Coryell, c. 1970
October 17, 1924|
|Died||July 1, 2010
La Mesa, California
|Coaching career (HC unless noted)|
|1952||Farrington HS (HI)|
|1961–1972||San Diego State|
|1973–1977||St. Louis Cardinals|
|1978–1986||San Diego Chargers|
|Head coaching record|
|Tournaments||3–6 (NFL playoffs)|
|Accomplishments and honors|
|San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame
San Diego Chargers 50th Anniversary Team
San Diego Chargers 40th Anniversary Team
|College Football Hall of Fame
Inducted in 1999 (profile)
Donald David Coryell (October 17, 1924 – July 1, 2010) was an American football coach, who coached in the NFL first with the St. Louis Cardinals from 1973 to 1977 and then the San Diego Chargers from 1978 to 1986. He was well known for his innovations to football's passing offense. Coryell's offense was commonly known as "Air Coryell". Coryell was the first coach ever to win more than 100 games at both the collegiate and professional level. He was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame in 1986. Coryell is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Don Coryell enlisted in the United States Army in 1943 and spent 3½ years as a paratrooper. He played defensive back for the University of Washington from 1949 to 1951. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Washington. He was a high school coach in Hawaii where his teams ran a version of the I formation running game. He would also coach at the University of British Columbia (where he compiled a 2 win, 16 loss record), Wenatchee Valley College, and a military team at Fort Ord. As head coach at Whittier College from 1957 to 1959, Whittier won conference championships in each of Coryell's three years. He would also rely on the I formation at Whittier. In 1960, he was an assistant coach under John McKay for the USC Trojans, where the I formation would be its signature offense for decades. While the origin of the I formation is unclear, Coryell was one of its pioneers.
San Diego State University
Coryell coached 12 seasons with the San Diego State University Aztecs, using the philosophy of recruiting only junior college players. There, he compiled a record of 104 wins, 19 losses and 2 ties including three undefeated seasons in 1966, 1968 and 1969. His teams would enjoy winning streaks of 31 and 25 games, and would win three bowl games during his tenure. Coryell helped lead SDSU from an NCAA Division II to an NCAA Division I program in 1969.
It was at SDSU that Coryell began to emphasize a passing offense. Coryell recounted, "We could only recruit a limited number of runners and linemen against schools like USC and UCLA. And there were a lot of kids in Southern California passing and catching the ball. There seemed to be a deeper supply of quarterbacks and receivers. And the passing game was also open to some new ideas." Coryell adds, "Finally we decided it's crazy that we can win games by throwing the ball without the best personnel. So we threw the hell out of the ball and won some games. When we started doing that, we were like 55–5–1."
John Madden served as Coryell's defensive assistant at SDSU. Madden had first met Coryell attending a coaching clinic on the I formation led by McKay. "We'd go to these clinics, and afterward, everyone would run up to talk to McKay," said Madden. "Coryell was there because he introduced (McKay). I was thinking, 'If (McKay) learned from him, I'll go talk to (Coryell).' "
At San Diego State, Coryell helped develop a number of quarterbacks for the NFL, including Don Horn, Jesse Freitas, Dennis Shaw and future NFL MVP Brian Sipe. Wide receivers who went on to the NFL include Isaac Curtis, Gary Garrison, and Haven Moses. Coryell also coached two players who later became actors: Fred Dryer and Carl Weathers.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals under Coryell had three consecutive seasons (1974–1976) with double-digit victories and won two consecutive division titles (1974–1975). Those were the only division titles the Cardinals ever won while in St. Louis. Prior to 1974, the Cardinals had not been in the playoffs in 26 years since 1948 when they were the Chicago Cardinals. In 1975, the "Cardiac Cardinals" won seven times in the game's last minute. Multi-purpose back Terry Metcalf set an NFL all-purpose yards record at the time in 1975. When St. Louis did not re-sign Metcalf and he left for the Canadian Football League after 1977, Coryell departed also.
Dan Dierdorf developed into an All-Pro offensive lineman under Coryell and would later be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Cornerback Roger Wehrli and tight end Jackie Smith were already established All-Pros prior to Coryell's tenure at St. Louis, and they are also members of the Hall of Fame.
The 1974 Cardinals started the season 7-0. They would not start a season as well as 3-0 until 2012, the franchise's 25th in Arizona.
San Diego Chargers
Coryell was hired as the San Diego Chargers' head coach on September 25, 1978, the same day as the infamous PSA Flight 182 crash in San Diego. When Don Coryell began coaching the team, the Chargers had a win-loss record of 1–4 for that season. The team broke their losing streak with eight additional wins and three losses that season after Coryell became head coach. The Chargers 9–7 record was their first winning season since 1969.
He won three straight division titles (1979, 1980, 1981) with the Chargers, reaching the playoffs four consecutive times. Previously, the Chargers had not been to the playoffs since 1965. With Dan Fouts as quarterback, San Diego's "Air Coryell" was among the greatest passing offenses in NFL history. The Chargers led the league in passing yards an NFL record 6 consecutive years from 1978 to 1983  and again in 1985. They also led the league in total yards in offense 1980–1983 and 1985. The Pro Football Hall of Fame called Coryell's offenses "one of the most explosive and exciting offenses that ever set foot on an NFL field." Fouts, wide receiver Charlie Joiner, and tight end Kellen Winslow would all be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame from those Charger teams.
The Chargers in 1979 were the first AFC Western Division champion to run more passing plays (541) than rushing (481). That season, Fouts was only the 2nd player to pass for 4,000 yards in a season—throwing an NFL record 4,082—before extending his own record for total passing yards in a season in 1980 and again in 1981. In a nine-game strike-shortened 1982 season, Fouts averaged 320 yards passing per game, an NFL record that stood until Drew Brees averaged 342 in 2011. With Winslow, Coryell redefined the tight end position into a deep, pass-catching threat too fast for a linebacker and too big for a defensive back. Coryell was astute to realize that "If we're asking Kellen to block a defensive end and not catch passes, I'm not a very good coach." 
In San Diego, Coryell groomed another set of all-purpose backs in James Brooks and later Lionel James, a mere 5'6" and 171 pound running back, who broke Metcalf's record in 1985 while also setting a record of 1,027 receiving yards by a running back. A rookie in 1978, John Jefferson went on to become the first receiver in league history to gain 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons while also grabbing 36 touchdowns. Traded away from the Chargers by ownership because of a contract dispute, Jefferson never reached 1,000 yards again in his career. Wes Chandler was acquired to replace Jefferson. In the 1982 strike year, Chandler, set the record of 129 yards receiving per game that is still an NFL record.
Detractors of Coryell point to the Chargers' defensive shortcomings given that his defenses were in the bottom ten league-wide from 1981 to 1986. However, in 1979, the Chargers allowed the fewest points (246) in the AFC. In 1980 their defense led the NFL with 60 sacks spearheaded by a frontline of All-Pros in Fred Dean, Gary "Big Hands" Johnson and Louie Kelcher. The group was locally nicknamed the "Bruise Brothers". However, in 1981, Dean, like Jefferson, was traded away due to a contract dispute with ownership. Dean contends he was making the same amount of money as his brother-in-law who was a truck driver. The Chargers' defense would never be the same afterwards as it surrendered the most passing yards in the NFL in both 1981 and 1982. Meanwhile, Dean would go on in the same year to win UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year (while playing in only 11 games) and help lead the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl that year and again in 1984. Dean was inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2008.
"I can't say how much it affected us, because we did make it to the AFC championship game," said Johnson of the loss of Dean. "But I could say if we had more pass rush from the corner, it might've been different." U-T San Diego in 2013 called the trade "perhaps the biggest blunder in [Chargers'] franchise history."
Tom Bass, who was a defensive coordinator for Coryell with both SDSU and the Chargers, said Coryell focused on offense during practice. He left the coaching of defensive players and the defensive game plan to Bass."In planning and designing defense, he simply had no interest," said Bass.
Hall of Fame consideration
Coryell led the Cardinals and Chargers to five division titles, and the Chargers led the league in passing in seven of eight years. However, his failure to lead his teams to a Super Bowl has presumably kept him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Voters have cited his 3-6 postseason record as further evidence. His teams' defenses were not as strong as its offenses, which could be attributed to the offensive unit scoring quickly and not providing the defensive side sufficient rest. Tony Dungy, a Super Bowl head coach, says that "If you talk about impact on the game, training other coaches -- John Madden, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs to name a few -- and influencing how things are done, Don Coryell is probably right up there with Paul Brown. He was a genius." Sports Illustrated writer Jim Trotter, who votes on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Board of Selectors, said selectors are hesitant to vote for coaches when there is a backlog of deserving players.
Coryell's direct development of future coaches included Super Bowl head coaches Madden and Gibbs, Super Bowl offensive coordinators Ernie Zampese and Al Saunders, as well as Jim Hanifan and Rod Dowhower. Adding to the Coryell coaching tree, Super Bowl offensive coordinator Norv Turner tutored under Zampese, and another Super Bowl offensive coordinator Mike Martz studied under both Zampese and later Turner. Dan Henning coached under Gibbs.
Fouts says, "He influenced offensive and defensive football because if you are going to have three or four receivers out there, you better have an answer for it on the other side of the ball. If it wasn't for Don, I wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame." "Whoever heard of the nickel or dime pass defense before "Air Coryell" forced opponents to come up with strategies to combat Coryell’s aerial assault?" wrote Fouts to Hall of Fame voters in support of Coryell's induction.
In Madden's Hall of Fame induction speech, he mentioned his time at San Diego State "with a great coach that someday will be in here, Don Coryell. He had a real influence on my coaching. Joe Gibbs was on that staff, too."
Gibbs also lobbied for Coryell's induction into the Hall of Fame, stating "(Coryell) was extremely creative and fostered things that are still in today's game because he was so creative. I think he's affected a lot of coaches, and I'd like to see him get in. " Mike Martz, who won a Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator of the "Greatest Show on Turf" with the St. Louis Rams and advanced to another Super Bowl as the Rams' head coach: "Don is the father of the modern passing game. People talk about the 'West Coast' offense, but Don started the 'West Coast' decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and so many teams are running a version of the Coryell offense. Coaches have added their own touches, but it's still Coryell's offense. He has disciples all over the league. He changed the game," adds Martz. "I'm not sure why that hasn't been acknowledged by the Hall of Fame."
Winslow points out that Coryell had an indirect hand in the 49ers', Washington Redskins' and St. Louis Rams' Super Bowl teams. "They call it the West Coast offense because San Francisco won Super Bowls with it, but it was a variation of what we did in San Diego. Joe Gibbs' itty-bitty receivers on the outside and two tight ends in the middle, (that's) a variation of Coryell's offense in San Diego. It's just a personnel change, but it's the same thing. When the Rams won their Super Bowl, it was the same offense, same terminology. For Don Coryell to not be in the Hall of Fame is a lack of knowledge of the voters. That's the nicest way that I can put that. A lack of understanding of the legacy of the game. "
"In the offense we won the Super Bowl with in 1999, the foundation was Don Coryell," former Rams coach Dick Vermeil said. "The route philosophies, the vertical passing game ... everything stemmed from the founder, Don Coryell. The genius."
In 2010, Coryell for the first time was among the 15 finalists considered by the Hall of Fame selection committee on the Saturday before the Super Bowl. He was not selected. After Coryell's passing later that year, Chargers President Dean Spanos said "He revolutionized the game of football, not only in San Diego, but throughout the entire NFL. Don Coryell was a legend not only with the Chargers but throughout San Diego. Though unfortunately he did not live long enough to see it, hopefully one day his bust will find its proper place in Pro Football’s Hall of Fame." Delivering a eulogy at Coryell's funeral, Madden noted, "You know, I'm sitting down there in front, and next to me is Joe Gibbs, and next to him is Dan Fouts, and the three of us are in the Hall of Fame because of Don Coryell." Choking up and then pausing, he continued, "There's something missing." Coryell was a finalist again in 2015.
Coryell was adored by his players. "The most important thing to me about Don Coryell is him as a person. He actually cared about us as players. A lot of coaches don't even know who you are," said Fouts. Coryell did not want to intimidate his players and instead treated his players with respect, allowing them to showcase their strengths. "I don't think a coach has to be a son of a bitch to be successful. I think you can treat men like men," he said.
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