By Lyle Spencer
Opening day in February is fast approaching for the eight-team Alliance of American Football’s inaugural season, and one thing is as clear as the perfect aerial views in the nation’s self-proclaimed most beautiful city. San Diego’s newest franchise will have a sky-high identity when the hitting, running and scoring start for real.
Mike Martz, the team’s first coach, is a homegrown guy, roots firmly planted in the border city. His reputation as a master of offensive football, forged over decades, is beyond dispute. Here is a man who was far ahead of his time, a true game-changer.
Schooled at Madison High School and Mesa Junior College in San Diego, Martz was a tight end with a burning desire to consume everything about the game. He would apprentice in numerous jobs before coming into national focus as an innovative mind with uncommon teaching skills.
A traveling man along the lines of basketball’s Larry Brown, Martz had served seven college assistant coaching assignments before becoming the Los Angeles Rams’ quarterbacks coach in 1992 when they played in Anaheim. He took over as receivers coach in ’95 and ’96, with the team’s move to St. Louis.
Moving to Washington as Redskins QB coach in ’97 and ’98, he rejoined the Rams at Vermeil’s behest to assume control of the offense. A team that was judged the worst in the National Football League in preseason evaluations improbably claimed a division title and won an epic Super Bowl XXXIV against the Tennessee Titans.
“It was like when Muhammad Ali first came on the scene,” wide receiver Isaac Bruce said in a Sports Illustrated interview.
Martz played an immediate role in the development of the primary sources of the Rams’ fantastic run: Warner, Faulk and wide receivers Bruce and Torry Holt.
Martz took over the reins from Vermeil soon thereafter and sustained the soaring success of what was hailed as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” The Rams reached another Super Bowl, falling to New England after going 14-2 in the 2001 season. With former grocery store employee Kurt Warner emerging as a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player under Martz’s guidance and Marshall Faulk serving as an all-purpose force with few peers, the Rams brought a wide-open attack to the game that evolved into the pass-happy show now on display across the landscape.
“I like running the football,” Martz said, “but I like running the football well.”
Noted for his teams’ passing artistry, Martz is a big believer in balance. He made excellent use of the multiple gifts of Faulk, who established his reputation at San Diego State, when the Rams were indeed lived up to their reputation.
After making the playoffs four times and going 53-32 in six seasons in St. Louis, Martz experienced health concerns, and he and the Rams became a memory. Martz turned down head coaching feelers and took his ideas and techniques to the Lions (2006-07), 49ers (2008) and Bears (2011) as an offensive coordinator.
San Diego football fans have been spoiled by offensive fireworks from the very beginning. Their early Chargers, featuring the likes of Lance Alworth, Keith Lincoln, Paul Lowe and John Hadl, were the original Bolts of the American Football League under another offensive guru, Sid Gillman. An ensuing era produced the prolific passing of Dan Fouts under another offensive genius, Don Coryell. Maybe it’s that bright sun and cool ocean breeze that create an environment elevating football to such high levels.
Martz grew up under those conditions, marveling at the magic of the game. He still recalls sitting in the stands marveling at the wonder of Air Coryell’s attack during his pre-Chargers days at San Diego State, where his Aztecs would blow opponents away with imaginative offenses.
Now he’s back where it all started, in San Diego. The very nature of the job, heavy on teaching, is right up Martz’s alley. A fresh challenge awaits with hungry athletes who will require some molding — just like that old grocery store shelf-stocking legend, Warner, who became a Hall of Famer under Martz’s tutelage and guidance.
“I can’t tell you how excited and thrilled and honored I am … for this opportunity,” Martz said after accepting the job. “How good is this? Coaching football in San Diego: It doesn’t get any better.
“I’m serious about this, how meaningful and emotional it is for me to come back in this stadium and have this system.”