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Former Chargers coach, passing guru Don Coryell dies at 85

  • By NFL.com Wire Reports
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Don Coryell, the innovative coach whose Air Coryell offense produced some of the most dynamic passing attacks in NFL history, has died. He was 85.

The Chargers confirmed that Coryell died Thursday at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, Calif., just outside of San Diego. The team didn't release the cause of death, but Coryell had been in poor health for some time.

"We've lost a man who has contributed to the game of pro football in a very lasting way with his innovations and with his style," Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback who made Air Coryell fly, said from Oregon. "They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery -- look around, it's there."

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Coryell is considered one of the founding fathers of the modern passing game. He had a 111-83-1 record in 14 seasons as an NFL coach.

Coryell coached at San Diego State from 1961 to 1972 and went 104-19-2. He left the Aztecs for the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals in 1973. With Jim Hart at quarterback, the Cardinals won division titles in 1974 and '75 behind Coryell.

Coryell returned to San Diego when the Chargers hired him on Sept. 25, 1978 -- the same day that a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet crashed into a North Park neighborhood after colliding with a small plane, killing all 137 people on the two planes and seven people on the ground.

"It's crazy that when you look back at the history of this city, he got hired on the same day as that PSA crash," said Hank Bauer, who was a running back and special-teams star with the Chargers then. "That really was one of the darkest days in this city's history, and it became one of the brightest days in the history of sports.

"He walked in and met our team for the time and he was just this little bundle of energy, flying around the meeting. 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."

From 1978 to 1986, the coach's Air Coryell offense set records and led the NFL in passing almost every season. Coryell guided the Chargers to the AFC Championship Game after the 1980 and '81 seasons, but he never reached the Super Bowl.

The lack of a Super Bowl on his resume might have hurt Coryell last winter in voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a finalist for the first time, but he wasn't selected for induction -- a source of consternation for many of his former players, assistant coaches and bosses.

"We are terribly saddened by the passing of Coach Coryell," Chargers president Dean Spanos said in a statement released by the team. "He revolutionized the game of football, not only in San Diego, but throughout the entire NFL. Don Coryell was a legend not only with the Chargers but throughout San Diego. Though unfortunately he did not live long enough to see it, hopefully one day his bust will find its proper place in Pro Football’s Hall of Fame. He will be missed."

Coryell -- the first coach to win 100 games in college and professional football -- is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Air Coryell's big stars -- Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Charlie Joiner -- all ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Coach Coryell deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it's a shame that he is not," Winslow told NFL.com in 2008. "So many offenses that are being run today are variations of Air Coryell. They call it the West Coast offense because San Francisco won Super Bowls with it, but it was a variation of what we did in San Diego. ...

"For Don Coryell to not be in the Hall of Fame is a lack of knowledge of the voters," Winslow added. "That's the nicest way that I can put that. A lack of understanding of the legacy of the game. He deserves to be there just as much as anybody else, any other coach who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

Coryell used Winslow more as a pass catcher than a blocker, and the tight end sometimes split out wide, as would running backs.

"Don once said, 'If we're asking Kellen to block a defensive end and not catch passes, I'm not a very good coach,'" Bauer said.

One of the lasting images of the Coryell years was an exhausted Winslow being helped off the field by two teammates after the Chargers' epic 41-38 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins in a Jan. 2, 1982 playoff game. Despite cramping up in the heat and humidity, Winslow caught 13 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown, and he also blocked a potential game-winning field-goal attempt.

Bauer said Coryell changed the way opponents had to play defense.

"And you see it today," Bauer said. "When we started splitting Kellen out, for instance, teams didn't know what to do. He was a wide receiver in a tight end's body. So a lot of teams started playing zone against us, and we started picking them apart. Some teams tried to put a safety or linebacker out there and play man-to-man, and we licked our chops and went with Kellen.

"Because of Air Coryell, nickel and dime defenses became an every-game proposition," Bauer added. "He changed the way the game is played today."

Fouts said Air Coryell meant many things.

"I don't know that it's so much one thing that you could point to," Fouts said. "It was an attitude of fearlessness and aggressiveness and of fun. He was not afraid to try new things. He was not afraid to attack the entire length and breadth of a football field. He wanted his players to enjoy it."

Fouts said he became friends with Coryell after the two were finished with football.

"It's not just me," Fouts said. "All his players, Aztecs, Cardinals, Chargers, to a man, would tell you that he was their friend."

Added Bauer: "Here's the secret to Don -- outside of the Xs and Os, his players and his family were the most important things in the world. It had nothing to do with money or fame. It was all about family, team and winning and the game, and respect."

A memorial service for Coryell has been scheduled for July 12 at San Diego State. The service will begin at 2 p.m. at Viejas Arena. A school spokesman says the Coryell family has indicated this will be the only service.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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