TIME CAPSULE – Interview with Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton (January 1998)
The Entertainer “Time Capsule” is a series that will re-publish popular features and interviews appearing in back issues of the Entertainer. Our first installment is from January 1998, when Publisher Paul Arnold interviewed local sports radio legend Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton — who, after being let go from XTRA Sports 1360 in Sept. 2008, is now the lead weekend anchor on XM radio’s Home Plate Baseball Channel. He still resides in Rancho Bernardo.
In what should be a blast from the past for Charger fans, the two discuss the circumstances revolving around XTRA losing the rights to Chargers broadcasts, in addition to the sorry state of the 1997 Chargers squad.
Lee Hamilton: “The Franchise” speaks out
By Paul Arnold
For the past eleven years, Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton has been the voice of the Chargers, until last month when the team announced a deal with KFMB to take over as their radio station. Hamilton, known as “The Franchise” by his many fans and listeners of his p.m. drive talk show and for his honest, straight-forward style, was devastated by this decision and took a few moments to share his thoughts.
P: Lee, tell me when it became clear to you that the decision to replace XTRA had been made.
In October, management here at XTRA told us they were not going to negotiate with them anymore, they had given them five different offers, they wouldn’t respond, they kept rejecting them. We offered them phenomenal money, and at that time I figured that it was the end of this run. You know, we offered them $15 million dollars cash, which is unbelievable money for this size marketplace. And the fact that we offered them all that with all the negatives about the franchise, bad football, bad relationships with media, bad controversy over the stadium expansion and tickets, the fact that we offered them that kind of money can, I think, attest to how much we valued the package.
P: What do you think it came down to, Lee?
I think it came down to a combination of things. I met with Dean Spanos and he just indicated that part of this is a business-thing, that they are trying to package their radio and TV thing together, and have somebody write one check to them and take over everything, take over television, exhibition games, the selling of it, the packaging, the expenses, take over the whole radio package. I understand part of it being business, but I think there should be some loyalty going the other way. We’ve done an awful lot for them for 11 years, through a lot of bad times. The fact that we offered them $3 million a year hard cash and a five-year deal may attest to how important we thought it was and how much we wanted it. I think that part of it is they don’t want to be criticized. Well, that comes with ownership of a franchise, if you want fans to fork over good money on Sundays, then you better be prepared for whatever is going to happen Monday through Friday. And what they’re going to find out, even if they’re not on our station, is that fans are still going to call, and they’re still going to talk.
P: What kind of pressure was put on you when that controversy came about regarding some of your comments on your sports talk show?
There wasn’t a lot of pressure because they know the parameters of my job. And I’ve told them my feelings on how I was going to do my job. As long as I was honest and I was fair, then I don’t expect to hear anything. But they called at times and they were critical. I’d like them to call and say ‘thank you’, too, for all the things we’ve done on their behalf. And unfortunately, I’ve never heard a ‘thank you’ from them, and that disappoints me to no end.
P: So you never got any serious pressure — or management at XTRA never got pressure — that you were being too outspoken?
We got phone calls, we got people bitching about some of the things we said, but that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. They always had an open line to me if they wanted to be critical about something I said, and they used that open line. And I had no difficulty with that. I wasn’t going to cave under the pressure, why should I? As long as I’m honest and fair. Sometimes fair can be complimentary, and sometimes fair can be critical. I think they deserve to be criticized for running Bobby Ross out of here. In fact, five years ago when Beathard almost left because of Spanos, they deserved to be criticized because of that. I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t tell you what I thought, or I didn’t tell you the truth. And I don’t think listeners would want somebody on the air who was shilling for the club and lying to the people about what was going down. That’s my style and it’s always been my style since I first came here in 1987.
P: That’s why you’re “the franchise” … That last broadcast must have been real tough. Tell me about it.
Well the last month was hard because the team was terrible. When you’re averaging seven points a game … that’s awful. Their games were not very fun to broadcast because they just were not a very competitive team. The last broadcast we really went into it, we were going to try to have fun with it. We had 31 sound clips that we had pulled from our archives, we made a list of 30 different stories we wanted to tell, and we used them all. It wasn’t hard until right at the end. We got to the two-minute warning and I was going to make my closing comments, and I was doing fine until I looked at Jim Laslavic and I kind of got choked up. I think all of us were kind of choked up because we really loved gameday, we had a passion for it, and we loved doing the play-by-play, the fun and the excitement of it. I think we were all just kind of disappointed that we were looking at a 4 and 12 franchise that was headed downhill, and our careers as broadcasters were going down with it.
P: Let’s talk a bit about the season past. What are your thoughts as a recap on this season, and what do you think the Chargers need to do to turn this thing around?
The Chargers have some immense fence-mending to do in this community from a business standpoint and football standpoint. I don’t know how they’re going to sell tickets to a 4 and 12 team with all the negatives that have been swirling around this team since the day they got rid of Bobby Ross. In terms of the media, they have enormous repair work to do in terms of their relationships with the beat writers and those columnists. I don’t know how they come over from that. They had taking what was a really good working relationship under Bobby Ross and they’ve ruined it because of what Kevin Gilbride wanted to do. There was no cause for that. This isn’t New York where you’ve got 27 beat writers and columnists, and everybody’s got an angle, everyone’s got an agenda. No, there are two beat writers, one columnist, this one radio station, and a couple of TV stations. This is not New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, so I thought they grossly mishandled the media. Which then created a host of other problems for them.
P: Do you think that came from the top down? Did Alex Spanos say ‘stop this’?
It came from Gilbride. Gilbride wanted to run the thing a certain way, and Dean Spanos let him run the thing the way he wanted to, and they ran the relationship right into the ground. And that’s going to be a hard one to pick up the pieces, that relationship has been badly fractured. On the field, they ran off too many players. We went back and did a count: 21 of Bobby Beathard’s high draft picks in the last four years are gone.
P: Why do you think that is?
Some of it is injuries, age, lack of patience, some of it problems off the field. They just got rid of too many players. And couple that with the fact that a bunch of his free agent signings haven’t fanned out as they hoped they would.
P: Such as?
William Fuller, Marco Coleman. Maybe some of those guys will bounce back, they’ve got a very good defense and they’re going to get the injured people back healthy. Their major crisis now is: what do they do on the offensive side of the football? I mean, they scored eight touchdowns in the last eight games of the season, offensively. That’s just atrocious, you can’t live in the NFL with that type of production, and they ruined a good quarterback, they ruined Stan Humphries. This offensive line deteriorated even more this year and wrecked a $3 million dollar quarterback in the process. Now, they’re in big trouble, they’re in more trouble now than they were when Dan Fouts retired, because they have nobody waiting in the wings who can play. This will be a huge off-season for them in terms of how they are going to pick up the pieces of the offense.
P: If you’re Bobby Beathard, what do you do now?
Like I said on the talk show, Dean Spanos made the comment, after all the controversy, ‘Judge us at the end of the season’. Okay, I’m judging you, you’re 4 and 12, and the boss isn’t supporting the media, I think they’ve lost the community. What they need to do is go back in an restructure the ticket guarantee deal, get rid of that bad taste in the mouth for a lot of people, they need to go back in and guarantee that they’re not going to raise ticket prices for a couple of years. They’ve got a lot more money coming through the door with the new TV contracts, so there’s no need to take money from the fans. And then they need to ask some of veteran players who haven’t played for awhile to give them some money back, for the betterment of the franchise, so they can use that money to go get more free agents. If Humphries wants to play, he’s already said he’s willing to restructure his deal. If Stan’s willing to play, take some of his money, take some money from the defensive players who haven’t performed, and use that money to go buy offensive linemen. They’ve got a real high draft pick, and could probably get one of the good pass rushers. You could solve this thing real quick, if you could buy some quality offensive linemen if Stan plays.
P: What is Stan’s official word?
He hasn’t decided yet, it’ll be in early February. I think he’s going to retire. So now, they’ve really got a crisis. What do they do for quarterback?
P: Do you think it was fair for Wheelihan to be thrown into that situation, with that line situation? Could anyone really have made it work? Do you think Gilbride pushed the panic button too early, or do you just think he’s not the guy?
They had to get answers on the kid; he’s been there for three years. They just had to see whether he could, or couldn’t.
P: But even Humphries didn’t look good in that scenario, so do you think he’s not the guy, or do you think it was just throwing him in there with absolutely no line play?
A combination … A combination of a bad situation to work in, and he’s not ready.
P: Do you give up on him, or do you give him a shot?
No, I’d keep him around, but I’d pick another veteran. They’ve got to find a veteran quarterback, and they’ve got to find offensive linemen. If they find offensive linemen, then maybe Wheelihan can play, because he’s showed flashes that he was all right. Again, it all depends on what Stan does. If Stan were to come back and play, then I think they could survive, and they could put all their resources into the offensive line. If you’ve got to spend your resources to get a quarterback and then get offensive linemen, that’s only going to make it tougher because you’ve only got so many dollars you can use in a free agency.
P: Assuming Humphries retires, is the answer to try and find a veteran quarterback, and hope that Wheelihan can be brought along and more under control, or do you try and go after a Ryan Leaf-kind of quarterback in the draft?
I don’t think they can trade up, I think the price would be too steep. I would much rather spend that money in free agency in the offensive line, get a mid-level quarterback to buy you a couple of years, and just make the franchise better that way. I think their defense is there. They’ve got to get the offense. I don’t think they can trade for a number one pick, I think it’s just too steep a price to pay.
P: What do you say to Gilbride’s critics?
Is Gilbride not the guy? I think it’s unfair to say that, because he was ravaged by injuries. At the end of the year they had 15 players on injured-reserve. It was ridiculous; they had better players on I.R. than they did on the active roster. I think it’s unfair to say he’s not the guy. He obviously, I thought, was overwhelmed as a coach, and I think it’ll take some time for him to learn to delegate authority and maybe get some help creatively. He’s got to get more players in here, too. I think if they solve the player thing up front, then some of the other things will solve themselves as they go.
P: So you’re saying get a Jim Harbaugh-type, bring him in, buy yourself two or three years, maybe he clicks, things fall into place, he’s available for a reasonable fee, etc.
P: This year the NFL wanted parity and they just about got it. What do you think the salary cap and changes in the game have done since you began broadcasting the NFL?
Some people have done a better job than others. I think it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on developing young players. It goes back to my shtick: the Chargers have gotten rid of 21 young draft picks over the last four years. That’s where you’ve got to develop your young players. If you lose a veteran to injury, or you lose veterans who jump, you’ve got to have young guys to replace them. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a prime example: they’ve lost 22 veterans to free agency in four years and they’re still playing good football, going into January. You’ve got to get great draft picks and develop them and make sure they’re ready to play. And for San Diego to play some and run some off, it hasn’t worked. I’d say that’s why they’re in some of the mess they’re in now. I don’t think free agency is the end all, be all, I think free agency can help you to plug a certain position, but I don’t think you can buy a team of free agents right off. It hasn’t worked here; it hasn’t worked for a lot of teams, like the Raiders. People have really missed out on that here, we’ve done a poor job in the draft and that’s why we’re sitting at 4 and 12.
P: What are your thoughts on Sunday’s championship games?
I think Denver’s more dangerous offensively than Pittsburgh; I guess I’ll pick Denver. Green Bay – San Francisco’s is a toss up, but I think Green Bay can win, I think Green Bay can win in ‘Frisco. It wouldn’t shock me to see Green Bay – Denver here in a couple of weeks.
P: If those two are in, who do you pick?
Wow, I’d pick Green Bay. I’m a big Brett Favre fan, he’s a difference maker, he makes plays. Not to say Elway doesn’t, but Brett makes more of them.
P: Lee, you’re a favorite of our readers here at the Entertainer. Thanks for the time and happy New Year.
Thanks, I’m going to stay here and visit talk shows, and we’ll see what transpires in the next six weeks.