by Aimee Levitt
Don Coryell, the football coach who created the innovative "Air Coryell" offense during his years with the St. Louis Cardinals, died yesterday afternoon at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in San Diego. He was 85.
Coryell coached the Cardinals from 1973 to 1977, where he led the team to two division titles and a 42-27-1 record, the best five seasons in the franchise's history, and developed the legendary Air Coryell game with players like Ahmad Rashad and Mel Gray.
"Don is the father of the modern passing game," former Rams coach Mike Martz told the Voice of San Diego. "People talk about the West Coast offense, but Don started the 'West Coast' decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and so many teams are running a version of the Coryell offense. Coaches have added their own touches, but it's still Coryell's offense. He has disciples all over the league. He changed the game."
The Coryell offensive strategy involved lots of deep- and mid-range passes, scattering receivers across the field. The offensive team would try to isolate the defense and pass the ball into the defense's weakest sections.
Unfortunately for St. Louis fans, "Air Coryell" reached its peak after Coryell left the Cardinals for the San Diego Chargers. Coryell's Chargers won their division three consecutive seasons and led the league in passing yards from 1978 to 1983, still an NFL record.
Coryell also invented the three-digit calling system used by most teams today and the one-back offense (and the position of H-back). He was also the first to split the tight end away from the rest of the formation, which effectively transformed the position.
"He was like a mad scientist," Dan Fouts, the Chargers quarterback, said in an interview with the NFL.
A native of Seattle, Coryell played defensive back for the University of Washington. He began his coaching career at San Diego State in 1961, where he stayed for twelve years, compiling a record of 104-19-2, the first collegiate coach to win 100 games. In 1966, 1968 and 1969, his teams went undefeated.
Coryell was also the first coach to win 100 NFL games. But a Super Bowl victory eluded him, which is why, some claim, he wasn't inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame earlier this year, although several of his disciples, including John Madden and Joe Gibbs, and star players like Fouts, Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner, have made it in.
Players and coaches remember Coryell, for all his genius, as someone who cared for his players and wanted them to have fun out on the field.
"He walked in and met our team for the time and he was just this little bundle of energy, flying around the meeting," former Chargers running back Hank Bauer told the Associated Press. "He said, 'You know what? We're going to have fun, and we're going to cry and laugh and battle our [behinds] off, but we're going to have fun.' We had fun for a lot of years."
See "Air Coryell" in action here.