It would be nearly impossible to overstate the importance of Don Coryell to the game of football. He was a revolutionary in many ways.
Don Coryell was born in Seattle, Washington in 1924. After a stint in the Army as a paratrooper in World War II, Coryell went to the University of Washington where he was a DB. Following college and graduate school Coryell began a coaching career that few would ever top.
He was one of the pioneers of the I-formation which he brought to USC as an assistant under John McKay. He took the head coaching job at San Diego State University in 1961 and helped them compile a 104-19 record in his 11 year tenure. He was among the first head coaches to focus on JUCO players when assembling a roster.
In 1973 he began his first NFL head coaching gig for the St. Louis Cardinals. His time with the Cardinals is one of his most impressive accomplishments. He led a team who had lost won their division in 1948 (when they were the Chicago Cardinals), to 3 years of double-digit wins, including consecutive division titles in 1974-75. “The 1974 Cardinals started the season 7-0. They would not start a season as well as 3-0 until 2012, the franchise’s 25th in Arizona,” (quoted from Don Coryell’s Wikipedia page).
In 1978, after the Chargers began the season with a 1-4 record, the Chargers fired their head coach and brought in Don Coryell to take over. Coryell’s ’78 Chargers compiled an 8-3 record and the Chargers just missed the playoffs with an overall 9-7 record. They went on to win 3 consecutive division titles (1979-81) and reach the playoffs four straight years.
Coryell’s Chargers were not the first team to pass the ball more than they ran it, but they were the first to do so while winning the AFC West. In 2015 there were 12 quarterbacks who threw the ball for 4000+ yards. Under Coryell, Dan Fouts was the 2nd in the history of the NFL to do so. Don Coryell’s offense, dubbed “Air Coryell,” led the NFL in passing yards six consecutive seasons from ’78 to ’83 and again in 1985. It might be easy to dismiss the offensive numbers the Chargers put up under Coryell’s management, especially compared with how prolific today’s NFL offenses are today. But keep in mind NFL defenses were able to be a lot more physical back then.
A look at the coaches who credit Coryell and/or coached under him include: John Madden, Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil, Ernie Zampese, Mike Martz, and more. Coryell is the father of the modern NFL passing offense.
It is absolutely criminal that Don Coryell is not already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A lot of the credit that Bill Walsh receives actually belongs to Don Coryell. The difference is, Walsh used the offense to win Super Bowls and San Diego, under Coryell, kept missing opportunities to reach the title game.
Don Coryell died in La Mesa in 2010. His coaching philosophies live on.
Thanks for reading.
(Wikipedia was used extensively for research for this article.)