The Chargers were born on August 14, 1959, when Barron Hilton, a 32-year-old hotel executive, was awarded a franchise for Los Angeles in the new American Football League. Even though they won the AFL Western division championship in 1960, the Los Angeles Chargers received meager fan support so Hilton, buoyed by the encouragement of San Diego sports editor Jack Murphy, moved his team 120 miles south to San Diego in 1961. Historic Balboa Stadium was expanded to 34,000 capacity to accommodate the Chargers.
In San Diego, the Chargers, spurred by coach Sid Gillman, developed into one of the true glamour teams of any decade. Gillman’s first teams were high-scoring, crowd-pleasing juggernauts that won divisional championships five of the AFL’s first six years and the AFL title with a 51-10 win over Boston in 1963. Such stars as wide receiver Lance Alworth, running backs Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe and quarterback John Hadl not only made the Chargers a winning team, they also provided image, impetus and respect for the entire AFL that was fighting a life-and-death struggle with the established and well-financed NFL. Gillman, Alworth and tackle Ron Mix, another 1960s superstar, are now members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Chargers moved into a new 60,835-seat stadium — it is now called Qualcomm Stadium — in 1967. While the new home assured the future of pro football in San Diego, the team itself did not win another championship until 13 years later in 1979. Gillman suddenly retired from coaching because of failing health after nine games in 1969. He did coach 10 more games for the Chargers in 1971 but the glory days of the early ’60s could not be duplicated. Gillman’s 87-57-6 record in 11 seasons in San Diego is easily the best in Chargers’ history.
Only one other long-term San Diego coach, Don Coryell, had a winning record. Coryell compiled a 72-60-0 record during his 1978-1986 tenure. The Chargers won AFC Western division championships in 1979, 1980 and 1981 and reached the AFC championship game the last two seasons. During that period, Coryell’s Chargers played the same kind of exciting football that made the team so popular in the 1960s. Like Gillman, Coryell emphasized the forward pass (the offense was referred to as “Air Coryell”) and a future Hall of Fame quarterback, Dan Fouts, was the man who made his offense go. His targets included such Hall of Famers as wide receiver Charlie Joiner and tight end Kellen Winslow. San Diego advanced to the second round of the AFC playoffs in the strike-shortened 1982 season but then dropped out of contention for the next 10 years.
Bobby Ross from Georgia Tech became the coach in 1992 and immediately led the Chargers back to the playoffs, capturing the AFC Western division title. Two years later the Chargers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 17-13 in the AFC championship game before losing to the San Francisco 49ers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX.
Hilton sold the Chargers to Eugene V. Klein in 1966. Klein in turn sold the team to Alex G. Spanos, a successful Stockton, Calif. businessman, in 1984. Spanos serves today as Chairman of the Board.