Hall of Fame Case for Don Coryell

Don Coryell should be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year and here is why. He’s a coach who helped turn the sport from a dull, grind-it-out affair to the modern spectacle it is today and raised two franchises and one college program from the dead. So he didn’t win a Super Bowl. That’s a minor offense for a man who gave us the style of game we love to watch.

The case for his enshrinement goes beyond just numbers. Don Coryell left an indelible mark on the game.

He was among the first to implement the legendary Sid Gillman’s offensive scheme, which offered a better mix of passing with the old, stodgy power-running game. His version became famous with the Chargers as “Air Coryell.” But within the football community, he caught attention even earlier when he was an assistant at USC and developed the I-formation. After he became the head coach at San Diego State, he took a moribund program and made it a consistent winner, laying the groundwork for the teams described in A COACH AT HEART.

The voters for the College Football Hall of Fame sure noticed. He was inducted there years ago. Canton should be next.

Coryell left SDSU after the 1972 season for the NFL’s Cardinals, then playing in St. Louis. The team had finished with a 4-9-1 record in three of the previous four years and hadn’t played a postseason game since 1948. After his first year, in which the Cardinals were 4-9-1 again, they went 10-4, 11-3 and 10-4, with two playoff appearances. As a kid in those days, I can tell you the Cardinals were the most interesting NFL team to watch in those days.

After a 7-7 season, he moved to San Diego, where Air Coryell became synonymous with the Chargers. You don’t need to be an old guy to know about QB Dan Fouts or TE Kellen Winslow. Coryell worked with amazing skill talent like RB Chuck Muncie, and WRs Charlie Joiner, John Jefferson and Wes Chandler. His teams were great across the offensive line and while lacking in depth defensively, he had some stellar players there, too.

Before Coryell returned to San Diego in 1978, the Bolts hadn’t had a winning season since 1969 in the old American Football League — before the merger. Some of the teams were downright awful. In his first full year, the Chargers went 12-4 and made the playoffs. They made the AFC championship game the next two seasons, losing once to eventual Super Bowl winner Oakland and the other time in sub-zero conditions in Cincinnati.

The Chargers made the playoffs one more time before fading out of the limelight as age and injuries took their toll, and the talent level on defense plummeted. But at their height, the Chargers were as good as any team.

Perhaps more than anything, Coryell’s legacy on the game of football was spread by the coaches who served with him. Among the great names on the Coryell coaching tree are John Madden, Joe Gibbs, Ernie Zampese, Jim Hanifan, Rod Dowhower, Al Saunders, Tom Bass and Jim Mora. The game of football we’ve all watched over the years carried Coryell’s touch because of them, and because of what he did. He deserves to be in Canton.

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