Don Coryell, the pioneering Chargers head coach of the late 1970s and 1980s who led the National Football League into an era of explosive offensive football, has been officially selected for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Hall announced on Thursday.
"Don Coryell has had a tremendous influence on the game we know and love today," said Dean Spanos, Chargers Owner and Chairman of the Board. "Whether it was through the coaches he mentored, the players he taught and led, the offenses he orchestrated or the defenses that were created to stop his offenses, today's NFL is a direct reflection of Don's mind and imagination. While it's obviously been a long time coming, we're grateful that his family, as well as the players he meant so much to, are now officially able to welcome him to his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and celebrate his legacy."
Ahead of his time, the influential coach revolutionized the game through his famed and electrifying "Air Coryell" offense. Coryell's offensive genius not only changed the game of football, his teachings and concepts are still prevalent throughout the collegiate and pro levels today. After first becoming an NFL Head Coach with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973, NFL offenses averaged nearly 45 more yards per game while utilizing his pass-heavy schemes, use of the tight end position became more prevalent, the dime defense saw its first implementation and the "passing tree" numeric system was adopted into the mainstream.
"Don Coryell has earned his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame," said Chargers Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts of his former head coach. "Simply put, Air Coryell changed the game on both sides of the ball. One cannot write the history of the National Football League without the contributions of Coach Coryell."
Coryell, a member of the Chargers Hall of Fame, was hired as the team's head coach in 1978 and immediately led the team to its first winning season since 1969. In the following seasons, Coryell led the Chargers to four division championships (including The Epic in Miami), three straight division titles (1979-81) and four consecutive trips to the playoffs (1979-82). After 14 seasons as an NFL head coach, Coryell posted a 111-83-1 record, making him the only coach in history to win 100 games at both the professional and collegiate levels.
The "Air Coryell" offense was adopted once Coryell became head coach of the Chargers. Headed by Fouts, Hall of Fame Tight End Kellen Winslow and Hall of Fame Wide Receiver Charlie Joiner, the Chargers offense led the NFL in total offense five times, passing yards six times (ranked second once during that period) and scoring three times. Fouts led the NFL in passing yards for four straight seasons (1979-1982) and became the first player in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons (1979-1981). "Air Coryell" focused on a pass-first offense predicated on moving the ball downfield allowing the Chargers to separate themselves from their competition and confuse opposing defenses. This type of offense focused on three things: a strong inside running game, the ability to hit deep passes with two or more receivers and adding the mid-range game with a tight end or wide receiver.
Along with the offense taking deep shots, Coryell's scheme also made the other side of the ball defend every blade of grass by moving all offensive weapons in motion. Opposing teams had to bring in extra defensive backs to try and slow down his pass offense resulting in the 'nickel defense' and the 'dime' defense. It was then that tight ends like Winslow evolved into pass-catchers; another piece of the game that was revolutionary at the time but commonplace for NFL offenses today, thus cementing Coryell as a true visionary. Ultimately Winslow, Fouts, and Joiner were all enshrined in Canton after remarkable careers shepherded along by Coryell. It's now only fitting that after multiple stints of being named a finalist, their head coach officially joins them in football immortality.
"He's more than deserving to have this honor," said Winslow. "You can't say I changed the tight end position without mentioning Don Coryell's name. I did not. I didn't call the plays. I didn't set up the offense. That's Don Coryell's offense. That's where the credit belongs. He was very genuine. He wanted to coach. He loved coaching. He loved seeing the success the team was having, especially when you talk about passing the football. His contribution to the game is hard to match."
"Don changed the game of football as we know it," said Joiner. "He had an impact on both sides of the ball with his innovative and groundbreaking offenses. One only needs to look back to Don to see how offenses have developed since he came into the league. His explosive passing game changed the face of defenses. Opposing teams had to bring in extra defensive backs to try and slow down his pass offense resulting in the nickel defense and the dime defense. Somebody who can force other teams to play those kinds of defenses should be in the Hall of Fame."
Born in Seattle, Washington, Coryell grew up the youngest of four boys. After graduating high school, he enlisted in the United States Army during World War II. After being discharged at the age of 21, Coryell enrolled at the University of Washington, studying physical education and earning his bachelor's degree and master's degree. He played defensive back for the Huskies during his time at Washington and while earning his master's degree, Coryell remained with the Huskies as an assistant coach.
After coaching stops that included schools in Hawaii and British Columbia, Coryell took a head coaching job at Whittier College in 1957 and in three years with the Poets, recorded a 23-5-1 record while claiming three Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles utilizing a new concept – the "I" formation offense. In 1960, Coryell became an assistant coach under John McKay at the University of Southern California where he helped further pioneer the "I" formation offense. A year later, he became head coach of the San Diego State Aztecs in 1961 and remained at the helm for the next 11 years. In his first season as head coach, he led the Aztecs to a 7-2-1 record, going 6-0 in their division. During his time at San Diego State, Coryell led the Aztecs to three Big West Conference titles (1969-70, 1972), (formerly known as Pacific Coast Athletic Association), four California Collegiate Athletic Association titles (1962-63, 1966-67) and three straight NCAA College Division II titles. Ultimately leaving the collegiate ranks for the NFL, he concluded his time at SDSU with a remarkable 104-19-2 record.
Coryell, who passed away on July 1, 2010 in La Mesa, California at the age of 85, becomes the 11th Charger to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; joining WR Lance Alworth, T Ron Mix, Coach Sid Gillman, QB Dan Fouts, TE Kellen Winslow, WR Charlie Joiner, DE Fred Dean, LB Junior Seau, RB LaDainian Tomlinson and Executive Bobby Beathard.
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