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Mike McCoy firing adds to San Diego Chargers' uncertainty

SAN DIEGO -- "Stand by Me" played over the stadium loudspeakers while the remaining diehard Chargers fans, decked out in Seau and Tomlinson jerseys, cheered on their players, possibly for the last time.

At least, until Mike McCoy jogged by.

Merciless boos greeted McCoy as he went under the tunnel to the home locker room following the team's season-ending loss to the Chiefs. Fifteen minutes later, McCoy started his press conference by thanking Chargers fans. Thirty minutes after that, the team announced McCoy's firing in a statement.

Sundays can be brutal business, something Chargers fans know all too well. This was the second straight home finale that served as an awkward potential goodbye. The departure of McCoy creates one more uncertainty for the most uncertain organization in the NFL. No one knows where this team is going to play next season or who is going to lead it.

"I remember walking out of here last year crying my eyes out, thinking it was the last game. This year, I think we're convinced. We've accepted it," season-ticket holder Terry Montello said.

She has had season tickets since 1994, and her brother George has been coming since he went to Balboa Stadium in 1962. He once sold newspapers outside of games. Eventually, it became part of his life and his family's traditions.

"Both my sisters played in Ozzie's [Marching Charger] band," George Montello said of the team's old marching band. "One was a majorette. My grandmother went to games. I've been a Charger fan my whole life. Even when they went 1-15, I went to every game."

Nearby, Montello's friend Sean Copeland said wryly that it was the "best 1-15 team" he's ever seen.

"They battled every game, unlike this year, where they just give games away," he said.

Sunday's tailgate turnout was relatively light compared to most weeks, the veterans said. The lack of clarity about the Chargers' future and their 9-23 record the last two years has weeded out all but the diehards.

"Our group used to be a lot bigger than we are now. But we're still here," George Montello said. "My wife has only come to one in two years. It's hard being a Chargers fan. ... People know I'm a Chargers fan at work and they ask: Why are you going to the game? You still support them? Why do you even bother?"

Still, the thousands in the parking lot before the game were having a great time. They knew their neighbors. They had elaborate tailgate setups with tents, grills and copious televisions stacked like a good sports bar. The air around Qualcomm was a feast for the senses: barbecue, marijuana smoke, '90s rap and games of cornhole.

"If they leave, it's going to suck," Tyler Ciota, 30, said. "It's going to be hard to root for the L.A. Chargers. It won't be the same."

Ciota started coming to the games as a kid with his dad. He remembers his entire neighborhood running into the streets to celebrate the team's AFC title after the 1994 season. Dave Ciota, 62, said he first came to a Chargers game when he was dropped off at Balboa Stadium in 1962 as a 7-year-old with his cousin. It's hard to imagine today's helicopter parents doing that, but a lifelong obsession was born for Ciota, who now drives 60 miles from Temecula for each game.

"I'm not going to be a season-ticket holder after this season," the elder Ciota said, before admitting that a new stadium solution could change his mind.

Many fans swore they would not follow the team elsewhere. Terry Montello said her group will pick a new team to follow if the Chargers leave. There was plenty of anger at ownership throughout the stadium for possibly ending these Sunday habits for good.

Finding out the Chargers might leave was like "Finding out Santa Claus didn't exist," according to Sally Morgan, a season-ticket holder since 1994 who moved to San Diego from South Dakota. Many residents feared what would become of their town.

"It would be terrible for San Diego," the elder Ciota said. "It would be another podunk town."

"I don't think the city is going to realize how bad it will be until it happens," season-ticket holder Bob Mica said.

Fans were already trying to think of life without the Chargers.

"It will save me $5,000 per year. I'm going to buy a boat!" Montello cracked.

The lack of clarity hurts the fan base and the product on the field. Before the team finds a replacement for McCoy, doesn't it need clarity on where the franchise is headed? The next coach will have to try to repair a fractured relationship with its fans, if the team stays in San Diego.

Chargers fans get a bum rap because of the empty seats at Qualcomm Stadium and the occasional takeovers by visiting teams. I'd argue fans have stood by the team through a lot of hard times, without much to show for it.

"We have supported them," Morgan said, a season-ticket holder since 1994. "The town has supported them, and we didn't have much to support for most years. And now they are going to leave us? *That's unacceptable."*

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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