Story and Graphic: Dominic Mucciacito
Donald David Coryell sometimes wouldn’t notice you if he passed you in the hallway, but chances are he was fixated on devising a way to win.
“One thing is for sure. Don Coryell will never make it into the Hall of Fame if he’s called on to present his own credentials. Ask him about his innovations and his concepts and he looks annoyed. He seems to shrink a little. He talks in a voice that is barely audible.”
-Paul Zimmerman in Sports Illustrated, September 28, 1981
Coach Coryell, ever the innovator, pops up so often throughout the history of American football that you might think that he also invented a time machine out of a Delorean. There he was in 1955 at tiny Wenatchee Valley Junior College installing the I-Formation and coaching a perennial loser all the way to the championship game.
Coryelltook no credit for inventing the I-Formation, and would assert that he had seen it before at other programs. Coryell hated attention. The word “genius” in particular would make him squirm in his chair.
“The players. I just try to fit my offense to the players I’ve got.” said Coryell.
There he as in the Orange Bowl in 1982 leading the Chargers to a 41-38 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins in a game regarded as the greatest playoff game in NFL history.
“Well … the whole team. The whole organization. It takes everybody to win.” said Coryell in the exuberant and exhausted postgame locker room.
Sounds like a man who knows more about the future than he is willing to admit; a man who doesn’t want to draw too much attention to himself out of paradoxical anxieties about altering the timeline. A man who deflects taking credit for success but always bore full ownership for a team’s failure.
Though Coryell himself was no self-promoter, the drumbeat of support from the players, coaches and writers who knew him will receive the ultimate validation today when the coach is finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Coryell retired in 1986. He passed away in 2010. His bust in Canton is about to be unveiled in 2023. So what took so long?
The most obvious hole in his resume is that he never won a Super Bowl. But neither did his quarterback Dan Fouts, or teammates Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner. All three of them are in the Hall of Fame. None of them would be there if not for Coryell—a fact they are all quick to admit in person.
Coryell’s Chargers led the NFL in total offense five times in his eight seasons as Fouts threw for over 4,000 yards three straight years (1979-1981), a milestone that had only been accomplished one other time in NFL history at that time by the Jets Joe Namath in 1967.
“They’ve got a brilliant offense,” said All-pro Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson in 1980 after losing to the Chargers, “just brilliant. They don’t even care about running the ball. They’re the only team in the league that doesn’t.”
Air Coryell was the marriage of a coach’s imagination in designing the routes, and the skill of players in executing the concept. The system empowered skill position players to shine in an era in which teams were still positioning their players like British colonial infantrymen—lined up in a row and sacrificed by proximity.
His ingenuity and competitive focus were the hallmarks of a coaching career that made Coryell the only man to win one hundred games in both the NCAA and the NFL. The College Football Hall of Fame inducted Coryell in 1999, but for some reason the NFL dithered.
When he was coaching Coryell could become so fixated on an upcoming game—so obsessed with a detail that might deliver an edge— that he sometimes wouldn’t recognize you in the hallway. He would drive to work with bags of garbage that his wife Aliisa had asked him to deposit at the bottom of their driveway; never stopping the car, his mind kindling with X’s and O’s.
During the season he could become so single-minded strategizing that he would forget that his young daughter was in the backseat of the car and needed to be dropped off at school. Watch John Madden tell stories about Don’s “genius powers of concentration” from the remembrance ceremony San Diego State held.
After being named a finalist seven times the HOF Selection Committee must have been paying a peculiar homage to Coryell’s “genius” by forgetting him in the waiting room for all these years.
What other explanation is there? Ignoring the legacy of Air Coryell on the game itself is as indefensible as a pass from Dan Fouts to Kellen Winslow.
Football purists of the day scoffed at the pass-first attacks that the Coryell’s clubs had cultured; pointing to the calendar with the adage that a running game and defense are what win championships as the temperatures fall.
“You have to do what you believe in, what you can do best. We go into every game thinking that if we think we can run the ball, then we’ll run it. But if we don’t think we can
consistently move the ball on the ground, then we’ll throw. And if we have to throw the ball on every down because we know we can’t run it, then we’ll throw the ball on every down.” -Don Coryell
You can practically picture Marty McFly calling plays from a sky box—mashing the passing icons on his console, again and again. Finally an owner breaks down the door, wrestles the coaching headset from him. An embarrassed grin belays the time-traveler’s self-assurance.
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. . . . But your kids are going to love it.”
If football’s orthodoxy held that running the ball and playing defense was the one true path towards winning then Don Coryell’s agnosticism should be remembered as the moment Martin Luther nailed his 95 articles of reform to the door of the church. Though hardly a perfect metaphor—Coryell never won an NFL championship and scholars doubt that Luther ever nailed anything to anyone’s door—the history of the game is full of apocryphal opinions.
In the newly formed American Football League, coach Sid Gillman was molding the ostentatious Chargers. His passing game brought fame to Lance Alworth, John Hadl and a championship season in 1963. As a rival league, the AFL seemed to announce itself overnight behind Gillman’s professionalism and ambition.
Coryell was named the San Diego State Aztecs’ new head coach on January 11,1961; the same year that the Chargers moved south from Los Angeles. This era would become the closest thing to Camelot San Diegans have ever had.
Scouring the state for junior college transfers and the best available students who hadn’t committed to USC or UCLA Coryell quickly transformed the Aztecs into winners.
Though it has been forgotten, Coryell’s coaching philosophy was not something he invented overnight. Allow me to debunk the myth that he was diagramming pass plays on paper napkins in the womb by pointing out that he is also one of the coaches who popularized the I-Formation; installing it at USC in 1960 as an offensive assistant where it would become the dominant scheme for decades.
If Don was married philosophically to anything it was winning. Losing ate at his psyche, so over the years he designed an offense that incorporated technical simplicity with downfield passes built into almost every play.
Pass routes were numbered 1 to 9 and the quarterback was instructed to read the options from deep to short. Coryell’s numbering system became foundational and is still a standardized format teams install to this day.
It was innovation born out of necessity. San Diego State mitigated the talent deficit by taking to the skies.
“I discovered that it was easier to teach people to score than to play defense when completely outclassed.” -Don Coryell
Coryell built the Aztecs into a powerhouse in the 1960s, at times SDSU’s attendance outpaced the Chargers.
At San Diego State, Coryell had three unbeaten seasons: 11-0 in 1966, 9-0-1 in 1968 and 11-0 in 1969. His teams won 25 consecutive games during a period from 1965-1967, and after that streak ended, Coryell coached the Aztecs to another 31 games winning streak.
As the architect of his trademark aerial attack, Coryell spent 12 years at SDSU where his teams went 104-19-2. His remarkable success led Gillman to remark, “He is a coach with a pro’s knowledge using it against college coaches. They can’t cope with him.”
Critics would claim that Coryell borrowed his concepts from Gillman, but the two men hardly ever crossed paths and, somewhat ironically, the Aztecs were the bigger draw in town. San Diego Stadium (later renamed Jack Murphy Stadium and eventually Qualcomm Stadium) was built as much to accommodate the Aztecs as the Chargers.
Gilman once coached against Coryell in an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Rams and Coryell’s Fort Ord Warriors in 1956. Coryell had the only unbeaten service team in the nation at Fort Ord and won the service football championship before moving on to jobs at Whittier College and USC. The Warriors out gained the Rams in the second half and after cutting their two touchdown lead in half Coryell opted to try an onside kick.
“What’s that guy trying to do, win the game?” Gillman was quoted as saying to the Rams sideline.
In 1969, the Aztecs led the NCAA in total offense (532.2 yards per game), passing (374.2 yards per game), and scoring (46.4 points per game). With high-arcing spirals overhead, both the Aztecs under Coryell, and the Chargers under Gillman, were now pushing the envelope of possibility
The consummate professional—whether he was teaching high schoolers in Honolulu, or soldiers at Fort Ord—it now seems a fait acompli that Coryell would wind up coaching them.
“Our coach, Don Coryell, believes in moving the football, but most coaches are conservatives. But if we keep winning, you’ll see a shift toward offensive football. Success breeds imitators.”
Conrad Dobler, an offensive guard for Saint Louis, told Sports Illustrated in 1974. The quote was from an article about how a statistician and his computer determined that scoring more points is actually more important than not being scored upon.
The Saint Louis Cardinals were mired in losing before Coryell arrived and turned them around. Twenty-five consecutive seasons of playoff drought preceded the Cardinals teams that won back-to-back division titles and reached the playoffs in Coryell’s first three seasons.
The dedicated, enthusiastic Coryell had no plans of changing his techniques in the professional ranks. “We want to become a winning football team, and one obvious key to doing this will be becoming more offensive,” said Coryell. “Defense is very important in this league, but I also believe in scoring. We want to attack the defense and throw the football.”
But when the Cardinals ended 1977 on a four game losing streak owner Bill Bidwill took umbrage at comments Coryell had made about the organization’s commitment to winning. Bidwell changed the locks on the Cardinals doors after Coryell told members of his staff that they could interview for jobs—even though assistants were only on year-to-year contracts back then.
“I’m not staying in a place I’m not wanted,” said Coryell after the late season collapse. “I’d like to be fired. Let me have a high school job.”
Bidwill sent Coryell packing but salvaged some of his pride by keeping him under contract which kept him from coaching another club without receiving compensation.
In San Diego the fans and media had been monitoring the high-profile breakup closer than Sonny and Cher’s, and HIRE DON CORYELL bumper stickers were printed in the absence of Twitter. The community could already vouch for the man’s integrity, acumen, and resume.
When coach Tommy Prothro resigned after Week 4 of the 1978 season, Chargers owner Gene Klein picked up the phone and called the hottest candidate on the market. Fortunately for Klein, no flights would need to be booked to arrange an interview—he already lived in San Diego!
Coryell took the field in San Diego as the head coach of the Chargers to an ovation fitting for the Rolling Stones—though Don would act unaware when asked about it after the game. “Oh. I didn’t hear it,” said Coryell. “I was thinking about the game.”
The timing couldn’t have been better without the aid of a Delorean. In 1977, the NFL restricted the bump-and-run, limiting the defensive backs to one chuck. Pass blocking linemen were permitted to open their hands and extend their arms.
The coach inherited a sixth-year quarterback from Oregon named Dan Fouts who threw the ball with incredible anticipation and a rookie receiver from Arizona State named John Jefferson.*
Looking back you can’t help but wonder if the coach was ahead of his time or exactly on it.
Drafted in 1973, Dan Fouts’ career did not take flight until Don Coryell’s passing schemes arrived in 1978.
The Chargers had missed the playoffs 13 consecutive seasons. Sid Gillman’s early success in the AFL eventually ran out and was gone by 1971. Coryell took them to the playoffs in each of his first four full seasons on the job, winning three AFC West division titles along the way. The team advanced to the eve of the Super Bowl twice in 1980 and 1981.
Under Coryell, the Chargers became the most prolific passing team of their era. The Cleveland Browns, who finished second to San Diego in passing yards in 1980 were more than six hundred yards behind the league leading Chargers (4,132).
“We’re only doing what we do because of Dan,” said Coryell, “he has such a flexible mind. He doesn’t have all the qualities you’d want in an ideal quarterback. He’s not a runner. He’s a fine athlete, but he doesn’t have the speed. But he is very, very intelligent. He is extremely competitive, and tough mentally.”
Watching the game back then—on tiny picture tubes in low resolution—even the most seasoned members of the media struggled to explain how Air Coryell worked. At the time, few other coaches understood it and even fewer dared to emulate it.
An envious owner could tell his coaching staff to pass the ball more often for the sake of entertainment, but excitement, and winning football games do not always go hand in hand. Particularly in 1980.
Without the aid of an end zone camera to capture the All-22 perspective, and the necessary translation from a Chargers staffer to explain what you were looking at you might as well be interpreting Celtic runes.
“We have the best passing attack.” Fouts told Sport magazine in the summer of 1986. “We look deep first on every play. Every pass has one guy going for it all. It’s my job to find him when the defense doesn’t. The bomb forces the defense to play the entire field. The length, as well as the width.”
All you saw from your living room was Fouts back-peddling away from the center; the ball leaving his fingertips; and the Chargers receiver gathering the pass in—typically within a maelstrom of defenders. It was alchemy. It was stupefying. It might even have been misinterpreted as magical.
“I think the most exciting thing is watching Fouts take a real quick drop and suddenly fire on his fifth step, right toward an area where there are several converging defenders,” said Ernie Zampese, an offensive coach on Coryell’s staff. “Just when you think he’s forced it into a bad spot, a hole will open and one of our receivers will be right in the middle, pulling in the pass. ‘That’s the result of a well-timed route, but it works only because Fouts has the supreme confidence to read those defenses and drill it in there.”
Coach Coryell’s system tasked the quarterback to read the defense from the deepest routes first down to the intermediate and outlets (checkdowns) last.
“In San Diego, the coaches allowed us the freedom to change those routes, depending on the coverage. Dan pretty much knew when we were going to break those routes and when to release the ball. Sure enough, we’d be there. This made it difficult for defenses to shut us down. They might have the proper coverage to stop that first route, but when we changed it, we had them beat.”
-Receiver John Jefferson
Receiver John Jefferson, and later Wes Chandler ran routes 25 to 30 yards deep designed specifically to create space for Charlie Joiner, crossing only 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. It is this symbiotic networking, a concert of free-form artistry, that became the most wondrous sight in pro football.
“I discovered that it was easier to teach people to score than to play defense when completely outclassed.” Said Coryell.
Conceptually, Air Coryell was initially misunderstood as no other pro club gave the players the responsibility to read the defensive coverage and change their routes. The very notion bordered on the heretical; coaches hate imprecision. Allowing players to make decisions for themselves was a radical innovation that offended the control freaks who pulled the levers and pressed the buttons on their mechanical little armies.
Traditional offenses applied physical science through repetition, discipline, and synchronization. The futuristic Coryell scheme invited too much chaos, confusion, and instability to be copied and pasted into a league that shamelessly steals intellectual property to this day.
All those coaches and general managers could see was risk, and they hated risk more than they hated media availability.
One week after winning the endurance contest in Miami in 1982 the Chargers traveled to Cincinnati for the AFC Championship Game and lost as much to the frigid weather as they did to the Bengals. The game, won by the Bengals, 27–7, was played in the coldest temperature in NFL history (-59 degrees Fahrenheit).
On the doorstep of excellence the Chargers struggled to get any closer to a Super Bowl from there. You name it, and the game took it from these Chargers. Injuries. Aged veterans. Unsigned draft picks. Turnover luck. Botched trades. Players with drug problems. Conflicts over contract renegotiations with star players.
Fouts maintained confidence in Coryell as his coach. “I’ve heard the rumors, ” said Fouts. “I just don’t think the owner would do it (fire Coryell), though. I just don’t think he could find a better coach than Don Coryell.”
Alex Spanos, who bought the Chargers in 1984, said he wanted a winning season in 1985 and that when Super Bowl XXII was to be played in San Diego in three years, his Chargers would be in it. The team went 8-8 in 1985. Coryell survived but was devastated when Spanos fired defensive coordinator Tom Bass without telling him first.
When told of the news Coryell closed the door of his office and cried.
The pressure to win now would only mount from there. Every loss only fed more into the rumors.
Don’s dignity—an attribute with which, until recently, he had never been unreasonably taxed—would not permit him to admit that he had overstayed his welcome. He resigned on October 29, 1986 days removed from a seventh straight loss.**
When Don retired his career’s arc was more aptly compared to the wax wings of Icarus than to the chalkboard regimentation of Lombardi.
But then something happened. Time, as the arbiter of success, was kinder to Coryell’s legacy—even if the Hall of Fame induction committee was not.
Coryell’s coaching tree started to win championships. Joe Gibbs and John Madden, who coached under Don at SDSU, won four Super Bowls combined . Ernie Zampese, a longtime Chargers assistant, took Don’s scheme to the Rams in the late eighties, taught it to Norv Turner, and between them called plays for three championship Dallas Cowboys teams in the nineties.
Even an Air Coryell fanboy who never played or coached for Don credits him as the godfather of the Greatest Show on Turf. Mike Martz was a junior college tight end playing for Mesa in San Diego during Coryell’s Aztec days who idolized their brazen style of play. When Kurt Warner took a blowtorch to awestruck NFL defenses in 1999; a season that culminated in a Super Bowl parade for the Saint Louis Rams, who do you think was calling plays? Mike Martz.
Like Coryell, he held no fear of passing the ball, and he’d do it regardless of the down and distance. Sort of like the way the games are played today. A fact the Hall of Fame might have recognized sooner if they had access to a time machine.
*Around San Diego, Jefferson was nicknamed The Jefferson Airplane (a popular rock band of the time) because of his leaping ability and the way he bested defensive backs, and gravity, on his way to 3,431 yards receiving and 36 touchdowns in his first three seasons. Growing up in Texas John went by his father’s surname Washington, but at Arizona State he changed it to Jefferson, his original name. The re-branding from Washington to Jefferson, prompted one NFL scout to ask humorously, “Why did you skip Adams?”
**Years later he admitted to being fired by Alex Spanos, but kept quiet on the subject in the interest of the team. “He’s not a quitter,” said Al Saunders, the 39-year old assistant who was tapped by Alex Spanos to replace Coryell. “The word quit is not even in Don’s vocabulary. I can’t imagine him perceiving this in that way. In his mind, his resigning had to be not quitting, but something that needed to be done for this team.”