Steve Ortmayer, who tried without success to turn the Chargers into a Super Bowl team after Alex Spanos hired him from the rival Raiders, but whose final draft produced a standout on San Diego’s only Super Bowl team five years later, died Tuesday in Lexington, Ky . He was 77.
The University of Kentucky, where Ortmayer worked as an assistant coach from 2003-09, announced his death.
Ortmayer had worked for nine years under Al Davis, the longtime Raiders owner, when Spanos targeted him to run the Chargers in January 1987. “I don’t think Al wanted to lose him, but he was pleased for Steve,” Spanos said.
The “Air Coryell” era assembled under Chargers owner Eugene Klein had produced exciting offenses and four consecutive playoff berths between 1979 and 1982. But no Super Bowl trips had ensued, a contrast to Raiders teams of 1980 and 1983 that won the Super Bowl with Ortmayer as special teams coach.
Spanos tried a new approach. He fired Coryell midway through the 1986 season and promoted Al Saunders into the job. For a new top football executive, he has turned to the Chargers’ No. 1 rival.
Because the job amounted to a promotion, despite the same title of director of football operations, the Raiders let Ortmayer go to San Diego. “His areas of responsibility for him are going to be more expansive and his powers for him will be broader and more final,” Raiders special assistant Al LoCasale told the Los Angeles Times.
Spanos surely doubted Ortmayer was equal to Davis, whom Spanos had called the “smartest man in the NFL.”
Could the former Raiders lieutenant build upon the Air Coryell successes, while drawing on his Raiders background?
Unfortunately for Chargers fans, the mixture of “Silver & Black” with blue and gold produced nothing resembling a masterpiece as the Ortmayer Era yielded a 20-27 record (.426) and no playoff berths. Spanos fired Ortmayer in December 1989, six weeks shy of his three-year mark.
From the start of their shared effort, Spanos and Ortmayer faced a steep learning curve. Apartment construction was Spanos’ area of expertise, and the owner was famously impatient. Ortmayer was new to the top job.
When the two men made a big personnel move in their second summer together, they failed miserably. NFL sharks elsewhere took advantage of them. Davis was the lead shark, followed by Bobby Beathard, who decades later would follow Davis into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an inductee.
The saga began when Spanos ordered Ortmayer to trade Jim Lachey after the left tackle didn’t report to training camp.
Ortmayer fielded several offers. Then he sent Lachey to his old boss from him.
In return from the Raiders, for a 25-year-old left tackle coming off a Pro Bowl season with two years left on his contract, the Chargers gleaned no value.
Ortmayer said the Raiders’ offer of right tackle John Clay sealed the trade. Though Clay had started nine games as a Raiders rookie the prior year, his weight-control issues had raised concerns with some NFL teams. The day after the trade, Clay didn’t pass his Chargers physical because of a back issue. I have played only two games for San Diego. Upon Clay’s release a year later, the team reported that a herniated neck disc and a narrow spinal canal made Clay too risky.
Saunders, whom Ortmayer had inherited, said he’d learned a back injury had sidelined Clay in multiple practices preceding the trade. Contradicting his head coach, Ortmayer said Clay was not coming off an injury when the trade was agreed to.
Napoleon McCallum came to San Diego in the same trade. The running back never played for the Chargers.
Clay’s demise hurt far worse, Ortmayer reported. “Clay ended up not playing because he got hurt,” Ortmayer said in 1990, “and we had given up a good player to get him.”
By then, Ortmayer had returned to the Raiders. Davis gave him his old job.
In 1991 when the Chargers were finishing off their third straight losing season under Dan Henning — the coach whom Ortmayer hired to replace Saunders — Lachey was wrapping up his third consecutive All-Pro season and headed to a Super Bowl victory. A Beathard acquisition, Lachey was playing for Washington. (Beathard also recommended Henning to Ortmayer. Beathard would fire Henning, two years after replacing Ortmayer.)
The Raiders, satisfying Lachey’s desire to live closer to family in Ohio, sent the tackle to Washington after playing him in just one game. The trade brought quarterback Jay Schroeder to Los Angeles. He led the NFL in yards per pass attempt in 1990, going 12-4 as the starter.
Ortmayer, meantime, saw a quarterback he signed, washed-up Jim McMahon, make 11 starts in 1989. McMahon threw as many interceptions as touchdowns, the Chargers going 4-7 with him.
But Ortmayer made some good moves, notably in the draft.
Receiver Anthony Miller, the top choice in his second draft, would earn Pro Bowl honors five times. Running back Marion Butts was twice a Pro Bowler after going in the seventh round. Courtney Hall, a second-round selection in the same 1989 class, started all but one Chargers game in the seven years after his arrival from Rice.
It was Hall who manned the pivot for the franchise’s Super Bowl club, for which he also was a team captain.
“I had no idea I was going to be drafted at all, much less in the second round,” Hall said recently. In 1989, sitting in his shabby Houston apartment, where he was studying for an economics exam, Hall was stunned to hear from Chargers coordinator Larry Beightol that he’d been selected by San Diego.
Hall said Ortmayer’s final Chargers draft class, headed by Burt Grossman, a wise-cracking end from Pittsburgh who went eighth, exhibited a Raiders-like penchant for cutting against the grain. Hall, for example, was coming from an 0-11 program. At 6-foot-1 1/2, he was an inch or two shorter than NFL scouts preferred. His agent had said Hall could go as high as the third round or not at all.
“I am definitely appreciative of him giving me a shot,” Hall said of Ortmayer. “I can’t say anything but good things about him. He always treated me fairly. There were some misses, but it seemed like Ortmayer was a guy who would step up to the plate and swing for the fences. He was either going to miss or hit.”
Ortmayer later worked for the St. Louis Rams as general manager. It was there he worked with coach Rich Brooks, and he followed Brooks to the University of Kentucky, where he coached tight ends and special teams from 2003-09. Ortmayer remained in Kentucky until his death.