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The Don Coryell Era

In the 1960s, A young sportswriter covered Coach Coryell during his San Diego State glory years. As the Chargers’ publicist during the 1970s and ’80s, that same writer helped secure the Coryell legend. Here’s his look back


To coach the San Diego Chargers was never Don Coryell’s goal. He wanted to put his San Diego State Aztecs on the major college stage, challenging USC and UCLA and competing with the big boys on the Pacific Coast.

But the Chargers were Don Coryell’s destiny. It just took a while.

Coryell had inherited a virtual junior varsity program at State in 1961, and he guided it to immediate success, forging a 104-19-2 record in 12 seasons and eventually moving his team from the 15,000-seat Aztec Bowl on campus to the new San Diego Stadium. Yet with Coryell in plain sight, when Chargers owner Gene Klein looked to replace veteran head coach Sid Gillman in 1972, he looked elsewhere, giving Harland Svare the nod.

Meanwhile, Coryell’s vision of a major college power on Montezuma Mesa was becoming blurred, despite another outstanding (10-1) season. The climate on campus had changed in the early ’70s. Student unrest and a sense of social entitlement pervaded universities in general. Coryell felt his program threatened by campus activism, including a politically militant student council. He made a fateful decision.

He wrote a letter to the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals about that team’s vacant head coach position. William Bidwill was so impressed by the college coach’s sincerity, he agreed to meet Coryell—on Coryell’s turf. Gastronomically intent, the Cardinals’ owner chose a unique venue, a Mexican restaurant in Coronado. Bidwill was familiar with the locale, having dined there, happily, when NFL owners held a meeting at the Hotel del Coronado.

Sometime before the last bite of his carne asada, Bidwill offered the coaching job to Coryell—and in his second season with the Cardinals, Coryell delivered their first division championship in 25 years. The Cards won the division again in 1975, barely missed the playoffs in 1976 and had a 7-3 record entering the 11th week of the 1977 season. The Cardinals went on to lose their final four games that year, finishing out of the playoffs. Coryell was out of a job. (It was another 31 years before the Cardinals made the playoffs again.)

Though he was pushed, Coryell was willing to jump. Frustrated by Bidwill’s penurious ways and by the owner’s bypassing of the coaching staff regarding scouting and drafting of collegiate players, Coryell had become disillusioned early in his St. Louis tenure.

A few weeks into the 1977 season, I was on the road with the Chargers and having dinner with Jack Murphy, the sports editor of The San Diego Union. Murphy was into the scotch that night when he dropped a bombshell: He had contacted Coryell on behalf of Chargers owner Klein, even though Coryell was under contract in St. Louis. Cor­yell privately agreed to become the Chargers’ coach, possibly in 1978 but definitely as soon as Tommy Prothro’s tenure with the Chargers ended. (Klein later gave the Cardinals a fourth-round draft choice for his signing of Coryell.)
Prothro won the opener in 1978 but lost the second game to the Oakland Raiders on the notorious “Holy Roller” play. Successive losses to Denver and Green Bay followed.

The Green Bay game, a listless Chargers effort in a 24-3 defeat, was played in San Diego in 104-degree heat. Chargers cheerleaders picketed the stadium before the game (a brouhaha had erupted when assistant general manager Tank Younger fired the group after several cheerleaders posed in the buff for Playboy magazine).

I arrived at the stadium early the next morning. Klein called me into his office and told me Prothro was out and Coryell was in. The date was September 25, 1978. As I began to type a news advisory calling the media to a 10 a.m. conference, I noticed a plume of smoke behind the hills overlooking Interstate 8 and San Diego Stadium. Moments later, the telephone switchboard exchange flooded in Mission Valley. Outgoing calls were impossible. Word of a midair crash involving a private plane and a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet over North Park began to circulate.

What might have been the most important day in Chargers history—the coming home of a revered coach to rescue the team—became a day San Diegans would remember as the city’s most tragic. A handful of sportswriters made it to Coryell’s brief news conference. It was a surreal beginning to what would become a remarkable period in the city’s sports history.

Coryell brought the team passion—and an all-out passing offense that became so popular and so often imitated in the NFL that the term “Air Coryell” is still heard today. He was head coach from the fifth game of the 1978 season through the seventh game of the 1986 season. In those years, he became the only coach ever to have won 100 games each on the college and professional levels. And he took his Chargers to two AFC championship games and three straight division titles.

During his tenure, Coryell was responsible for Dan Fouts’ development into a Hall of Fame quarterback. Charlie Joiner caught 580 of his 765 career passes after the age of 32, en route to the Hall of Fame. Kellen Win­slow redefined the tight end position in a Hall of Fame career. Two of Coryell’s assistant coaches, Joe Gibbs and Jim Hanifan, became NFL head coaches.

Gibbs is in the Hall of Fame, as is John Madden, Coryell’s defensive coach from 1964 through 1966 at San Diego State. Ernie Zampese took Coryell’s offensive theories, embellished them and enjoyed a career as one of the NFL’s most respected assistant coaches. There are many others who’ve been touched by Coryell’s football genius.

Coryell is not in the Hall of Fame, however. Something about his NFL playoff record: 3-6.

A shame.

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