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Saturday, Sept. 16, 2006 | Don Coryell stopped by the Hall of Champions, my day job, for lunch on Tuesday with San Diego football fans who wanted to reminisce about his days at San Diego State and with the Chargers.
In 2006, the Aztecs are trying to win at Big Ten Wisconsin Saturday and the Chargers play their home opener Sunday, but Coryell and San Diego football are always relevant, even though the old coach – the only one to win 100 games at both the collegiate and NFL levels – is now 81 years old.
One interesting contrast I find from listening to Coryell talk football with his old assistant coaches or players is his associates tell so many funny stories at Coryell’s expense about his obsession with the offensive side of the ball.
Here’s an example from Sid Hall, one of his assistants at San Diego State. “We were itching to get the defensive package going and we said, ‘OK, Don, what’s the package?’” Hall recalled. “He said, ‘It’s simple – get the ball back as quick as you can.’ That was the defensive meeting.”
Everyone laughs, including Coryell. Claude Gilbert, the long-time Coryell assistant who succeeded him as SDSU’s head coach, tells a similar story to more chuckles. Such tales sometimes make Coryell sound like a cartoon character, but Coryell later provides his perspective.
“If I thought a guy knew more about some type of coaching than I did, then I just let him coach,” Coryell said. “Go ahead do your thing. I was concerned with hiring good men and let them figure out a way to get the job done. And I told them, ‘Don’t screw them up.’”
When Coryell adds his insight, everyone listens. His coaches nod along. No one suggests they knew more football than the man who is considered the father of the West Coast offense.
“He had a great affinity for being excited about the game of football and being excited about the game we were playing at the time,” said Ernie Zampese, who assisted Coryell at both SDSU and with the Chargers before gaining his own reputation as an offensive wizard with the Dallas Cowboys and other NFL teams. “Don had an unbelievable urge to win games. I will never forget Don Coryell for the things he’s done for me. I don’t know where I’d be if he hadn’t hired me.”
Too bad Bill Bidwell in St. Louis and the late Gene Klein in San Diego didn’t allow Coryell more of a voice in personnel during his NFL days. Klein is dead and Bidwell has always been brain dead when it comes to football decisions, so they’re unable to defend themselves, but a couple of stories provide a picture of what how Coryell would have fared.
“As far as college and pro football, the real difference I found was in college we would go out a recruit people we wanted to play for us,” Coryell said. “Each coach recruited the type of person he felt was good for the team. In pro ball, you don’t get that chance.” Coryell believes it prevented him from being more successful in the NFL.
“If we could have drafted the people, signed the people and kept the people and coaches we wanted, I think we would have been much better,” he said. “I honestly believe that, and because of it I’m a little bitter.”
Bidwell dismantled the playoff team Coryell built in St. Louis and Klein traded away John Jefferson and Fred Dean over what would now be considered chump change in the NFL.
Yeah, I know, Wes Chandler more than replaced Jefferson, but JJ was the heart and soul of Air Coryell with quarterback Dan Fouts. Without Dean – who sparked the San Francisco 49ers toward winning a Super Bowl – the Chargers’ weakened defense began the team’s decline.
Fred Dryer, the San Diego State Hall-of-Famer who also starred in the NFL, tells a recruiting story from his Aztecs playing days that explains Coryell’s knack for building a football team. A USC linebacker wanted to transfer to SDSU in 1968 and the coaches had asked Dryer to be his recruiting host.
“We took the guy to Mexico, he got drunk and he was a jerk,” said Dryer, who actually used more graphic language. “Don asked if, ‘he’s one of us?’ I said he was a jerk and Don said, ‘Take him to the airport and get him out of here!’ He was a great player, but he didn’t want him here.”
Coryell wouldn’t have traded away Jefferson and Dean, and it makes me wonder how many titles the Chargers missed out on if Gene Klein would have listened to him. After all, a Super Bowl title would have made the plethora of Coryell stories even funnier.