Don Coryell

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Don Coryell
Don Coryell Chargers.jpg
Coryell with the San Diego Chargers c. 1981
Biographical details
Born(1924-10-17)October 17, 1924
Seattle, Washington
DiedJuly 1, 2010(2010-07-01) (aged 85)
La Mesa, California[1]
Playing career
Position(s)Defensive back
Coaching career (HC unless noted)
1950Washington (assistant)
1951Punahou (HI) (assistant)
1952Farrington HS (HI)
1955Wenatchee Valley College
1956Fort Ord
1960USC (assistant)
1961–1972San Diego State
1973–1977St. Louis Cardinals
1978–1986San Diego Chargers
Head coaching record
Overall127–24–3 (college)
114–89–1 (NFL)
Tournaments3–6 (NFL playoffs)
Accomplishments and honors
3 NCAA College Division (1966–1968)
3 SCIAC (1957–1959)
4 CCAA (1962-1963,[2] 1966–1967)
3 PCAA (1969–1970, 1972)
Los Angeles Chargers Hall of Fame
San Diego Chargers 40th Anniversary Team
San Diego Chargers 50th 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 National Football League (NFL) first with the St. Louis Cardinals from 1973 to 1977 and then the San Diego Chargers from 1978 to 1986.

Well known for his innovations to football's passing offense, commonly known as "Air Coryell", he was the first head coach to win more than 100 games at both the collegiate and professional level. Coryell was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame in 1986 and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. The Professional Football Researchers Association named Coryell to the PFRA Hall of Very Good Class of 2010.[3]

Early life[edit]

Don Coryell was the youngest of four children, all boys, born to Julia and George Coryell in Seattle, Washington. Don initially had no middle name, but adopted David at his mother's suggestion, as the biblical story of David and Goliath was his favorite as a child.[4]

Coryell graduated from Lincoln High School in 1943, while World War II was in process, and immediately enlisted in the United States Army.[5] He joined the newly-formed 86th Mountain Infantry, a regiment of ski troops training at Camp Hale in Colorado; it would later be combined with two others to form the 10th Mountain Division.[6] While the bulk of his group joined the war in Italy, Coryell was promoted to platoon sergeant and remained in America as an instructor. Desiring to see combat, he applied for officer's school; he was eventually sent to Japan, but only after the war had ended. Coryell later trained as a paratrooper, joined the 11th Airborne Division and rose to the rank of first lieutenant before being discharged at the age of 21.[7][8]

After leaving the service, Coryell enrolled at the University of Washington, studying physical education and earning his bachelor's and master's degrees.[9] He played as a defensive back for the Washington Huskies, lettering as a senior in 1949 and playing in that year's Hula Bowl.[10] He also competed as a boxer, winning the university's light heavyweight crown before being defeated in the heavyweight title fight the following year.[11].[12]

Early coaching career (1950-60)[edit]

Coryell changed jobs frequently during his first years as a coach. While earning a master's degree at the University of Washington, he remained with the Huskies as an assistant coach. After completing his studies, Coryell took a job at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he served as both an assistant coach and a biology teacher. The following year, 1952, he moved to another Honolulu school, Farrington High School, for his first head coaching post. He improved a team that had failed to win a game the previous year.[13] In 1953, Coryell moved to the University of British Columbia in Canada, where he compiled a 2–16 record over two seasons.[14] The University did not prioritize sporting success;[13] when Coryell earned his first victory it ended a two-year winless drought for the team, and prompted the Vancouver Sun to write, "Don Coryell has carved himself a niche in UBC's not-too-crowded football hall of fame."[15]

In 1955, Coryell accepted an offer from Wenatchee Junior College in his home state of Washington. The team had gone winless the previous year.[16] Coryell bolstered his squad by recruiting nine players from Canada and seven from Hawaii and led Wenatchee to a 7–0–1 record, before they lost 33–6 to Bakersfield College in the Potato Bowl.[17] During that year, Coryell began using what he called the "IT formation", combining elements of the I formation and the T formation, with the intention of having his backs receive the ball closer to the line of scrimmage. This is today known as the power I formation.[18][19]

Coryell changed jobs in both 1956 and 1957. First, he left Wenatchee for a military team at Fort Ord.[8] Again making use of the I formation, he led them to the service football championship with a 9–0 record.[20] Next, he successfully applied for a vacancy in Whittier, California, replacing George Allen as the head coach of the Whittier Poets, whose most recent Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) title had come five years earlier.[21][22] Coryell remained at Whittier for three seasons (1957-59), winning SCIAC championships each time.[23] The Poets were unbeaten in conference play during his tenure, going 12–0–1 against SCIAC teams and 23–5–1 overall.[24] Coryell adopted a flexible approach to offensive play, based on the abilities of his personnel. Early on in his time with Whittier, he used a run-based attack because his starting quarterback was injured and his backups were less accomplished. Later, Coryell converted a tailback into a talented quarterback and began passing more often. He also kept the program within its budget, which his predecessor had failed to do.[25]

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.[19] While the origin of the I formation is unclear, Coryell was one of its pioneers.[8]

San Diego State Aztecs (1961-72)[edit]

Coryell's next job was as the head coach of the San Diego State Aztecs, who had struggled in recent seasons. In 1960, the Aztecs had posted a 1–6–1 record, and lost all five games in their conference, the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA). The offense produced under 200 yards per game, and scored only 53 points in eight games. Only 6,000 fans were in attendance for a 60–0 home defeat against an inter-state rival, the Fresno State Bulldogs.[26] The Aztecs had failed to win the CCAA or make a bowl game since 1951.

Chart showing the San Diego State Aztecs' points scored per game by year from 1958 to 1975
Chart showing the San Diego State Aztecs' points conceded per game by year from 1958 to 1975
Charts showing the Aztecs' points scored per game (above) and points conceded per game (below), from three years before Coryell's arrival at San Diego State to three years after his departure. Seasons where Coryell was the head coach are highlighted in green.

Coryell was named the Aztecs' new head coach on January 11, 1961, and predicted that San Diego State would be a leading small college by 1963.[27][28] He installed the I formation,[29] recruited a number of juniors[28] including future Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs,[30][31] and led the team to a 7–2–1 record. The Aztecs followed with their first CCAA title for a decade, going 8–2 overall and 6–0 in their division. The decisive game came against Fresno State, who had won the CCAA the previous four seasons in a row. Before a capacity crowd of 13,000, the Aztecs ended an eight-game losing streak to their rivals, winning 29–25. Coryell was carried from the field by his players at the end of the game. At this point, his offense was based primarily around the run; in the game against Fresno State, the Aztecs gained only 9 yards passes against 269 rushing.[32] Coryell's success led to speculation that he might take a role with the San Diego Chargers or a larger college, but he affirmed his intention to stay with the Aztecs.[33] San Diego State went 7–2 in 1963, earning a share of the CCAA title. They scored at least 30 points in each of their first seven games.

In 1964, Coryell recruited another future Hall of Fame head coach, this time appointing John Madden as his defensive coordinator;[34] Gibbs also moved from a playing role to a graduate assistant coaching position.[30] The Aztecs went 8–2, scoring at least 44 points in all eight of their victories and conceding only 71 points in their ten games. The team used a balanced offense, with Rod Dowhower at quarterback, Gary Garrison the leading receiver and Jim Allison at running back.[35] They were unable to continue their run of CCAA titles, with a 7–0 loss to the eventual champions Cal State proving costly.[36] The Aztecs again finished 8–2 in 1965. They scored 40-plus points in six games and shut their opponents out in five, but lost two conference games and finished third in the CCAA.

San Diego State returned to the top of the CCAA in 1966, finishing with a perfect 11–0 record. They were also voted the No. 1 small college side by both the UPI and the Associated Press, and won the Camelia Bowl. Prompted by the ability of quarterback [{Don Horn]] Coryell shifted his offense's emphasis towards the pass, adopting the pro set formation and using multiple wingbacks in passing situations.[37] San Diego State began the season expected to vie with the Long Beach State 49ers for the conference title;[38] the Aztecs beat Long Beach State 21–18 on October 8 to set up the CCAA title win.[39] Four weeks later they were ranked No.2 in the UPI and AP small college polls and faced No.1 North Dakota State, winning 36–0 to take over the No. 1 spot themselves.[40] Anticipating muddy conditions in the season-ending Camellia Bowl, Coryell had his offense practice in the shotgun formation; the conditions were as expected, and San Diego State defeated Montana State 28–7.[41]

St. Louis Cardinals[edit]

Hired in January 1973,[42] the Cardinals under Coryell had three consecutive seasons (19741976) 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 based in Chicago. In 1975, the "Cardiac Cardinals" won seven times in the game's last minute.[43] 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 after 1977, who then left for the Canadian Football League, Coryell departed as well in February 1978.[43][44][45]

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 7-0 until 2021, the franchise's 33rd in Arizona.

San Diego Chargers[edit]

Coryell was brought in during the season as the San Diego Chargers' head coach on September 25, 1978, the same day as the infamous PSA Flight 182 crash in San Diego.[46] The Chargers had started the year with a 1-3 record under head coach Tommy Prothro. Believing that the Chargers could do better, Prothro chose to resign.[47] After dropping three of their first four games under Coryell, the Chargers went on a tear, winning seven of their last eight.[48] The team averaged 1514 points in their first four games under Prothro, and 2412 in their last twelve while playing for Coryell.[49] The Chargers finished that 1978 season with a 9–7 record, their first winning season since 1969.[50]

The Chargers built on that success the following year, as they won the first of three straight division titles (1979, 1980, 1981) under Coryell, while 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 six consecutive years from 1978 to 1983 [51] and again in 1985. They also led the league in total yards in offense in 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."[52] Three members of the team - Fouts, wide receiver Charlie Joiner, and tight end Kellen Winslow -would go on to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Capitalizing on the 1978 rule change that prohibited defenders from making contact with receivers past five yards from the line of scrimmage,[53] the Chargers in 1979 were the first AFC Western Division champion to run more passing plays (541) than rushing (481).[54] 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.[55][56] 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."[57]

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.[58] 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 again reached 1,000 yards in a season. Wes Chandler was acquired to replace Jefferson. In the 1982 strike year, Chandler set the record of 129 receiving yards per game, which is still an NFL record.[59]

Detractors of Coryell point to the Chargers' defensive shortcomings given that his defenses were in the bottom five league-wide in points allowed from 1981 to 1986.[60][61] 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 nicknamed the "Bruise Brothers".[62][63] In 1981, Dean, like Jefferson, was traded away due to a contract dispute with ownership. Dean contended that he was making the same amount of money as his brother-in-law, a truck driver.[64] The Chargers' defense would never be the same afterwards; they surrendered the most passing yards in the NFL in both 1981[65] and 1982.[66] 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 both that year and again in 1984. Dean was inducted to the Pro Football 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 his former Bruise Brother, Dean. "But I could say if we had more pass rush from the corner, it might've been different."[67] U-T San Diego in 2013 called the trade "perhaps the biggest blunder in [Chargers'] franchise history."[68]

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.[69]

Hall of Fame consideration[edit]

Coryell led the Cardinals and Chargers to five division titles, and the Chargers led the league in passing in seven of eight years,[70] finishing second in 1984.[61] He is considered to be the coach most responsible for offenses moving to the passing game to control the ball. He was also the first coach to regularly use two tight ends in a one-back offense.[53] However, Coryell's failure to lead his teams to a Super Bowl has presumably kept him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.[71] Voters have cited his 3–6 postseason record as further evidence.[72] 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.[73] 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."[71] 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.[74]

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.[75] 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."[76] "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.[77]

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."[78]

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."[79]

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.[76] "I'm not sure why that hasn't been acknowledged by the Hall of Fame."[9]

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."[80]

"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."[81]

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.[82] After Coryell's death 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."[19] 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."[83] Coryell was a finalist five other times in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020.[84][85][86] The selection committee chose him as the finalist out of a group of 12 coaches and contributors for induction in the class of 2023.[87]

Coaching personality[edit]

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.[88] 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.[89]


Don Coryell died on July 1, 2010 at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, California. The cause of death was not officially released, but Coryell had been in poor health for some time.[57]

Head coaching record[edit]


Year Team Overall Conference Standing Bowl/playoffs Coaches# AP°
Whittier Poets (Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) (1957–1959)
1957 Whittier 6–2–1 3–0–1 1st
1958 Whittier 8–1 4–0 1st
1959 Whittier 8–2 5–0 1st
Whittier: 22–5–1 12–0–1
San Diego State Aztecs (California Collegiate Athletic Association) (1961–1967)
1961 San Diego State 7–2–1 2–2–1 T–3rd
1962 San Diego State 8–2 6–0 1st
1963 San Diego State 7–2 4–1 T–1st
1964 San Diego State 8–2 4–1 2nd
1965 San Diego State 8–2 3–2 3rd
1966 San Diego State 11–0 5–0 1st W Camellia
1967 San Diego State 10–1 5–0 1st W Camellia
San Diego State Aztecs (NCAA College Division independent) (1968)
1968 San Diego State 9–0–1
San Diego State Aztecs (Pacific Coast Athletic Association) (1969–1972)
1969 San Diego State 11–0 6–0 1st W Pasadena 18
1970 San Diego State 9–2 5–1 T–1st
1971 San Diego State 6–5 2–3 T–4th
1972 San Diego State 10–1 4–0 1st 20
San Diego State: 104–19–2 46–10–1
Total: 126–24–3
      National championship         Conference title         Conference division title or championship game berth


Team Year Regular Season Post Season
Won Lost Ties Win % Finish Won Lost Win % Result
STL 1973 4 9 1 .308 4th in NFC East
STL 1974 10 4 0 .714 1st in NFC East 0 1 .000 Lost to Minnesota Vikings in Divisional Game
STL 1975 11 3 0 .786 1st in NFC East 0 1 .000 Lost to Los Angeles Rams in Divisional Game
STL 1976 10 4 0 .714 2nd in NFC East
STL 1977 7 7 0 .500 3rd in NFC East
STL Total 42 27 1 .607 0 2 .000
SD 1978 8 4 0 .667 3rd in AFC West
SD 1979 12 4 0 .750 1st in AFC West 0 1 .000 Lost to Houston Oilers in Divisional Game
SD 1980 11 5 0 .688 1st in AFC West 1 1 .500 Lost to Oakland Raiders in AFC Championship
SD 1981 10 6 0 .625 1st in AFC West 1 1 .500 Lost to Cincinnati Bengals in AFC Championship
SD 1982 6 3 0 .667 2nd in AFC West 1 1 .500 Lost to Miami Dolphins in Divisional Game
SD 1983 6 10 0 .375 4th in AFC West
SD 1984 7 9 0 .438 5th in AFC West
SD 1985 8 8 0 .500 3rd in AFC West
SD 1986 1 7 0 .125 5th in AFC West
SD Total 69 56 0 .552 3 4 .429
NFL Total[90] 111 83 1 .572 3 6 .333

Coaching tree[edit]

Assistant coaches under Coryell who subsequently become college or professional head coaches:

See also[edit]


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  4. ^ Stein & Clark 1976, pp. 27–28.
  5. ^ Stein & Clark 2016, pp. 41–42.
  6. ^ Stein & Clark 1976, pp. 43–44.
  7. ^ Stein & Clark 1976, p. 45.
  8. ^ a b c Layden, Tim. "Don Coryell 1924--2010". Retrieved 2010-07-07.
  9. ^ a b Farmer, Sam (2010-07-02). "Don Coryell dies at 85; longtime coach of the San Diego Chargers". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-07-03.
  10. ^ Stein & Clark 1976, p. 48.
  11. ^ Stein & Clark 1976, p. 49.
  12. ^ "Stan Burke wins heavy crown in Husky ring meet". Tacoma News Tribune. February 25, 1949. p. 27.
  13. ^ a b Stein & Clark 1976, p. 50.
  14. ^ "UBC Sports Hall of Fame :: Inductees". Archived from the original on 2012-04-15. Retrieved 2012-04-28.
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  41. ^ "Don Horn dazzles fans". Billings Gazette. UPI. December 11, 1966. p. 21.
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  43. ^ a b O'Neill, Dan. "Former football Cardinals remember Don Coryell". Retrieved 2010-07-03.
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  45. ^ "Wanted: 'A talented coach'". Southeast Missourian. (Cape Girardeau). Associated Press. February 12, 1978. p. 16.
  46. ^ "Innovative football coach Don Coryell dies at 85".
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  55. ^ NFL Single-Season Passing Yards per Game Leaders |
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  58. ^ Neville, David (March 31, 2003). "Little Big Man". San Diego Chargers. Archived from the original on November 26, 2011. Retrieved February 3, 2011.
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