The Man Who Reinvented the NFL ... Starting with San Diego

The Man Who Reinvented the NFL ... Starting with San Diego

San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell with players before a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.

Why you should care

Because it’s not just great players who get their start in college.

In 1965, a highly recruited quarterback from Los Angeles named Don Horn, who would later win a Super Bowl ring as part of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, drove down the coast to meet with the coaching staff at what was then San Diego State College. “When I walked into the office, a bunch of coaches were sitting around,” Horn later recalled to the Los Angeles Times. “One was a heavy coach, John Madden. Another was Chuck Noll. Rod Dowhower and Joe Gibbs were there too. They were graduate assistants.”

Horn said yes to attending what would become San Diego State University, the first in a long line of prolific Aztec passers to do so over the decades. And it’s no wonder. San Diego State head coach and passing maestro Don “Air” Coryell and the men he assembled to meet Horn that day now comprise a lineup worthy of a football Mount Rushmore. The innovative Coryell and those under his influence would, in many ways, reinvent the game of football and launch the National Football League as we know it today.

You look at your players and you figure out what the hell you can do.

Don Coryell

But first Coryell would turn around San Diego State. When the former Army paratrooper and college defensive back took over in 1961, the woeful Division II squad had won just seven games in the previous four seasons. By the time he left in 1972, the college had one of the best Division I programs in the sport. Coryell did it in part through smart recruiting, snapping up talented junior college players like Horn that other schools had overlooked. But he also tailored his offense to the type of players he could recruit in Southern California — mostly quarterbacks and receivers after the state’s top running backs and linemen had gone to USC and UCLA. “You look at your players,” Coryell explained to Tim Layden, author of Blood, Sweat and Chalk, “and you figure out what the hell you can do.”

Quite a bit it turned out. Coryell, a quirky, eagle-nosed coach with a fiery intensity, jettisoned the power-running, I-formation offense he had started his coaching career with and adopted a fast-paced, precision passing attack that spread the defense, forcing them to “cover huge chunks of earth to blanket receivers,” as Layden puts it. “I just decided, hell, you can’t just go out and run the ball against better teams,” Coryell reflected. “You’ve got to throw the damn ball.” Which is exactly what San Diego State did, to the tune of a 104-19-2 record during Coryell’s tenure, including three undefeated seasons.

Coryell continued to turn teams around in the NFL, converting the lowly St. Louis Cardinals into the high-flying “Cardiac Cards” before transforming the San Diego Chargers into an offensive powerhouse that would lead the NFL in passing for six straight seasons. Coryell, who died in 2010, never won a Super Bowl and is not in the Hall of Fame, but “he brought with him a passing game that the league had not seen before,” says Dan Dierdorf, an NFL analyst who played for Coryell in St. Louis, and he “single-handedly opened up the National Football League.” Among other things, Coryell helped pioneer the one-back formation, pre-snap motion, option routes and running back screens, and many offenses in the NFL today still use a derivative of his offense.

But the San Diego legend left a bigger impact on the NFL than its playbook. Coryell’s disciples at San Diego State included assistant coaches John Madden, Joe Gibbs and Ernie Zampese. Madden and Gibbs would become Super Bowl winners and two of the league’s winningest head coaches, and Zampese, with his own disciple, Norv Turner, would help craft the offense that would earn the Dallas Cowboys three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s. Rod Dowhower, who was also in the room when Horn first visited San Diego, would become head coach at Stanford and the Indianapolis Colts (Steelers coaching legend Chuck Noll, also present, was a defensive coordinator for the Chargers).

Coryell sent more than 40 Aztec players to the NFL, including future league MVP quarterback Brian Sipe and Pro Bowl receivers Haven Moses and Gary Garrison. Anchoring Coryell’s defense at San Diego State were two future actors: Fred Dryer, a defensive end for 13 years in the NFL before starring in television’s Hunter, and teammate Carl Weathers, who was a linebacker in college and the pros before playing Apollo Creed in Rocky.

That’s an awful lot of talent to pass through the doors of one college clubhouse.

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