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Tuesday, September 20, 2005 | Don Coryell, asked to name his best team in 12 memorable seasons at San Diego State, answered the question without a hint of diplomacy. A man never sounded more genuine.
“I never even thought about it,” Coryell said straightforwardly. “There were so many great teams and great people.”
Coryell is in the College Football Hall of Fame, but the innovations he brought to the NFL passing games in his time with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chargers (1978-86), continues to be overlooked by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The old coach was asked about former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, an assistant under Coryell at SDSU, entering the Pro Hall next summer ahead of him. Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, another Coryell lieutenant with the Aztecs and Chargers, also has been previously inducted.
“I’m happy for John; he won a lot of games,” Coryell said. “It’s something I would like very much, but I don’t worry about it.”
Emotion, though, showed when Coryell volunteered how much he and his wife, Aliisa, miss San Diego. They have homes in Washington state and in Hawaii after leaving town not long after Coryell resigned as the Chargers’ head coach in the midst of a 4-12 season in 1986.
“San Diego is the best place in the world we know of,” said Coryell, his voice cracking. “The biggest mistake we ever made was leaving San Diego.”
Coryell, who was 104-19-2 at SDSU and led the Chargers to AFC West titles in 1979-80-81 and a wild-card playoff berth in 1982, went on to explain how hard the Chargers’ downfall had been on him. The team was 1-7 when he resigned following seasons of 8-8 in 1985, 7-9 in 1984 and 6-10 in 1983.
“The last couple of years, I figured I’d die if I didn’t get out of football,” Coryell said. “We hadn’t lost before, and I couldn’t take it. We had to get away and be by ourselves, which we did for 20 years. Now we realize what a wonderful place we left. We want to be down here as much as we can.”
Coryell was in town last week as guests of the Aztecs, who took him and his wife with them on their road trip Saturday to Ohio State.
Even at Ohio State, where smash-mouth football was glorified, Coryell’s influence has changed the game. The Buckeyes and other Big Ten schools were forced to catch up with the rest of football and throw the ball.
Listen to a couple of Coryell’s Aztecs, Fred Dryer and Willie Buchanon. They went on to the NFL as first-round draft picks and Pro Bowlers while playing a combined 24 NFL seasons.
“When I went to the Giants in 1969, I was disappointed,” said Dryer, a Little All-American defensive end with the Aztecs before their Division I-A status and who played 13 seasons for the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams. “The Giants didn’t have a philosophy or a system by which people could thrive. Anytime you were on one of Don’s teams, with the Aztecs, the Cardinals or the Chargers, you got the feeling if you had ability or talent he would push it. The fun thing about his teams is they were efficient and aggressive.”
Buchanon was an All-American cornerback at SDSU in 1971 when few teams threw the ball as much as the Aztecs. That meant Buchanon got plenty of work in practice other cornerbacks wouldn’t experience until their pro days.
“When I got in the NFL, it was easy after playing at San Diego State,” said Buchanon, an 11-year NFL veteran who was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year with the Green Bay Packers in 1972. “I learned everything I knew from Don, Ernie Zampese and Claude Gilbert. We had a system. Coryell developed the tight end as a wide receiver when he split Tim Delaney five yards out. They call the passing games today the West Coast Offense. That was Don’s system.”
Although people in football widely understand Coryell had the greater influence on the game, Madden went on to win a Super Bowl title with the Raiders and Gibbs three with the Redskins. Super Bowl titles, it would seem, count more with Hall-of-Fame voters.
Are voters grading Coryell by his losses in two AFC Championship games in the 1980 and 1981 seasons with the Chargers or by his innovations and overall success in St. Louis and San Diego?
Coryell is 81 now, and he welcomed the opportunity to return to San Diego and be with former Aztecs and Chargers. San Diego, as a football town, will forever be Don Coryell’s home.
Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com