think by comparison, their training camp was kind of like going to a dude ranch. Ours was just grinding, grinding, grinding. It never stopped. I think overall, it paid off. He always worked us hard and he always worked hard himself.
TT – I got a really similar answer to that question from Jim Allison this morning. He said at high school level coaches are teachers and at college level coaches are teachers as well. But in the pros they forget that they are teachers and they are more strategists, but Gillman never forgot that he was a teacher.
DR – I would say that that was true of all of his position coaches. And even in the passing game there was a lot of emphasis on which foot to plant, how many steps, how many yards before you make a cut, how far off you are from the defensive guy, etc. Which I guess really pays off. And I don’t think other teams really went into that kind of detail.
TT – Gillman was one of the first coaches in professional football to bring in a strength and conditioning coach in Alvin Roy. How did that help or hurt the team? Was that something new that you guys had? Were you familiar with weight lifting in the past?
DR – I had done a little weight training in college, but I would say that it was really new to the industry. There were players like Ron Mix who had done a lot of lifting and guys like Jimmy Allison. I think they were doing some lifting in college before he got out of school. The problem with it was that I don’t think Gillman and his staff really had a program to get you started in it. The first year they had it was in ‘63 and Rough Acres and here’s all these huge weights and they everybody to just start with the maximum and I think that they did a lot of exercises like deep knee squats that probably did some damage. This guy Alvin Roy was a nut. He was more of an ego thing than anything else. He just emphasized heavy weights and I don’t really think the program was as well fit into what they were trying to accomplish. I think they would have accomplished a lot more if they had done more teaching and fundamentals like they did in the more direct football stuff. It was after every practice you’d just go over there and take the biggest goddamn weights and grunt it out. I know for my own case I hurt a knee just doing that stuff because I started off with stuff that was too heavy. However, what I did find was that I think I really benefited from it. One because I had never really done any heavy, heavy weights and I was amazed at ultimately the amount of weight I could lift. I really amazed myself, which really had nothing to do with Gillman or Alvin Roy or anything else. It was just that maybe there is something to this. And I think clearly as a team the guys, we had a jump start on the other teams. There was probably more advantages than disadvantages, but I think the entire weight program should have been administered a little better. It was without a whole lot of thought or planning.
TT – Is that how Don Norton got hurt that year?
DR – Yeah, there were a couple of guys that did some permanent damage just by being forced, and pushed into doing heavier stuff than they should have. Literally they wanted to start with everybody doing these maximum weights and a lot of our guys just hadn’t had any experience at all. Today people have individual coaches to teach them how to lift weights. It was just like, “O.K., there they are. Pick them up.” Guys would hurt their backs, hurt their knees, hurt their shoulders. And then the guys that weren’t doing as well… I don’t know about ridicule, well they just didn’t do a very good job of coaching and teaching it. So I think a lot of guys probably didn’t get as much out of the strength and weightlifting as they could, for whatever that’s worth.
TT – Tell me about the Rough Acres Ranch. What kind of an experience was that?
DR – I am sure you have heard a lot about it. Personally, I think overall it was a great training camp. It was probably as close to boot camp or something like that as you could get. It was very Spartan and I think as a result, seemed to me that the players developed a lot better relationship with one another. I for one, would go out every day and shoot rabbits. That was my thing. I really got a lot out of it. It was probably one of my, individually one of my better training camps. I think being away from the city and some of the distractions probably helped a little bit too. It wasn’t someplace that you could just sneak out and run back to the dorm in 10 minutes. So there weren’t those distractions. That year we had Tobin Rote and I think he was one of the influenced that helped bring that particular team together, but I’d say it was probably as close to a boot camp kind of thing as you could have. Hot, bugs, snakes; food was good. Accommodations weren’t all that good, little bungalows we had, little cabins with bats and rats and all that kind of stuff. It was different. Maybe that’s the thing that made it so good.
TT – Was any of the training itself any different than any other years?
DR – No, the only thing different was that was the year we started the weight lifting. It was something that they really didn’t put as much though into as they should have. But I think overall, it was a really great training camp.
TT – What about the 1963 team. That was probably the best Chargers team in history. What made that team so great?
DR – I think the guys on that team really played as a team. I mean it was like one personality offense and defense. All the players all got together after the games. There wasn’t any guys going their separate ways. Everything was always a kind of community or team effort. It’s one of those things you have to experience. I don’t know how better to describe it. I know in the championship game itself it was like… I don’t even remember the first quarter. Everything was just flowing. I really don’t even remember the first quarter. I just know that we were knocking them down and it was like they weren’t even there. And I really had a sense of that whole line being one individual. It was really an experience.
TT – What weaknesses did that team have, if any?
DR – Well, I’m sure there were some. What ever they were, they were pretty well disguised. There is nothing perfect and certainly not in that game. We didn’t have a perfect season, I guess we lost to somebody. I don’t know who.
TT – The Raiders a couple times, I believe.
DR – But it is interesting. The season before was a total disaster. Nobody could explain that either. And then in ‘63 it was just like a light came on and everybody was going in the same direction at the same speed at the same time. Everything just kind of came together.
TT – What challenges did that team have to overcome?
DR – I don’t think there was anything unique. Nothing other than what any other team does. You gotta go through training camp. You gotta decide who is going to stay and who’s not going to stay. Then the guys that remain have got to start working together. That was a season where clearly the guys that made the final cut on offense and defense really worked as a team. And I don’t even remember anybody significant that year being injured.
TT – That’s one thing that I have heard from a number of players that there were no injuries that year aside from Norton hurting himself in training camp.
DR – I think our number one draft choice was a middle linebacker. A guy from Georgia Tech, maybe. I don’t think he would have made the team anyway.
TT – In the championship game Keith Lincoln ran for over 200 yards and had over 350 yards total offense. Was that something that Gillman planned before the game? Did he see a weakness that he could take advantage of with Keith Lincoln going into the game?
DR – I really don’t remember. I know that Keith Lincoln was probably at least to that point, probably the best natural athlete that I’d ever come across. Was that his rookie year? No. His rookie year was the year before, I think. They tried him out at half a dozen positions – linebacker, end, defense, and he could play any one of those positions. And then they finally settled him in as an offensive back. The guy was just a natural athlete. And he could have played any of those positions. I don’t think he could have played offensive line. Not very long.
TT – What was the animosity like between the AFL and the NFL?
DR – I don’t think there was any as far as the players are concerned. I mean you have to have a certain respect for the other league, but I don’t know that there was any animosity. We picked up players from the other league, it was just a bunch of guys trying to make a living. I don’t think there was any. I think if there was it would have been between the owners, maybe the coaches at a different level, but not with the players.
TT – What was the feeling like when the two leagues finally merged?
DR – Well that was a little bit after me, but again I was still involved with friends and players on the team. As far as I could tell, the players all felt it was a very positive thing because of the competition and the salary increases. I don’t know that there was any real animosity, any problems other than that normal game day competition. There wasn’t any that I was aware of.
TT – What certain characteristics that any teams had that consistently gave you guys problems?
DR – I’d say that probably the best rivalries that I can recall would be Oakland and Kansas City. Oakland was consistent. They were the bad guys then. And Kansas City always had a good team, but never quite got it together. Other than that, the only thing I remember about Denver is that they had the socks with the stripes going up and down and they were the funniest looking things I ever saw. They looked like zebras or something. But that was about it.
TT – What should people think about, but never do, when discussing Sid Gillman?
DR – Think about but never do?
TT – Yeah. Are there any points that you as a player saw, that you’ve never heard brought up again that you thought were pretty critical in his success?
DR – No. I’m sure that everybody expresses it a little differently, but to me he was a guy who was just totally dedicated. He didn’t mind working 24 hours a day. I think he may have had a little ax to grind because he didn’t like the way he was treated by his previous team, I think the Rams. That’s nothing that I know for sure, but I just kind of got that feeling. Nobody likes getting canned. But that’s a big part of that game. There’s more guys that get canned than make it. And that goes for everybody but the owners. Coaches get it too, it is just part of the game.
TT – Any other comments on Gillman and the Chargers or your time there?
DR – I think that I played with them in Los Angeles and again we were really just naive kids. We didn’t know the difference. We had no idea that we were involved with something that was really going to revolutionize the game or grow into the game that it has. And I think that one of the differences was that back then we were still playing a game. Today it seems to be a much more commercialized business. But I think one of the better things the Chargers did was their move to San Diego, which probably was more a result of the hard time they were having in Los Angeles than anything else. You know, you play in the Coliseum and you only get 5,000 people to watch you, it’s kind of barren. And we came to San Diego and everybody loved the Chargers. We had what today is a relatively small stadium and I think Balboa Stadium held 30,000 or something like that. But it was always full and the city accepted us and it was a great experience. It was a lot of fun. When I got out of football, there wasn’t any way I was going to move any place else. I love San Diego.
TT – What were those original 1960 Charger tryouts like when they were running adds in the newspaper to come one, come all, come play football?
DR – Well, I can remember my experience was that I had been signed by Al Davis, and the Chargers sent me the money to buy a ticket. I drove cross-country in an old junkie car I had and I got to training camp a week or two ahead of schedule. They were bringing guys in scheduled based on their ability. It’s my understanding that they did have tryouts and they did run adds and they did have tryouts and guys. Every bartender in the L.A. area showed up or professional wrestler and the first game that the Chargers played that I remember was against the Eagle Rock Rhinos, I think. Which is a semi-…if there is one level below semi-pro, they were it. It was kind of a sandlot kind of thing. But this was the first game that we actually, a scrimmage kind of thing. I got there ahead of schedule. I had been driving all night and I pulled into training camp at 6:00 in the morning and I said I was going to get some sleep. Gillman said, “sure, no problem, come get some breakfast.” Before I could finish breakfast the goddamn equipment manager had me and said, “you are going to be on the field at 9:00.” So I was there earlier and I saw some of the guys that came off of these ads. They were guys that… big, fat slobs and there were a couple tough guys. I don’t think any of them ultimately made it, a couple of them got pretty close. But it was like every Friday, literally, just a bus-load of guys would come in. Then they would cut half of them the first day and they’d cut half of what was ever left and by the end of the week you’d be down to three or four guys from the previous busload. Always kept enough guys around so you could practice and scrimmage and hold the dummies and what-have-you. Out of every hundred guys, maybe there was one. And that one guy had a 1-in-10,000 chance of making it. I don’t know what they did in other cities. But I don’t think they went to that extreme, but that’s Sid Gillman. I don’t think it was promoting the AFL, I just think he was willing to put that much extra effort into finding personnel. And I think what also helped the Chargers was that probably Barron Hilton had a little more money to spend than some of the other teams. These were mostly local guys and they didn’t spend that much money probably. And I had heard stories of guys on other teams like Denver and the New York Titans, they had to bring their own equipment, tape themselves up. Stuff like that. Checks bouncing and stuff. But the Chargers never had that problem. You go to another town, you fly commercial, you stay in a Hilton Hotel. It was as good as any other professional team. And I can remember even after I was out of football. Because I had some friends that were playing with Boston and Boston would fly in the day of the game just to save money on the hotel room. Or if they got here in the afternoon, they couldn’t sleep on the bed. Otherwise they’d charger the player whatever it cost to make up the room again. They could use the room but they couldn’t use the bed. Crazy stuff, but I guess they all survived. Their $100,000 investment is worth a few million today.
TT – Well thank you. That takes care of my questions. I really appreciate it.
DR – Well, I hope you got something out of it.
TT – Definitely.