You are currently viewing Part II: Walsh to Coryell on Super Bowl XVI: Old Man Winter spared the 49ers

Part II: Walsh to Coryell on Super Bowl XVI: Old Man Winter spared the 49ers

PHOTO: San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell revolutionized the passing game on his way to the College Football Hall of Fame and now the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

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Click here: Coryell’s influence on first-time Cardinals and Chargers Pro Bowlers

Click here: Part I: Air Coryell’s flight to Pro Fooball Hall of Fame began with simple team meeting on a day that turned tragic

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Bill Walsh sat slumped in folding chair against a sparse concrete-block wall in San Diego Stadium’s visitors’ locker room. It was 1979, the fifth game of Walsh’s first season coaching the woeful San Francisco 49ers.

Air Coryell’s Chargers ran – and passed — circles around Walsh’s team, 31-9.

After a moment, Walsh lifted his head from the weight of his rebuilding task. He stared wistfully ahead and said to no one in particular:

“That’s the kind of team I want.”

Just two seasons later he had that “kind of team” with an electrifying passing attack.

Walsh hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 in Super Bowl XVI at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Walsh was on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the media branded him a father of the modern passing game.

Walsh, though, privately was thankful he didn’t face the Chargers of coach Don Coryell. Those were his thoughts revealed to Don Coryell in a 1995 letter sent to the Chargers’ coach and copied to Air Coryell’s pilot, Dan Fouts.

“Your teams had style and flair,” Walsh wrote. “They had personality – and it was you who inspired them. They shouldn’t have played that championship game in Cincinnati. Under any other circumstances, you would have won easily. And – I’m afraid you would have killed us in the Super Bowl.”

In the 1981 season, the Chargers were victims of the Freezer Bowl, losing the AFC Championship game to the Bengals on January 10, 1982. The temperature dipped overnight to minus nine degrees and 59-windchill at Riverfront Stadium. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle ruled the game was to be played as scheduled.

If events had played out the way Walsh viewed the 1981 playoffs, Coryell likely would have been enshrined in his lifetime in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His lack of a Super Bowl was held against him by voters.

But at long last, Coryell’s post-humous induction has arrived with a hallowed endorsement from Walsh on August 5 in Canton, Ohio.

Walsh, who died in 2007, shared the 1995 letter with Fouts based on their long friendship. For the vote selecting the 2023 Hall of Fame class, Fouts shared Walsh’s words. Many voters switched their ballot from previous years and elected Coryell.

In addition to the letter, there was synchronicity with Coryell’s election that includes a winding road of fate connecting Cincinnati, San Diego and Canton. The road was traveled by Charlie Joiner alongside Walsh, Fouts and Coryell.

In 1976, Walsh left Cincinnati to join the Chargers’ staff as offensive coordinator and work with a young Dan Fouts. Walsh had coached Joiner in Cincinnati, and the Chargers traded troublesome defensive lineman Coy Bacon to the Bengals for Joiner, a veteran wide receiver considered by his peers the ultimate pro.

Walsh used Joiner, a precise route runner, as a weakside receiver, and Fouts learned Joiner’s reliability, particularly on third down. Although Walsh moved on in 1977 as Stanford’s head coach, when Coryell took over the Chargers five games into 1978, he met with Fouts. As they discussed the offense, Fouts cited Joiner’s value as a weakside receiver.

Fouts said Coryell replied, “‘OK, we’re going to incorporate that into my offense.’ Now, we had all the elements of the weakside passing game and Coryell’s downfield passing game.”

Joiner, it turned out, was launched on a path the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a 1996 inductee. The enshrinement might have escaped Joiner’s fate without Coryell’s influence. Joiner retired as the NFL’s all-time leading receiver with 750 catches while helping San Diego to three straight AFC West titles, 1979, 1980, 1981, and a wild-card playoff berth in 1982.

Other Chargers transformed under Coryell included rookie receiver John Jefferson, a 1978 first-round draft pick. Jefferson caught 10 of his 13 touchdown passes in the final 12 games under Coryell. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, August 20, 1979, with the headline: THE TOUCHDOWN MAN.

Offensive guard Ed White’s was another key that developed under Coryell. The Chargers had acquired White at the start of the 1978 season in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings. White was a Pro Bowler, so the Chargers moved Donnie Macek from guard to center.

“Donnie’s move solidified us,” Fouts said. “A lot of our stuff was short drops, which required stout guys blocking up front. With Big Ed and Donnie, we were really good.”

The Chargers added Winslow, another future Pro Football Hall of Famer (1995), as a first-round draft pick in 1979. Although a contract dispute led the Chargers to trade Jefferson to Green Bay before the 1981 season, the Chargers acquired Wes Chandler to pick up where Jefferson left off. It’s not hard to argue if Jefferson or Chandler had played their full career under Coryell they would be in the Hall, too.

Coryell’s influence on future Hall of Famers can be traced to his remarkable record of developing first time Pro Bowlers in his years with the Cardinals (Dan Dierdorf) as well as the three Air Coryell Chargers.

Coryell, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999, is one of only four coaches in both the College and Pro Halls along with Sid Gillman, Earle “Greasy” Neale and Jimmy Johnson. Coryell remains the only coach to win 100 games in both college (126-24-3, San Diego State, Whittier) and the NFL (114-89-1, Cardinals, Chargers).

Walsh, if not others outside San Diego, understood Coryell’s influence on talent and the game as far back as 1979.


Tom Shanahan, who covered the Air Coryell Chargers, including The Freezer Bowl, is an author and historian on college football integration of one book, Raye of Light, and second 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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Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

Foreword by Tony Dungy

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