In 1959, eight men changed the fate of football’s future forever by forming the American Football League.
After Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams Jr. were denied entry into the National Football League, the duo hatched the idea to create a new league to rival it. Reaching out to prominent businessmen across the country, they formed a group that came to be known as the “Foolish Club” since only fools would endeavor to create a league to go up against the mighty and established NFL.
The group consisted of Hunt (then Dallas Texans; now Kansas City Chiefs), Adams (then Houston Oilers; now Tennessee Titans), Ralph Wilson Jr (Buffalo Bills), Billy Sullivan (Boston Patriots; now New England Patriots), Harry Wismer (New York Titans; now New York Jets), Bob Howsam (Denver Broncos), F. Wayne Valley (Oakland Raiders) and, of course, Barron Hilton and his Los Angeles Chargers.
Hilton is the last remaining member of the “Foolish Club” following the passing of Wilson on March 25. The global phenomenon that is the NFL would not be what it is today without the impact of Hilton and his cohorts. Also, in order to fully appreciate the rich history of the Chargers, it is important to acknowledge everything Hilton did for the franchise.
Shortly after the “Foolish Club” announced the formation of the American Football League in August of 1959, Hilton named well-respected former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy to be his general manager. Located in Los Angeles, the franchise still needed a name, so the organization decided to open it up for a fan contest. The winner was Gerald Courtney who submitted “Chargers”, and Hilton liked the name because “Charge” is what fans yelled at USC games at the Coliseum.
Another landmark decision Hilton made was helping cultivate the team’s iconic uniform. Hosting a cocktail party at his house, he unveiled powder blue, gold and white uniforms with lightning bolts on the side of the helmet and pants. Hilton decided upon the bolts as he associated “Charge” with that of a lightning strike. He also was a fan of the bolts on the helmets of Air Force’s football team, so he put his own unique twist on it by having the “Chargers Bolt” placed on the uniforms.
On January 7, 1960 Hilton made a pivotal decision that would help shape the Chargers’ culture forever when he signed Sid Gilman as head coach. Seven months later on the eve of the inaugural AFL season when Leahy was forced to resign due to poor health, Gilman would assume the duties of GM as well.
The Chargers had a successful opening season of existence, rallying from a 20-7 deficit to win the first-ever AFL game. They also clinched the AFL Western Division title by defeating Denver 41-33 at the Coliseum. However, the Chargers fell to the Houston Oilers 25-16 in front of 32,183 fans in the AFL Championship game.
Shortly after, Hilton relocated the franchise to San Diego, forever changing the landscape of America’s Finest City. The Chargers called Balboa Stadium home, and the fan response was so strong they increased the capacity from 23,000 to 34,000. Three years later on January 5, 1964, the Chargers won the AFL Championship, defeating Boston 51-10 at Balboa Stadium.
On January 29, the AFL signed a five-year deal with NBC for a record $36 million. What once seemed like a “foolish” decision had proved to be an incredibly successful and profitable one. Twelve months later, with the Chargers popularity still soaring, the San Diego City Council endorsed the construction of a multipurpose stadium in Mission Valley. Thus, San Diego Stadium – now Qualcomm Stadium – was born.
Hilton served as the AFL president in 1965 and was a key power broker who helped forge the merger between the AFL and NFL. However, in 1966 the directors of the Hilton Hotel Corporation requested Hilton drop his football responsibilities in order to take over as President and Chief Executive Officer of the company. As such, he sold the Chargers to a group of executives headed by Eugene V. Klein for $10 million, a then record price in professional football, turning a major profit on his initial $25,000 investment. Overall, during Hilton’s six years as owner, the Chargers won five divisional titles in addition to one AFL Championship.
Because of “Foolish Club” patriarch Barron Hilton, the Chargers and the iconic Lightning Bolts are San Diego’s most notable resident. Names such as Lance Alworth, Dan Fouts, Junior Seau, LaDainian Tomlinson,
Current President Dean Spanos is grateful for the rich tradition established by the team’s inaugural owner, and the opportunity the Spanos family had to purchase the Chargers in August of 1984.
“Barron Hilton was a true visionary,” Spanos said. “He is the last remaining member of the ‘Foolish Club’ and was a risk taker. He was instrumental in creating the NFL that you see today. The league owes a lot of its success to him, and the Chargers do as well. He made a bold move to move the team to San Diego 53 years ago, so this city has a lot to be thankful to Barron Hilton for. He is truly a great man and visionary.”