PHOTO: Don Coryell’s innovative style was a copied at a time the league needed a runway to a safer game.
By TOM SHANAHAN
Don Coryell’s enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 5 in Canton, Ohio, celebrates his prolific “Air Coryell” passing game, but his legacy extends beyond his offensive genius. His style transformed the game at a time critical to the sport’s lifeline.
As Air Coryell took flight in the 1970s and 1980s, the game’s future was clouded by new research on concussions and other catastrophic injuries. The evidence against the dangers of football mounted in the 1990s. Moms, not to mention some former players such as Pro Football Hall of Famer Harry Carson, steered their kids away from football.
Growing public awareness forced the stodgy NFL to eventually respond, and Air Coryell provided a blueprint to the future. His innovative style helped football adapt into becoming a safer game at the pro, college and high school levels. The sport shifted away from ground-and-pound running attacks to the throwing the ball long and short.
Quarterbacks were protected by in-the-grasp tackling rules. Quarterbacks and receiver emerged as the faces of franchises, although an unintended consequence was running backs eventually declined in value.
The result was the NFL prospered rather than following boxing’s popularity demise. The league never has been more profitable as Coryell enters the Hall on August 5 in Canton, Ohio. The same is true of college football, and it’s no coincidence Coryell has been a College Football Hall of Famer since 1999. Coryell joined an elite club as one of only four coaches in the College and Pro Halls along with Sid Gillman, Jimmy Johnson and Earle “Greasy” Neale.
The aspect of Coryell saving the league and sport may not come up at the induction ceremonies, and that’s OK. A safer game centered on throwing the ball was a byproduct of Coryell’s mad genius. He just wanted the game to be fun for his players and fans. Serendipity was safer football and throwing the ball.
Coryell had a quirky personality, but he also possessed a special ability to connect with his athletes. He genius was more than game plans. Coryell was a master at quickly winning over players and turning around losing teams. He didn’t need five-year plans and roster turnover.
Coryell did it at San Diego State in 1961, in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973 and as the newly named coach five games into the San Diego Chargers’ 1978 season.
“I think it took us about two seconds (to accept him),” said Dan Fouts, recalling the 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.
A coach gaining a team’s trust is a universal necessity, although often overlooked. It’s examined in the eponymous hit TV show “Ted Lasso” with insightful writers and producers leaning on that dynamic in frequent episodes.
Well, “Don Coryell Way” worked for his teams, too.
“Success, down after down,” Fouts said of the early confidence. “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 Chargers’ transformation was seemingly overnight.
Four games into 1978, the Chargers were a disappointing 1-3 following a 24-3 loss at home to the Green Bay Packers. The next day Tommy Prothro resigned. He met with the team and left the room. Then, Coryell entered to meet his new players.
“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 San Diego State days, 1961-72, pre-dated most of the Chargers’ 1978 rosters – Fouts was a 1973 draft pick – but his specter was evident from the Aztecs and Chargers sharing the same field, San Diego Stadium. Fouts joked about SDSU’s bigger crowds under Coryell and successor Claude Gilbert, saying the only Chargers fans on Sunday afternoon were the ones who stayed overnight from the Aztecs’ Saturday evening game.
“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.
In the next four seasons – three straight AFC West titles, 1979-80-81, 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.
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 record and impact developing passing games, Coryell’s 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 the San Francisco 49ers and Paul Brown, another Hall of Famer.
Fouts 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 cleaned out a desk drawer at his Oregon home when he came across a forgotten letter. Walsh had sent it to Coryell in 1995 and included a copy for Fouts. Walsh, who died in 2007, was close with Fouts from Walsh’s time as the Chargers’ 1976 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 Paul Brown in Cincinnati, 1968-75. Now, who had reason not to vote for Coryell?
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
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055.
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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Click here to purchase Raye of Light.
RAYE OF LIGHT
Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans
Foreword by Tony Dungy