Don Coryell never won a Super Bowl and had a drab playoff record, but he had a profound influence on football at both the collegiate and professional levels.
When the National Football League discloses the identities of the 15 semifinalists for the next round of inductions into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this month, almost certain to be on the list is Seattle native Don Coryell, who found fame in his game only after abandoning his roots.
This marks the fourth time Coryell’s name has been placed in nomination for inclusion in Canton. He has been a finalist or semifinalist each time, but has so far failed to generate sufficient Hall of Fame support for the same reason skeptics will decry his credentials this year: Neither of the NFL teams he coached, the St. Louis Cardinals (1973-77) nor the San Diego Chargers (1978-86), won a Super Bowl under his command. Hall selectors will also point to Coryell’s drab postseason record of 3-6.
Most individuals burdened with such drawbacks wouldn’t even get to the Hall of Fame debate stage. But in Coryell’s case, the indisputable – and complicating — fact is that few men influenced the development of his sport more than Coryell.
Born in Seattle Oct. 17, 1924, Coryell graduated from Lincoln High School, which also educated Olympic swimming legends Helene Madison and Jack Medica, and enlisted in the Army in 1943, spending 3½ years as a paratrooper during World War II. Coryell enrolled at the University of Washington as a 24-year-old in 1948, the year Howie Odell became the Huskies’ head coach.
A halfback/defensive back and sporting uniform No. 23, Coryell spent three largely anonymous years at UW from 1949-51 (the Don Heinrich-Hugh McElhenny era), earning but a single letter (1949), his lack of size – with a rock in his pocket, Coryell generously weighed 145 pounds — limiting his playing opportunities. Years would pass, but it would turn out that this dyslexic little guy with a lisp harbored the biggest football brain of anybody at UW.
After leaving Washington armed with bachelor and master’s degrees, Coryell launched what would become a 29-year coaching career. He started at the high school level in Hawaii, and then whisked through the University of British Columbia, Wenatchee Valley College, and even had a stint with a military team at Fort Ord, CA., before landing his first head gig at Whittier College in 1957. After winning two conference titles in three years, while pioneering the I formation, USC’s John McKay hired Coryell as an assistant in 1960.
One year later, Division II San Diego State brought Coryell aboard to turn around a program that couldn’t hold its own in annual recruiting wars with other California colleges of its size, much less with USC and UCLA. To stock the Aztecs’ roster, Coryell mainly had to rely on junior college transfers.
Coryell discovered he could lure to San Diego State many more skill players – quarterbacks, running backs, receivers – than he could the quality of lineman that make football programs elite. This circumstance became the genesis of Coryell’s major contribution to the game, his creative offensive schemes.
Given the type of personnel he could successfully recruit, Coryell gradually moved away from the “I” in favor of a passing attack that not only spread the field, but lengthened it. San Diego State didn’t have the athletes to win 7-0 games, or 10-7 games, or any contest conducted primarily in a trench. But with the skill players Coryell deployed, and the plays he conjured, the Aztecs could win 55-50 and 45-35, and they won a ton of those. In 1969 alone, the Aztecs scored 50 or more points five times, including a 70-21 romp over New Mexico State Nov. 15.
Even back then, Coryell was, as San Diego Union columnist Jerry Magee described, a “holler guy,” the kind of coach who constantly thought about ways to motivate his players. One of Coryell’s motivational ideas became a San Diego State tradition.
When Coryell arrived at the school, the Aztecs sported a black jersey with silver numerals, silver pants and a silver helmet. Coryell, who had first seen a one-color uniform while coaching at Wenatchee Valley, decided to dress his players exclusively in black, feeling that a team wearing all black, at night (San Diego State was famous for playing most of its home games at night), would not only be unique, but present a threatening image to the opponent. The Aztecs wore all black for the first time Oct. 12, 1963 and wiped out heavily favored Long Beach State 33-8.
Coryell coached the Aztecs for 12 years (1961-72), amassing a stunning record of 104-19-2. He produced three undefeated seasons – 1966, 1968, 1969 – and won three bowl games, 1966-67 Camellia and 1969 Pasadena. Under Coryell, San Diego State moved from NCAA Division II to Division 1 (1969).
NFL teams drafted 42 of Coryell’s San Diego State players and a number of those had productive pro careers, notably Brian Sipe, Haven Moses, Willie Buchanon and Fred Dryer. Two of his assistants, John Madden and Joe Gibbs, both of whom worked under Coryell from 1964-66, became Super Bowl-winning head coaches and inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“A lot of what I did,” Madden said two years ago, “I stole from Don.”
When Coryell arrived in St. Louis in 1973, one dismal statistic stood out: Under the lame ownership of the Bidwell bumblers, brothers Bill and Charles, the Cardinals had not been in the playoffs in 26 years, since 1948 when they were the Chicago Cardinals. Under Coryell, the Cardinals posted three consecutive seasons (1974-76) with double-digit victories and won two division championships (1974-75). Those are the only division crowns the Cardinals won during their otherwise innocuous residency under the Arch.
Coryell’s 1975 Cardinals, featuring Seattle native Terry Metcalf, who established an NFL all-purpose yards record, became his signature St. Louis team. The “Cardiac Cardinals” went 11-3, winning seven times in the game’s final minute. When the Cardinals refused to re-sign Metcalf after the 1977 season, Coryell also left.
Coryell’s influence in St. Louis is best summarized this way: He produced three double-digit win seasons in five years. After Coryell departed, the Cardinals didn’t reach double figures in wins for 33 years – until 2009, playing as the Arizona Cardinals. Meanwhile, quarterback Jim Hart played in the NFL from 1966-84. He made four Pro Bowls, all under Coryell.
Coryell returned to San Diego, as the new head coach of the Chargers, on the same day – Sept. 25, 1978 – that a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet crashed into a North Park neighborhood after colliding with a small plane, killing all 137 people on the two planes and seven people on the ground.
“It’s crazy that when you look back at the history of this city, he got hired on the same day as that PSA crash,” said Hank Bauer, who played running back and special teams with the Chargers under Coryell. “That really was one of the darkest days in this city’s history and it became one of the brightest days in the history our sport.”
Coryell inherited a team, from a fired Tommy Prothro, that had languished 13 years without a playoff appearance, and started out the 1978 campaign 1-3. Under Coryell, the Chargers went 8-4, finishing 9-7. Over the next eight years, Coryell cemented his status as the primary father of the modern passing game. His Chargers evolved into “Air Coryell,” playing some of the most exciting football the NFL has ever witnessed, a brand that featured long passes, quick-strike touchdowns, points galore and a whole lot of entertainment.
Led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, the Chargers topped the NFL in passing yards six straight seasons from 1978 to 1983 and again in 1985. San Diego, which also led the league in scoring in 1981 and 1982, averaged an astonishing 28 points per game during a 57-game span from 1979 through 1982 (in seven games against the Seahawks in those years, Fouts threw 12 touchdown passes).
Coryell led the Chargers to division titles in 1979, 1980 and 1981 and to the playoffs every year from 1979-82. Previously, the Chargers had not been to the playoffs since 1965. While Coryell’s teams never won the Super Bowl, they twice made it as far as the AFC Championship game.
Coryell’s success stemmed from his principal innovation, the “passing tree,” set up with pass routes branching off, as if from a tree. To these routes, Coryell assigned numbers from 1 through 9. Simply by naming a formation and reciting three numbers, a quarterback, usually Fouts, could call a pass play. On “989,” for example, the receiver on the formation’s left side would run a “9,” the receiver next to him an “8,” and the receiver on the right a “9.”
Coryell’s passing tree, used by most NFL teams to this day, involved splitting the tight end wide and essentially inventing the one-back offense, just one of his innovations. Coryell also introduced the H-back. The net effect of Coryell’s offensive brainstorming: He spawned a variety of new defenses aimed at containing his team.
“He (Coryell) wanted to spread the field and he wanted to throw the football, looking for that mismatch,” his former San Diego tight end, Kellen Winslow, told the San Diego Tribune in the aftermath of Coryell’s death in July 2010.
“It was an attitude of attack,” Fouts told The Union. “We were going to attack every part of that field — width, length — and then we were going to attack every weakness in that defense. It’s like fast breaks in basketball. Three-on-two, then it comes down to a two-on-one, and then it’s a one-on-none. Throw the ball to the one-on-none. It was the attitude of, ‘Look for the bomb first, and then work your way back to the line of scrimmage.’”
Magee covered the Chargers for San Diego Union Tribune, witnessing every game of the Coryell era. In 2008, Magee described Coryell’s contribution to the game this way:
“His emphasis on passing, the use of motion, the many packages, some with four receivers, some with three, some with two running backs, some with one, some with none . . . Anyone wishing to weigh Coryell’s qualifications (for the Pro Football Hall of Fame) need only witness what is occurring on NFL fields, in how teams operate their passing games, from a variety of packages, with the routes assigned numbers and branching off as if from a tree. Coryell introduced this practice.”
While Bill Walsh is widely — and correctly — credited with popularizing the West Coast offense during the 1980s with the Joe Montana-led San Francisco 49ers, all Walsh really did was ape what he had seen Coryell do at San Diego State and later with the Chargers.
“They call it the West Coast offense because San Francisco won Super Bowls with it,” said Winslow. “But it was only a variation on what we did in San Diego: Joe Gibbs’ itty-bitty receivers on the outside and two tight ends in the middle. It’s just a personnel change, but it’s the same thing. When the Rams won their Super Bowl (1999), it was the same offense, same terminology.
“Fans can’t watch the NFL today and not see Don Coryell’s influence. And that’s why he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as an innovator and as a contributor. You can’t put a dollar figure on his value to professional football.”
“People talk about the ‘West Coast’ offense, but Don started the West Coast decades ago and kept updating it,” Mike Martz, one of Coryell’s numerous disciples,” said after Coryell’s death. “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.”
“Because of Air Coryell, nickel and dime defenses became an every-game proposition in the NFL,” added Bauer. “Coryell changed the way the game is played.”
Coryell had the perfect compl3ment of players to make it happen. In 1979, Fouts became the second player (following Joe Namath) to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. He set another yardage record in 1980, and another in 1981. In 1982, in a season shortened to nine games because of a strike, Fouts averaged 320 passing yards and later became one of the few modern-era quarterbacks to make the Hall of Fame without winning a Super Bowl.
“I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame without Don Coryell,” said Fouts.
Winslow might not, either, if Coryell hadn’t used him primarily as a receiver rather than the tight end he was supposed to be. But Coryell was astute enough to recognize that, “If we’re asking Kellen to block a defensive end and not catch passes, I’m not a very good coach.”
“When we started splitting Kellen out,” said Bauer, “teams didn’t know what to do. He was a wide receiver in a tight end’s body. So a lot of teams started playing zone against us and we started picking them apart. Some teams tried to put a safety or linebacker out there and play man-to-man, and we licked our chops and went with Kellen.”
Coryell’s Chargers featured some of the greatest skill players of the 1980s. In addition to Fouts and Winslow, he had running backs Chuck Muncie, James Brooks and Lionel James, and receivers John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler.
Jefferson represents a great example of Coryell’s influence: In the three years (1978-80) Jefferson played for Coryell, he had three 1,000-yard seasons and scored 33 touchdowns. In the five seasons he played after leaving San Diego in a contract dispute, Jefferson never had a single 1,000-yard season and scored just 11 touchdowns.
Muncie spent the first five years of his pro career in New Orleans, scoring 28 touchdowns in 59 games. Muncie joined “Air Coryell” at its height in 1981 and scored 39 touchdowns over the next three years, which included a nine-game schedule in 1982 caused by the aforementioned strike.
Three of Coryell’s Chargers – Fouts, Winslow and Joiner – all made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Joiner played 18 years in the NFL, producing four 1,000-yard receiving seasons, all under Coryell.
Perhaps the ultimate example of Air Coryell occurred Jan. 2, 1982, in an epic 41-38 playoff win over the Miami Dolphins. In that contest, Coryell trotted out a 400-yard passer (Fouts, 433), a 100-yard rusher (Muncie, 120), and THREE 100-yard receivers (Winslow, 166; Joiner, 198; Chandler, 106). Winslow caught 13 passes, scored a touchdown and blocked a potential game-winning field goal.
In 37 seasons, the Seahawks have had just one game with a 300-yard passer (Matt Hasselbeck, 328), a 100-yard rusher (Shaun Alexander, 127), and two 100-yard receivers (Koren Robinson, 122; Darrell Jackson, 102) – Nov. 30, 2003, vs. Cleveland.
The first former UW player to coach in the NFL (second and last was Jim Mora Jr. with Atlanta and Seattle, with Arizona assistant Ray Horton looming) and the only coach to win more than 100 games at both the collegiate and professional levels, Coryell is now a member of five Halls of Fame: College Football, San Diego State, Husky Fever, San Diego Chargers and State of Washington.
When Coryell missed enshrinement in Canton in 2010, former Colts head coach Tony Dungy remarked, “If you talk about impact on the game, training other coaches – John Madden, Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh, to name a few – and influencing how things are done, Don Coryell is probably right up there with Paul Brown. He was a genius.”
Said Winslow: “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. It’s 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 head coach Dick Vermeil said. “The route philosophies, the vertical passing game, everything stemmed from the founder, Don Coryell. The genius.”
“He was the innovator of all the different types of offenses that you see in the league today,” Joiner said in an interview with the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “He brought more pizzazz to the game as far as the passing attack. He came up with all of the new formations that you can throw from and run from. He belongs in the Hall of Fame because he was a very important person to the game of football.”
“He revolutionized the game, not only in San Diego, but throughout the entire NFL,” Chargers president Dean Spanos said after Coryell died. “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.”
After Coryell’s funeral in San Diego two years ago, Madden said, “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.”
Madden and Gibbs represent the most prominent members of Coryell’s coaching tree. Madden won a Super Bowl and sports the second-best winning percentage in NFL history. Gibbs won three Super Bowls as Washington’s head coach.
Jim Hanifan, who worked under Coryell in St. Louis, is regarded as one of the best offensive line gurus in league history. Ernie Zampese, another Coryell protégé, taught Coryell’s offense to Norv Turner, who installed it in Dallas, which used it to win three Super Bowls in the early 1990s, two with Turner as offensive coordinator, one with Zampese as offensive coordinator.
If Troy Aikman hadn’t quarterbacked those three Dallas Super Bowl winners, he wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame today because he certainly didn’t have Hall of Fame numbers. Three rings, not stats, greased his entry into Canton.
Back in the 1960s, Martz regularly watched Coryell conduct San Diego State practices. Years later, he brought his version of Coryell’s offense to St. Louis as offensive coordinator, creating an attack that saw the Rams score more than 500 points in three consecutive seasons (1999-01). Which is to say: No “Greatest Show on Turf” without Martz, and no Martz without Coryell.
Should Coryell, who finished with a career coaching record of 240-113-4 (.678) in 29 seasons, including 111-83-1 in 14 NFL campaigns, make it to the Hall of Fame, he would join Sid Gillman and Greasy Neale as the only coaches in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Foundation Hall of Fame.
He would also become the second man born in the state of Washington to reach Canton as a coach. The only other is Spokane native Ray Flaherty (born Sept. 1, 1903) who won two NFL titles (1937, 1942) with the Sammy Baugh-led Washington Redskins.
Said Fouts: “They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery — look around at the NFL. Coryell’s influence is everywhere.”