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Marty Schottenheimer dies at 77. Why the NFL’s eighth-winningest coach was ‘a tremendous leader of men’

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FILE - San Diego Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer answers a question at a news conference in San Diego, in this Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007, file photo. Marty Schottenheimer, who won 200 regular-season games with four NFL teams thanks to his “Martyball” brand of smash-mouth football but regularly fell short in the playoffs, has died. He was 77.

AP

Marty Schottenheimer, who won 200 regular-season games with four NFL teams thanks to his “Martyball” brand of smash-mouth football but regularly fell short in the playoffs, has died. He was 77.

Schottenheimer died Monday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, his family said through former Kansas City Chiefs publicist Bob Moore. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014 and moved to a hospice Jan. 30.

Schottenheimer was the eighth-winningest coach in NFL history. He went 200-126-1 in 21 seasons with Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington and San Diego.

His success was rooted in “Martyball,” a conservative approach that featured a strong running game and tough defense. He hated the then-Oakland Raiders and loved the mantra, “One play at a time,” which he’d holler at his players in the pre-kickoff huddle.

Winning in the regular season was never a problem. Schottenheimer’s teams won 10 or more games 11 times, including a glistening 14-2 record with the Chargers in 2006 that earned them the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

It’s what happened in January that haunted Schottenheimer, who was just 5-13 in the postseason.

His playoff demons followed him to the end of his career.

In his final game, on Jan. 14, 2007, Schottenheimer’s Chargers, featuring NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and a supporting cast of Pro Bowlers, imploded with mind-numbing mistakes and lost a home divisional playoff game to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, 24-21.

A month later, owner Dean Spanos stunned the NFL when he fired Schottenheimer because of a personality clash between the coach and strong-willed general manager A.J. Smith. Schottenheimer and Smith hadn’t spoken for about two years.

A breaking point for Spanos — head of the family owned team — came when Schottenheimer wanted to hire brother Kurt as defensive coordinator after Wade Phillips was hired away as Dallas’ head coach. Kurt Schottenheimer had been on his brother’s previous staffs, and Marty Schottenheimer’s son, Brian, had been Chargers quarterbacks coach from 2002-05.

Schottenheimer then moved to North Carolina to spend time with his family and golf.

Schottenheimer was 44-27 with Cleveland from 1984-88, 101-58-1 with Kansas City from 1989-98; 8-8 with Washington in 2001 and 47-33 with San Diego from 2002-06.

“Marty was a tremendous leader of men and a man of great principle — the love and admiration his former players have for him to this day speak volumes,” Chargers owner and chairman of the board Dean Spanos said in a statement. “You couldn’t outwork him. You couldn’t out-prepare him. And you certainly always knew exactly where you stood with him.

“I am grateful that he was our head coach for five seasons, and I am even more fortunate to have been able to call him a friend. Facing Alzheimer’s disease, Marty’s incredible wife, Pat, said that he’d approach the diagnosis the same way he coached, ‘full throttle.’ Marty was big on practicing what he preached. And over the last few years, like so many of his players before him, Marty always found a way. He was, in so many ways, the ultimate competitor.

“Our deepest condolences and heartfelt prayers go out to Pat, their children Kristen and Brian, and all of the Schottenheimer grandchildren Marty loved so much.”

“The best coach I ever had,” Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson said in a statement.

“It’s hard to put into words what Marty Schottenheimer meant to me,” former coach Bill Cowher said on Twitter. “I played for him, I coached for him. He mentored me at such a young age. He was an amazing coach, teacher and leader. Marty, you say, ‘There’s a gleam, men,’ there is and it was always ‘YOU.’”

Schottenheimer never made it to the Super Bowl, either as a player or coach. He was a backup linebacker for the Buffalo Bills when they lost the 1966 AFL title game to Kansas City, which then played the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl.

As a coach, his playoff losses were epic and mystifying.

His Browns twice came tantalizingly close to earning Super Bowl berths, only to have them ripped away by “The Drive” and “The Fumble” in consecutive AFC title games against nemesis John Elway and the Broncos.

In the 1986 AFC championship game at Cleveland, Elway led the Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the game on a 5-yard pass to Mark Jackson with 37 seconds left in regulation. Denver won in overtime on Rich Karlis’ 33-yard field goal.

A year later, with the Browns trailing the Broncos 38-31 with 1:12 left at Denver, Earnest Byner fumbled on the Broncos’ 1-yard line. The Broncos won 38–33 after taking an intentional safety.

Schottenheimer’s Chiefs reached the AFC title game in 1993 but lost at Buffalo. Two of his Chiefs teams went 13-3 and locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs before shockingly flaming out in the divisional round.

“Our family and the entire Chiefs Kingdom mourn the loss of Marty Schottenheimer, and our prayers and heartfelt condolences are with his wonderful wife Pat and the entire Schottenheimer family today,” Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said in a statement. “Marty will rightfully be remembered as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, but his legacy extends far beyond his winning percentage. He was a passionate leader who cared deeply for his players and coaches, and his influence on the game can still be seen today on a number of coaching staffs around the league.

“When Marty arrived in 1989, he reinvigorated what was then a struggling franchise and quickly turned the Chiefs into a consistent winner. Marty’s teams made Chiefs football a proud part of Kansas City’s identity once again, and the team’s resurgence forged a powerful bond with a new generation of fans who created the legendary home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium.

“Marty will always hold a special place in the history of the Chiefs, and he will be dearly missed by all of us who were blessed to call him a friend.”

The Chargers thought they had a Super Bowl-caliber team in 2006, but Schottenheimer’s career ended with a brutal playoff loss to the Patriots. In the first quarter, Schottenheimer insisted on going for it on fourth-and-11 from the Patriots’ 30-yard line. Mike Vrabel strip-sacked Philip Rivers and New England recovered.

The biggest pratfall, though, and one that still haunts Chargers fans, came with San Diego leading 21-13 with just more than six minutes to play. Marlon McCree intercepted Tom Brady and instead of going to the ground, tried to run and was hit and fumbled, with the Patriots recovering. New England rallied for the win.

Schottenheimer seemingly survived another playoff failure, only to be fired a month later.

After winning just 12 games in Schottenheimer’s first two seasons, the Chargers went 12-4 in 2004 behind Tomlinson and a rejuvenated Drew Brees to end an eight-year playoff drought.

But they lost a home divisional game to the New York Jets in overtime. Schottenheimer, named The Associated Press Coach of the Year earlier that day, was whistled for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for running onto the field to argue with the referees in the second quarter.

In overtime, the Chargers had a first down at the Jets’ 22, but Schottenheimer went conservative and called three straight runs up the middle by Tomlinson to set up a 40-yard field goal attempt by Nate Kaeding, who missed. The Jets then moved down the field for the winning field goal.

Schottenheimer was born on Sept. 23, 1943, in Canonsburg, a small town outside Pittsburgh. He played at Pitt before a six-year pro career with the Bills and Patriots.

He is survived by his wife, Pat, and children Brian and Kristin. Brian Schottenheimer was fired as Seattle’s offensive coordinator last month and then hired by new Jacksonville coach Urban Meyer as passing game coordinator-quarterbacks coach.