Thursday, October 1, 2009

Don Coryell


Don Coryell
Head Coach
Saint Louis Cardinals
San Diego Chargers
1973 - 1986
14 Seasons
111 Wins
First Coach With 100 Wins In Pro And College Football
Only Coach To Lead NFL In Passing 6 Straight Years
5 Division Titles





Donald David Coryell played college football at the University of Washington from 1949 to 1951 as a defensive back. He then went into coaching, and became a head coach at Whittier College in 1957, succeeding George Allen, who became a NFL Hall Of Fame coach.

He spent three years as the head coach of the Poets. While there, he led the team to win the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title in each of his three seasons. He had a record of 21 - 5 - 1 and is a member of the school's Hall Of Fame.

Coryell left Whittier after the 1959 season and was not a head coach in 1960. He then became the head coach of San Diego State in 1961, where his teams would make a significant impact on the college football universe.

Coryell stayed with San Diego State for 12 seasons until 1972. In his 125 games there, the Aztecs won 104 of them. Attendance jumped from 8,000 spectators per game to over 41,000 per game during his tenure.

Three of his teams finished their seasons undefeated, and seven of them won both the California Collegiate Athletic Conference and later the Pacific Coast Athletic Association title.

His offensive genius also garnered nationwide attention while at San Diego State. His 1969 team led the NCAA in total offense (532.2 yards per game), passing (374.2 yards per game), and scoring (46.4 points per game) in their undefeated season.

He also showed his innate ability to develop players, especially on offense. He had 54 players go to the NFL from his teams, including five players drafted in the first round. Nine of his players were First Team All-Americans. In 1967, he had eight players drafted, and five went in the first two rounds.

The list of players he coached with the Aztecs included Haven Moses, Dennis Shaw, Brian Sipe, Willie Buchanon, Isaac Curtis, Don Horn, Fred Dryer, Joe Lavender, Don Shy, Claudie Minor, Tom Reynolds, Gary Garrison, Ralph Wenzel, Henry Allison, and noted actor Carl Weathers known best as Apollo Creed in the movie "Rocky". Dryer also became an actor after his NFL career, starring in the television series "Hunter".

Shaw led the NCAA in total offense in 1969, and would go on to become the first quarterback to win the NFL Offensive Rookie Of The Year Award in 1970. Only three other quarterbacks have won that award since.

Buchanon won the 1972 NFL Defensive Rookie Of The Year Award and is a member of the Green Bay Packers Hall Of Fame and their All-Time Team.

Sipe led the NCAA in passing in 1971, while Reynolds led the NCAA in receiving. Sipe's successor was Jesse Freitas, who was also recruited by Coryell. Freitas would lead the NCAA in passing in 1973. Sipe would later be named the MVP of the NFL in 1980.

The Coryell coaching tree from his Aztec era is very impressive as well.

Joe Gibbs was a player on Coryell's team at first and won the team's Most Inspirational Player Award in 1963. Gibbs later became a graduate assistant, then assistant coach at San Diego State.

He also was an assistant under Coryell with both the Cardinals and Chargers before becoming head coach of the Washington Redskins. Gibbs is a member of the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.

Another Pro Football Hall Of Fame coach who coached under Coryell at San Diego State was John Madden. Madden would join the Oakland Raiders in 1967, and then become the youngest head coach of the league the next season at 32 years old.

After a very successful stint with the Raiders, Madden became a popular NFL analyst on television and video game mogul.

Joe Gibbs' coaching career was almost cut short by Madden.

Gibbs was working under Madden, who was the defensive coordinator for Coryell. There was an annual spring football game approaching, and Coryell had Gibbs coach the team that would face Madden's team in the game.

Madden approached Gibbs and asked him what plays would be run, so Madden could prepare his team. Gibbs refused to disclose the plays, so Madden asked Coryell to mediate the situation.

Coryell told both Gibbs and Madden to treat it as real game, without the disclosure of plays to either side.

Gibbs team won that game. As the final gun sounded, both young coaches met at mid-field to shake hands. Madden fired Gibbs right there on the spot instead. Seeing a distraught Gibbs, Coryell then brought him over to the offensive side of the coaching staff.

The rest truly is history.

Jim Hanifan, Ernie Zampese, and Rod Dowhower also coached under Coryell at San Diego State.

Zampese was a noted offensive genius who was the offensive coordinator on the 1995 World Champion Dallas Cowboys team, and is a mentor to current San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner and former head coach and offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

Dowhower went on to succeed Pro Football Hall Of Fame coach Bill Walsh as head coach at Stanford University in 1979. He later became the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts from 1985 to 1986.

He was successful as an offensive coordinator with several teams in the NFL, including two consecutive NFC Championship appearances with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2000 and 2001.

Hanifan was a head coach with both the Saint Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons. He was also a top assistant coach for many years, and won the NFL's Assistant Coach of the Year Award in 1977.

He was one of the best offensive line coaches to ever roam a sideline, and helped develop countless All-Pro's. He helped coach the Washington Redskins to a World Championship in 1992, and later the Saint Louis Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999.

Coryell's teams went to three bowl games in his tenure with San Diego State. His 104 victories and .840 winning percentage are the best in school history, and he is a member of the College Football Hall Of Fame, the San Diego Hall of Champions, the University of Washington Husky Hall Of Fame, and San Diego State Aztec's Hall Of Fame.

The Saint Louis Cardinals were coming off a horrid year in 1972 that saw them score just 22 touchdowns, have 68 rushing first downs, and 2,038 passing yards. They were the third worst scoring team in the NFL.

A change was needed, so they hired Coryell to be their head coach for the 1973 season.

Coryell matched the previous seasons record of 4-9-1 that year, but improved the team's scoring to eleventh overall in the league. It became evident that the Cardinals were improved under Coryell's leadership, and that was highlighted even more the following year.

The Cardinals finished the 1974 season with a record of 10-4, which was good enough to capture the NFC East crown. It was the team's first divisional title since 1948.

Though the Cardinals lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Minnesota Vikings, they sent five players to the Pro Bowl. Four of those players came from the offense.

The Cardinal improved on that the next year and went 11-3. They won the NFC East again, and are the one of only two Cardinals teams to win two consecutive division titles.

The 1947 and 1948 Chicago Cardinals team is the other, and the 1947 team is the franchise's lone squad that earned a NFL Championship win.

The 1925 team was handed the championship by the league, due to a controversy with the Pottsville Maroons, but did not publicly claim to be that seasons champion until 1933.

Nine Cardinals went to the Pro Bowl in that 1975 season, the most in franchise history. Seven of them were offensive players. The team lost in the first round of the playoffs again, this time to the Los Angeles Rams.

Coryell's 1976 team sent seven players, five on offense, to the Pro Bowl. The team finished 10-4, which was good enough for second place in the NFC East, but not enough to reach the playoffs.

The Cardinals stumbled to 7-7, yet still sent seven players to the Pro Bowl. Six of the players played on the offense. It was not deemed good enough by the Cardinals ownership, so they fired Coryell.

Don Coryell's 42 wins are the most by any coach in the Cardinals franchise's history, and his five years as head coach with the team is the second most ever.

The San Diego Chargers started their 1978 season with one win in four games under head coach Tommy Protho. Not happy with these results, the Chargers then fired Protho and replaced him with Coryell.

The team went 8-4 under him the rest of the way, including winning seven of their last eight games.

This was when "Air Coryell" was born as a common term, though Coryell's years in Saint Louis also featured high-powered offenses running under much of the same schemes used in San Diego.

The team improved to lead the NFL with a 12-4 record the next year, the most wins in Coryell's career, as seven Chargers went to the Pro Bowl. Five of them were offensive players.

They would would win the AFC West, their first divisional title since 1965, but ultimately lose in the first round to the Houston Oilers.

The Chargers would win the AFC West four straight years, the only time in franchise history that has been accomplished.

The 1980 Chargers went 11-5, but lost in the AFC Championship Game to the eventual champion Oakland Raiders by seven points. This team sent eight players to the Pro Bowl, including five on offense. It was also the first team in NFL history to have three receivers gain over 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.

The Chargers went 10-6 the next year, and also led the league in scoring. Five players went to the Pro Bowl, four of which played offense.

They then played perhaps the greatest playoff game in NFL history against the Miami Dolphins in the first round.

The game ended up being a 41-38 overtime victory for San Diego, but it was much more than just that. It was named "The Epic In Miami", which was played in very humid weather reaching 29.4° Celsius.

Both teams smashed into each other all game, trading scores. Both teams combined to gain 1,036 yards that day, including 856 passing yards and 804 net passing yards. All are NFL records for a playoff game, as are the 79 total points.

There were seven turnovers, a special teams touchdown, and five different receivers gained over 100 yards on receptions that day.

Hall Of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow was the hero for the Chargers on that day.

Despite being stricken with dehydration, cramps, a pinched nerve in his shoulder, and needing stitches for a cut to his bottom lip, Winslow blocked a game-winning field goal attempt at the end of regulation. He also caught a NFL Playoffs record 13 balls that day.

The Chargers then stumbled into Cincinnati to play the Bengals. On a day where freezing weather easily was below -57° Celsius, thanks to winds of 27 miles per hour, it was dubbed the "Freezer Bowl". The Bengals, led by 1981 NFL MVP Ken Anderson, won handily 27-7.

The 1982 season is known as the strike shortened year of the NFL. San Diego finished second in their division with a 6-3 record. Six players, including five on offense, went to the Pro Bowl. The Dolphins got revenge on the Chargers by beating them in the second round of the playoffs.

That year saw Hall Of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and wide receiver Wes Chandler set NFL records that still stand today.

Fouts averaged 320 yards passing per game, and Chandler averaged 129 receiving yards per game.

The Chargers also paid back the Bengals for their loss the year before by gaining a team record 661 yards in their 50-34 victory over Cincinnati in week seven.

The next three years saw an aging Chargers team win 21 games. Though the team was still extremely explosive on offense, the defense would let them down.

A big part of that factor was an ownership that refused to pay their players well, which led to the departure of many key players. Hall Of Fame defensive end Fred Dean noted that his brother, a truck driver, was making much more cash than he was.

After the Chargers began the 1986 season at 1-7, Coryell was fired and replaced by protege Al Saunders. Saunders would be replaced in 1991 by Coryell disciple Dan Henning.

Coryell's 69 wins are the second most in Chargers history behind Hall Of Fame coach Sid Gillman, and his nine seasons with the team are also the second most behind Gillman.

Don Coryell then retired from coaching, at the age of 62 years old, with 111 wins in 195 games overall. He is the first Coach With 100 Wins In pro And college football.

To try and sum up this man's career or impact on football is nearly impossible. Virtually every offense today on all levels is a variation of his system.

Bill Walsh and Coryell also have several ties in football. Walsh used to rely on Isaac Curtis, a player Coryell coached in college, while Walsh was an assistant coach with the Bengals.

He also coached under Protho for one year with the Chargers, the man Coryell would replace as head coach.

While Walsh is credited with the "West Coast Offense", he started out as a student of Hall Of Fame coaches Sid Gillman, Al Davis, and Paul Brown's downfield passing philosophies.

It was Coryell who really started this offense, and refined it as each year passed during his coaching career.

Coryell turned around every team he coached from college to the pros immediately. Though most remember his days in San Diego, his time in Saint Louis also must be hailed.

He took a perennial loser, and made them a serious contender in an NFC East that was mostly dominated by the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins throughout the 1970's. He made quarterback Jim Hart a much better player and surrounded Hart with many weapons.

Wide receivers Mel Gray and Pat Tilley were wide receivers who excelled along with Hall Of Fame tight end Jackie Smith in Coryell's system. Gray holds a franchise record for having at least one catch in 121 consecutive games, and is tenth in franchise history with 351 receptions.

He is fourth in Cardinals history with 45 touchdown receptions, fifth in receiving yards, and averaged an outstanding 18.9 yards per reception.

Smith is still second in career receiving yards with the team, fifth in receptions and touchdowns, and averaged an excellent 16.5 yards per catch. Tilley was a fourth-round find by Coryell in 1976, and ended up sixth in career receptions with the Cardinals, and third in receiving yards.

One other thing Coryell brought to the NFL was the use of the multi-purpose running back. Terry Metcalf was his first of many backs who did everything well.

Metcalf led the NFL in total yards with 2,462 yards, which is still the best in team history. Metcalf is currently ranked fourth in total yards in Cardinals history.

Coryell also resurrected the career of fullback Jim Otis. Otis joined the Cardinals in Coryell's first season after spending his first three years as a back up with the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs.

Coryell turned Otis into a Pro Bowl player in 1975, after gaining a career best 1,076 rushing yards.

Factor in such other weapons like Ike Harris, J.V. Cain, Wayne Morris, Steve Jones, Donny Anderson, Ahmad Rashad, and Earl Thomas, and one can see all the fantastic players Coryell used to make Saint Louis a winner.

He also worked with Hanifan in making the Cardinals perhaps the best offensive line in the league during Coryell's tenure. The line consisted of Hall Of Fame tackle Dan Dierdorf and Pro Bowl players like Tom Banks, Conrad Dobler, Ernie McMillan, and Bob Young most of the time.

They gave up just 55 sacks from 1974 to 1977, including only eight in 1975. This was the fewest allowed in NFL history, until it was surpassed by the Miami Dolphins in 1988 by one.

Though the Cardinals were an explosive offense, their defense let them down. This would be a theme throughout most of Coryell's coaching career in the NFL.

In his 14 seasons as a coach, his offenses led the NFL in net yards gained per passing attempt five times. They finished in the top five of the NFL six more times.

His teams led the NFL in passing yards seven times, and none of his teams finished lower than seventh. They led the NFL in passing touchdowns three times, and finished in the top ten nine other times.

His teams led the league in passing attempts two times, finished second five times, and was in the top ten another five times.

But Coryell also ran a balanced attack where the run was important. Twice his teams led the NFL in rushing touchdowns, and they finished in the top ten eight more times.

His teams finished in the top five in yards per carry three times, twice in the top ten in rushing attempts and yards.

His teams led the NFL in total offense yards five times, and in the top ten another six times. Twice his teams led the NFL in yardage differential, which is the number of yards they outgained their opponents that year.

His teams finished in the top ten an additional five times. Coryell's teams led the league in points differential once, and finished in the top ten another six times.

Yet his defenses often finished in the middle-to-lower end in all categories each year. His 1979 was the best defense he ever had statistically. That defense led the NFL in defensive touchdowns and allowing the fewest rushing attempts.

They also finished in the top ten in interceptions, net yards gained per pass attempt, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, total yards allowed, and touchdowns allowed. In 1980, the Chargers led the NFL with 60 sacks.

Many Hall Of Fame players and Pro Bowlers were coached by Coryell in the NFL. The list of players inducted into Canton includes Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner, Dan Dierdorf, Jackie Smith, Fred Dean, and Roger Wehrli.

When Coryell hit San Diego, the spotlight on his genius was shining. He took wide receiver John Jefferson in the first round in 1978 and had him become the first player in NFL history to gain over 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons.

He transformed Dan Fouts into a spectacular quarterback, and saw Fouts become the second player in pro football history, and the first in NFL history, to have over 4,000 yards passing in a season. Fouts then would go on to pass for even more yards the next two seasons.

Besides his Chargers teams becoming the first to have three 1,000 yard receivers, their 1981 team had a 1,000 yard rusher in Chuck Muncie and two 1,000 yard receivers in Winslow and Joiner. Wes Chandler finished 43 yards short from joining them in the thousand yards club that year,which would have given them three receivers and a running back with 1,000 yards in one season. This is an accomplishment never duplicated in league history.

After his success with Metcalf, Coryell found other versatile backs to use in San Diego. Men like Muncie, James Brooks, Earnest Jackson, Gary Anderson, Mike Thomas, Lydell Mitchell, Don Woods, Clarence Williams, and the diminutive Lionel James all excelled in his offense.

Brooks led the NFL in all purpose yards in his first two years with San Diego, and James did it once.

James also had 1,027 yards receiving, which set an NFL record for yards receiving by a running back then, on 81 receptions in 1985. His 2,535 all purpose yards that year was an NFL record for fifteen seasons.

While Coryell's critics wrongly point to his lack of championship wins, the stinginess of the owners he was employed by was a huge reason why his teams never went past a conference championship game.

In San Diego, they lost Jefferson and Dean because on contract disputes. Dean left the Chargers mid-season to go to the San Francisco 49ers because of this reason. Dean was a key reason the 49ers won Super Bowl XVI that year, and was named UPI Defensive Player Of The Year.

With Dean gone, it hurt the Chargers defense immensely. The Chargers had the best defensive line in the NFL up until then, featuring Dean and Pro Bowl defensive tackles Louie Kelcher and Gary "Big Hands" Johnson.

All three were drafted together in 1975, and had a strong bond that had the fans nickname them "The Bruise Brothers".

Don Coryell changed the way football was played. It is still being played the way Coryell invented to this very day.

The now all to common sight on multiple receiver sets was first started by Coryell, as are many versions of offenses being run these days.

They are all spawns of his genius.

The Redskins three Super Bowls winning teams and Saint Louis Rams two Super Bowl winning teams ran offenses that were invented by Coryell. His impact on the game will reverberate for generations to come.

Winslow stated it best when he said, "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. A lack of understanding of the legacy of the game."

This is a despicable crime still perpetrated by the voters to this very day. It also shows that Canton MUST change their induction system.

Rumors of getting retired players involved, especially those already in Canton, has been circulated for years. These are the people who truly know who belong.

I have long told you about voters not even knowing what positions legends played in this series.

It, as Winslow stated, truly shows a lack of knowledge. It also shows the corrupt political process involved in the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.

A process that has wrongly kept Don Coryell from taking his rightful place.













5 comments:

afrankangle said...

Great post as I had no idea of Coryell's coaching tree.

I must say that I not only attended, but stayed through the entire Freezer Bowl. What high-powered offense wouldn't get shut down by that kind of weather?!!!

Two things crack me up about Coryell. The first being his in-game facial expressions. Sure he was intense, but he had a look of his shoes were too tight.

Secondly, his look made me think he was an intense, tough guy ... and probably so ... but then I discovered that he had a lisp, which didn't fit his personality.

Nonetheless, a great coach ... and his offenses were awesome!

Rad said...

Hey Crazy,

I didn't know much about Don so this was a great read for me.

He had a hand in Joe Gibbs and John Madden's careers, two Hall of Famers, which is pretty impressive.

Hopefully Kellen Winslow's cries for justice are heard and we get this man into the Hall where he rightfully belongs.

Great post

Bill Smith said...

This is an outstanding column! Don was one of the men that changed the NFL into an offensive league. That was as important to the popularity of the league today as any other single thing. What makes you such a great writer on sports is your knowledge and feel for the history of the game.
Thank you for your posting. Great work. Bill Smith

The Zoner said...

I just assumed Coryell was in the Hall already. Great stuff. He totally deserves to be in.

Anonymous said...

I was at the game were we beat the donkeys on MNF in 1979. DC was the man and I loved going to those games with my father. the current state of the SD Chargers is showing that history is repeating itself... That's just too damn bad too... Don Coryell was a great man and coach!