PHOTO: Don Coryell and Dan Fouts on the Chargers’ sideline.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
Football game plans decide matchups, but football seasons are won or lost when a coach meets his new team.
Don Coryell was a master at quickly winning over the players he inherited en route to turning around a deflated program. With his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement on August 5 in Canton, Ohio, his innate ability has added Pro Hall membership to his 1999 residence in the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I think it took us about two seconds (to accept him),” said Dan Fouts, recalling the San Diego Chargers’ first team meeting with Coryell, September 25, 1978. “Seriously. He was such a breath of fresh air.”
Air Coryell was about to take flight, and it was no surprise to San Diegans. He remains the only coach to win 100 games in both college (126-24-3, San Diego State and Whittier) and the NFL (114-89-1, Chargers and Cardinals). The only other coaches in both the College and Pro Halls are Sid Gillman, Earle “Greasy” Neale and Jimmy Johnson.
In 1961 at San Diego State, Coryell finished 7-2-1 after taking over a 1-6-1 team. With the St. Louis Cardinals he inherited a 4-9-1 roster yet by his second year won the 1974 NFC East (10-4) over the Dallas Cowboys, winners of the division seven of the eight previous years. In 1978 with the Chargers, Coryell took over a 1-3 franchise seeking its first winning season since 1969. San Diego went 8-4 to finish the year 9-7, one win out of the playoffs.
PHOTO: Don Coryell with the St. Louis Cardinals, 1973-77.
“Success, down after down,” Fouts said of the team’s early trust in Coryell. “I couldn’t wait for the next play to be called. I knew if I did my job correctly, good things would happen. It was just knowing how to prepare.
“I knew what to expect when we broke the huddle and went to the line of scrimmage. I’d put a guy in motion and know what the coverage was going to be. I’d take five to seven steps back and throw it to the right person, and he would do great things with the ball.”
“The Ted Lasso Way” has nothing on the Don Coryell Way. The insightful writers and producers of the eponymous hit TV show about a fictional soccer coach frequently leaned on the coach-player-trust dynamic in episodes. A coach gaining a team’s confidence is a universal necessity, although often overlooked.
Coryell’s initial 1978 team meeting was the morning after the Chargers suffered a 24-3 loss at home to Green Bay, a third straight defeat compounded by its embarrassing fashion. The next day Prothro resigned. He met with the team and left the room. Then, Coryell entered the same room to meet his new players.
“As a young coach, I was in awe of your offenses. I believe I learned more just watching your games than in my association with all other coaches combined.”Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh in 1995 letter to Don Coryell
“We were frustrated with the way we were playing and the way we were being led,” Fouts said. “Coryell walked in, and he said, ‘People think I’m crazy for taking this job. We’ve all got to be a little crazy to play this game.’ We all chuckled and laughed a bit.”
Coryell’s innate leadership was underscored as a chaotic football news day turned tragic in the real world. Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 and a small plane collided over the city’s North Park neighborhood, not far from the stadium. The death toll from both planes and people on the ground was 144.
The ounce of stability needed for the team to move forward under such a dark cloud was provided by Coryell’s name recognition. The Chargers understood his track record while still learning his quirky personality.
“Everybody knew about his success at San Diego State,” Fouts said, “and we had watched him with the Cardinals. We knew what he had done with Jim Hart, Jackie Smith, Mel Grey, Terry Metcalfe and Jim Otis. They were a fun team to watch.”
The Chargers were soon fun to watch, too.
The San Diegans nearly won Coryell’s debut despite traveling to New England on less than a week’s preparation. They fell in the final moments, 28-23, to a Patriots team on its way to winning the AFC East. The second game, though, the Chargers returned home and thumped defending AFC champion Denver, 23-0.
PHOTO: Don Coryell with Isaac Curtis while coaching San Diego State, 1961-72.
In the next four seasons – three straight AFC West titles and a 1982 wild-card playoff berth – the Chargers rewrote the NFL record book. Air Coryell propelled three Hall-of-Fame inductions in a four-year stretch – Fouts, 1993, tight end Kellen Winslow, 1995; and wide receiver Charlie Joiner, 1996.
Now, at last in a long overdue election, their old coach joins them with a post-humous enshrinement.
When Coryell died at age 85 in 2010, Fouts, John Madden and Joe Gibbs spoke at a memorial on the San Diego State campus. All three Hall of Famers adamantly stated a name was missing alongside them at the Canton shrine. Madden, a Coryell assistant at San Diego State, was inducted (2006) as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Gibbs, Coryell’s SDSU assistant and Chargers offensive coordinator, was enshrined (1996) as a head coach with Washington’s NFL team.
But despite Coryell’s winning records and impact developing passing games, his selection had to overcome skeptics citing his lack of a Super Bowl. Others claimed the true fathers of the NFL passing game were Bill Walsh, the Hall-of-Fame coach with the San Francisco 49ers and Paul Brown, another Hall of Famer with the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals.
Fouts’ presentations chipped away at skeptics while pitching Coryell’s case before the Hall of Fame voters. He explained Coryell’s innovations. He cited Coryell’s remarkable record of first-time Pro Bowlers with the Cardinals and Chargers – Fouts included. He won over some converts but not enough for election.
The old quarterback, though, had a last-minute, game-winning drive left in him.
Fouts, while cleaning out a desk drawer at his Oregon home, came across a forgotten letter Walsh had sent it to Coryell in 1995. Walsh, who died in 2007, also sent a copy to Fouts based on their long friendship dating to the 1976 season when Walsh was the Chargers’ offensive coordinator.
Fouts read portions of Walsh’s letter to voters at the 2023 Hall-of-Fame selection meeting:
“You have been one of the greatest coaches of your time. And I believe everyone else in coaching shares my opinion. You have been a brilliant offensive mind. You have been the most creative and innovative coach the game has seen. At St. Louis and San Diego, you revolutionized the game.
“As a young coach, I was in awe of your offenses. I believe I learned more just watching your games than in my association with all other coaches combined.”
Walsh had declared Coryell the Pope. Understand that Walsh had coached under Brown in Cincinnati, 1968-75.
Now, who had a reason to withhold their vote for Coryell?
Walsh’s weighty opinion delivered by a player with Fout’s stature to move the necessary votes.
Tom Shanahan, who covered the Air Coryell Chargers, is an author and historian on college football integration of one book, “Raye of Light,” with second book due out soon, “The Right Thing To Do.” The Football Writers Association of America awarded him first place for his story on the 1962 Rose Bowl, Alabama and segregation.
The case for Don Coryell and the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
Click here: 2020 story: Dan Fouts
Click here: 2019 story: Dan Dierdorf
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Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read a summary.
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RAYE OF LIGHT
Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans
Foreword by Tony Dungy