Bobby Beathard wore shorts and sneakers, which is his San Diego business suit. Two agents for Chargers players stood mumbling at a Jack Murphy Stadium elevator, bearing no fruit from a two-hour scrimmage in the general manager's office. "Contract hassles are the sourest part of my job," said Beathard, the NFL's most noted talent purveyor. "We're 2-5 and guys are asking to renegotiate at midseason. But, even so, I love this silly game."
In his rookie San Diego year, Beathard is up to his taut, 53-year-old belly in paint and putty, laboring at ground level to remodel a franchise that, for the last half-dozen seasons, has averaged a half-dozen wins.
"If we're going to prove something this year," he said, chomping on an apple, "we need to win Sunday against Tampa Bay. Like all Ray Perkins-coached teams, the Bucs are tough and well-conditioned. They're much improved. But somehow I do think we've got a real chance.
"It's tough to tell the public, "Your Chargers will get a little worse before they have a chance to get a lot better.' We've made changes, and I believe we're heading upward now. It can't be quick enough. Losing really stinks."
While Billy Joe Tolliver is struggling to prove worthiness as a quarterback, the Chargers' offense relies on the blockbuster running of Marion Butts, a 248-pound player in his second NFL season out of Florida State.
"Sometimes you get lucky," the general manager said. "Marion was drafted in the seventh round the year before I came to San Diego, after not having a lot of chance to run the football in college.
"What a find! Butts is legitimate. He's tough, quick and consistent. Marion's attitude is also perfect. A great kid. A coach's dream. He works so hard to do everything right."
Two former Tampa Bay players will be San Diego principals today, linebacker Henry Rolling and placekicker John Carney. But, on the flip side, the Bucs' offense depends mightily on the running and pass-catching skills of Gary Anderson, an erstwhile Charger.
"By the time I got to San Diego, there was really no way of keeping Anderson," Beathard said of the electric running back who set out his final Chargers season in a 1989 dispute over his contract.
"He's a special talent, and a terrific young man. I flew to Tampa to try saving him for the Chargers. Anderson was willing to listen but his agent wasn't. They wanted all Gary's 1989 salary to be made up, something like $700,000. That just was not going to happen." Tampa Bay was willing to pay the freight.
Tampa Bay (4-3), after losing twice to Dallas, is a 4-point underdog against San Diego (2-5). Bucs history, which is so overloaded with sad scenarios, has been especially brutal in West Coast adventures.
For 15 cross-country trips in the franchise's 15 years, Tampa Bay's regular-season record is 1-12, plus 0-2 in exhibitions. They've flown six times to play San Francisco, four to engage the Los Angeles Rams, twice to meet the then-Oakland Raiders, and once to Seattle.
From 65,000 frequent-flier miles comes that 1-12 Tampa Bay misery, blessed only by a 24-23 win at San Francisco in 1980, before the 49ers became a power. "I don't believe in jinxes," Beathard said, "but we'll take all the help we can get."
Beathard, as coach Don Shula's personnel chief, helped stock two Super Bowl winners in Miami. He advanced to Washington as GM in 1978 and reconstructed the floundering Redskins, who would achieve three Super Bowls and two National Football League championships.
So why, at the apex of his profession, would Beathard flee America's most berserk pro football market, spend the 1989 season in high-profile exile at age 52 as an NBC-TV studio analyst on NFL Sundays, and then become involved with the struggling Chargers and Alex Spanos, a team owner characterized as an impatient meddler?
Bobby answered carefully.
"I don't want to talk too specifically about the Redskins situation," he said,
with an ever-boyish Beathard grin, "but it became difficult."
Head-butting developed with Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs. Beathard's only comment is, "Joe really changed." Washington may be ample to handle Congress, the president and global embassies, but eventually it would not be big enough for both Joe and Bobby.
"It became time to move on," Beathard said, sitting comfortably on his new Chargers throne. "I wondered, "Is retirement the answer?' Then along comes the NBC offer, which kept me in touch with pro football."
Bobby was good on TV. Due to his background, and success, Beathard's blabberings on NBC were believable and creditable. But something was churning inside the man.
"While it was uplifting not to be talking contracts with agents and players," he said, "I missed the day-to-day involvement. Missed it a lot. Since 1963, I'd spent my life trying to improve player personnel for pro football teams.
"My wife, Christine, and I had bought a home in Leucadia, a gorgeous oceanfront area a half-hour from San Diego. I love to run, ride bikes and swim. Suddenly, there was time and the best facilities. It sounds perfect, but I wasn't ready to quit. I might've gone crazy if I hadn't gotten back in the game."
There's a fascinating mixture of eternal little boy, football wizard and vegetarian/health nut in this onetime Cal Poly-San Luis Obisbo quarterback, a collegiate teammate of John Madden.
"When we were teen-agers, in the 1950s, Bobby was into surfing long before it became such a hot sport," said Madden, who found wealth and solitude in quitting as Oakland Raiders coach to become a CBS commentator and national advertising stud.
"He tried to teach me how to surf, but I weighed at least 270. Every time I jumped onto the board it would just bury in the sand. Beathard has never been a quitter, except as my surfing coach."
As early as 1986, Spanos wanted Beathard as Chargers front-office commandant. Bobby kept indicating Washington was forever. But the Gibbs rift developed, and their relationship was ironically unraveling as the Redskins beat Denver 42-10 in a Super Bowl played at Jack Murphy Stadium.
By 1989, with Beathard having left Washington, the Spanos chase intensified. Everything fit. Bobby was close by, living back on a Pacific beach, the turf of his boyhood. Then, last January, it finally happened.
"I'd heard the stories about Mr. Spanos," Beathard said, "but I have not seen a single negative. He's so supportive, and caring. Jack Kent Cooke was good to me in Washington, but Mr. Spanos has been tremendous. If we don't win here, it's our fault, not the owner's."
Dan Henning, with a 14-25 record midway through a third season as Chargers head coach, is receiving media and public torchings. Beathard threw an apple core at the rumors.
"Sure, we have to win more before too long," he said, "but Dan is walking through the same fire Perkins faced while he waited for Testaverde to develop as an NFL quarterback. We're hoping Tolliver is going to be our man, but it'll be a while longer before we know."