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John Fox heads to college haunt one last time

John Fox played college football at Qualcomm Stadium, where the Bears play the Chargers on Monday. (AP)

He’d been coming here most of his life, but he was usually on the field.

At 18, with a pass acquired by his high school coach moonlighting as a statistician, he stood next to Johnny Unitas, playing out his one forgettable year with the Chargers.

At 20, John Fox began playing safety for another of the stadium’s tenants, San Diego State, for whom he’d then serve as a graduate assistant. He’d move on to coach at United States International University, a San Diego college that somehow played at the stadium, too, and eventually to a Chargers assistant job.

When he returned as a head coach, it was a homecoming. He’d moved to San Diego at 15 from Virginia Beach, Virginia, where his nearest football idols were the Norfolk Neptunes of the Continental League.

“It was the setting,” he said. “No matter where you live, if you go there during football season, chances are you’re going to get a pretty awesome day.”

Sitting in the club level at Qualcomm Stadium during the 2003 Super Bowl between the Raiders and Buccaneers, though, it hit him. The stadium he thought beautiful in the 1970s, nestled in Mission Valley at the foot of Coryell Pass — named for the offensive genius — was as far in the past as his college days.

“I was like, ‘God, this place is a dump,’” he said.

And that, right there, is why Monday’s game will likely be the Bears’ last at Qualcomm Stadium — if not in San Diego altogether.

• • •

Qualcomm Stadium is the fourth-oldest in the NFL, behind Soldier Field and Lambeau Field, both of which have undergone massive reconstructions, and O.co Coliseum, which features sewage spewing from Raiders fans’ mouths and old plumbing alike.

Having clamored for a new stadium since before Y2K, the Chargers are one of three NFL teams threatening to move to Los Angeles as soon as next season — and, probably, the one to bet on.

Tony Gwynn and Junior Seau and Marshall Faulk played at the stadium, built in 1967. So did the San Diego Chicken and Roseanne, with varying degrees of squawking. But horror stories about the outdated stadium are true.

Still, the possibility of the Chargers moving bothers Fox. It tugs at his sentimentality, but also his record.

As a college player, graduate assistant, college and pro assistant and NFL head coach, Fox has played 51 games at the stadium. He’s won 40 of them.

“Every once in a while,” he said, “there are stadiums you have good luck at.”

At USIU, his first paid coaching job, Fox shut down Portland State, whose quarterback, Neil Lomax, had set the NCAA’s passing yards and total offense record as a junior in 1979. Lomax was in Sports Illustrated two weeks before playing USIU, who, Fox said, “put four corners out there and blitzed the crap out of him.”

USIU won, 28-22.

“I don’t remember losing there very much, anywhere I was,” he said.

• • •

The visiting locker room at the stadium, tiny as it may be, is San Diego State’s home one. It’s a rare connection between college and pros in the time of specialized stadiums.

It’s is one of only six NFL stadiums with a full-time college tenant.

“When you’re in college, you love playing there, because you know you’re sharing a stadium with the Chargers,” said Herm Edwards, the former NFL coach who played in the same defensive backfield as Fox at SDSU. “Then you go back there as the visiting team, as a player or a coach, and I never felt like I was in a visiting locker room …

“I remember telling players, ‘Hey, I used to dress over here.’ I don’t know if that’s good or bad; that’s telling you how old the stadium is.”

When he shared a locker room with Fox, Edwards knew he was going to be a coach. The same qualities, he said, will help him turn around Bears.

“We’ve already seen signs of that,” he said. “With players he has now, they’ve got just a mindset. It’s going to take a couple years, obviously, to get it fixed.”

Both men know how bad the facilities are in San Diego — “They need a new stadium,” Fox said — but are aware, too, of the challenge in building something new in that state. It would be a shame if the Chargers left, they said.

Edwards swears, though, that those in attendance Monday know Fox’s roots.

“If you’ve been in the league long enough to get to the next level, as a coach or player, whenever you can go back to your hometown, the town you played in, the fans know,” he said. “They keep up with the former Aztecs.”

• • •

Fox left Pittsburgh after the 1991 season to coach the Chargers’ defensive backs.

After the Steelers traveled west for the third game of the next season, Fox was greeted on the field by legendary announcer Myron Cope.

In perfect Yinzer-ese, he laid out the difference between the two cities.

“He goes, ‘Foxy, coming to San Diego, we’re used to beer and brats — you guys got lattes and fish tacos,’” Fox said. “That’s San Diego.”

It’s not Pittsburgh or Green Bay or Chicago, but it’s his old college haunt. Creaky and rundown, but his — for one more game.

“I’ve been going there forever,” Fox said.

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com