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Don Coryell Belongs Amongst the Legends

It is time.

The legendary Don Coryell hung up his whistle exactly 30 years ago, yet the visionary who changed the way the game has played is still fighting for his rightful place in the Hall of Fame.

Once again, Coryell is a finalist for the NFL's highest honor as the 2016 Hall of Fame class will be announced on Saturday.

If there is any justice, Coryell will at long last have his bust enshrined in Canton.

Simply put, without Don Coryell, the NFL as we know it today would not exist.

The coach forever changed how the game is played on both offense and defense with his innovative approach to the passing game that revolutionized football.  The ground-breaking manner in which he attacked through the air earned him the "Air Coryell" moniker as he compiled a 72-60 record from 1978-86,  capturing three division titles along the way and twice reaching the AFC Championship Game.

Nick Canepa is one of 46 voters who will determine this year's class. The longtime San Diego Union Tribune scribe covered the Chargers during the Coryell era, and firmly believes the head coach deserves a spot in Canton.

"He changed the way the game is played on offense, but I think he made a bigger impact on defense," he said.  "You can watch a game probably for another 1,000 years, and every time there are multiple substitutions defensively, Don Coryell brought that to the game.  He scared the living hell out of people!  I covered the team during that period, and there were times that offense lined up and defenses just had no idea what they were doing.  They were just running around and left guys uncovered.  There were times it was just a joke.  I'm telling you, that was the hardest team to prepare for in the history of football.  These guys had no clue how to defend them.  It was basically the birth of the West Coast Offense.  I know they give Bill Walsh credit for it, but believe me, Bill stole from Coryell's offense.  When the Chargers got it going, it was like nothing the NFL has ever seen."

Canepa also outlined the painstaking election process the committee will undertake on Saturday.

"There is one voter representing each team in the league, and then there are 14 others at large who cover the NFL.  We'll get in the room at around 6:30 Saturday morning and discuss the two senior candidates. That will end, and then we will go to the contributor, and I'm sure it is going to be contentious…. Once we are done with that, we get to the 15 modern day finalists of which Coryell is one.   We go through each candidate and somebody will present each one.  Then we vote and it gets cut to 10.  Five are eliminated, and we go through the process again.  We then whittle it down to a maximum of five modern day finalists.  We vote, and when we leave the room, we have no idea who made it.  We find out when they announce it at the NFL Honors award show."

Coryell and Tony Dungy are the two coaches among this year's 15 modern day finalists.  The 13 players comprising the rest of the ballot are kicker Morten Anderson, safety Steve Atwater, running back Terrell Davis, guard Alan Faneca, quarterback Brett Favre, linebacker/defensive end Kevin Green, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, tackle Joe Jacoby, running back Edgerrin James, safety John Lynch, wide receiver Terrell Owens, tackle Orlando Pace and quarterback Kurt Warner.

While Eddie Debartolo, Jr. is this year's nominee as a contributor, Canepa is one of many who would like to see coaches considered as such rather than compete against players.

"I wanted the contributor category for years, because I don't think it is fair for coaches, general managers and owners to be considered with players.  Then they made (the category), but they didn't include the coaches in it.  To me, that makes absolutely no sense because coaches are contributors! I don't think there is anybody in that room who doesn't acknowledge Coryell's strength to be in the Hall of Fame for what he did to the game. But there are some people who are always quick to point out and you just aren't going to convince because he never made it to the Super Bowl as a coach."

Hall of Famer Dan Fouts quarterbacked the "Air Coryell" offense, leading the league in passing yards four straight seasons from 1979-82 to become the first player ever to eclipse 4,000 yards in three consecutive years.  He was only the third QB in NFL history to eclipse 40,000 passing yards at the time of his retirement.  

While honored to be recognized in the Hall of Fame, Fouts explained how Canton feels empty without his coach in it as well. 

"I think he had tremendous influence on the game, and all you have to do is watch each Sunday and see how the game has evolved since his coaching," he said last year.  "I talk to Hall of Fame voters all the time about why Don should be in the Hall of Fame, and it's because he contributed so much to it. I could give them a dozen reasons; it is not just one or two things.  His influence on the way the game is played offensively and defensively of course, but his use of personnel, creativity and fearlessness, too.  Just the overall feeling of confidence that he gave us as a football team; every time we went on the field, we knew we had a superior plan and a fearless coach."

Before he passed away in 2010, Fouts recalls how Coryell opened up about how much it would have meant to him to be recognized as a Hall of Famer.

"He'd be thrilled to be nominated again, there's no question," Fouts said.  "I talked to him many times about it, asking how we could go about putting together a strategy to help him be recognized.  And that battle continues today."

Coryell's legacy can be found in some of the greatest leaders in NFL history, as his coaching tree includes Hall of Famers John Madden and Joe Gibbs, plus Ernie Zampese, Al Saunders and Mike Martz among others.  Six years ago during a ceremony celebrating Coryell's life, Madden forcefully criticized Coryell's absence in Canton.

"The three of us (Madden, Gibbs and Fouts) are in the Hall of Fame because of Don Coryell," he said.  "When you think about that, you think there's something missing there.  Don's the guy that's missing. I learned everything from him."

"He revolutionized the game of football, not only in San Diego, but throughout the entire NFL," Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos said following his passing in 2010.  "Don Coryell was a legend not only with the Chargers, but in all of San Diego. Though unfortunately he did not live long enough to see it, hopefully one day his bust will find its proper place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

Thirty years after gracing the sideline for the final time, the hope is that moment will finally come for Don Coryell.  

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