The San Diego Chargers confirmed Coryell died Thursday at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in suburban La Mesa. The team did not release the cause of death, but Coryell had been in poor health for some time.
“We’ve lost a man who has contributed to the game of pro football in a very lasting way with his innovations and with his style,” Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, the quarterback who made Air Coryell fly, said from Oregon. “They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery — look around, it’s there.”
Coryell was one of the founding fathers of the modern passing game. He coached at San Diego State from 1961 to 1972 and went 104-19-2. He left the Aztecs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973. With Jim Hart at quarterback, the Cardinals won division titles in 1974 and ’75 behind Coryell.
Fouts said he became friends with Coryell after the two were finished with football.
“It’s not just me,” Fouts said. “All his players, Aztecs, Cardinals, Chargers, to a man, would tell you that he was their friend.”
Coryell returned to San Diego when he was hired by the Chargers on Sept. 25, 1978, the same day a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet crashed into a North Park neighborhood after colliding with a small plane, killing all 137 people on the two planes and seven people on the ground.
“It’s crazy that when you look back at the history of this city, he got hired on the same day as that PSA crash,” said Hank Bauer, who was a running back and special teams star with the Chargers then. “That really was one of the darkest days in this city’s history and it became one of the brightest days in the history of sports.
“He walked in and met our team for the time and he was just this little bundle of energy, flying around the meeting. He said, ‘You know what? We’re going to have fun, and we’re going to cry and laugh and battle our [behinds] off, but we’re going to have fun.’ We had fun for a lot of years.”
From 1978 to 1986, Air Coryell — led by Fouts — set records and led the NFL in passing almost every season. Coryell guided the Chargers to the AFC Championship Game after the 1980 and ’81 seasons, but he never reached the Super Bowl.
The lack of a Super Bowl on his résumé may have hurt Coryell last winter in voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a finalist for the first time, but was not selected for induction.
“He revolutionized the game of football, not only in San Diego, but throughout the entire NFL,” Chargers president Dean Spanos said in a statement. “Don Coryell was a legend not only with the Chargers but throughout San Diego. Though unfortunately he did not live long enough to see it, hopefully one day his bust will find its proper place in Pro Football’s Hall of Fame. He will be missed.”
The big stars of the Air Coryell years — Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Charlie Joiner — all ended up in the Hall of Fame. Winslow was used more as a pass catcher than a blocker, and sometimes would be split out wide, as would running backs.
“Don once said, ‘If we’re asking Kellen to block a defensive end and not catch passes, I’m not a very good coach,’ ” Bauer said.
One of the lasting images of the Coryell years was an exhausted Winslow being helped off the field by two teammates after the Chargers’ epic 41-38 overtime victory in the playoffs against the Miami Dolphins on Jan. 2, 1982. Despite cramping up in the heat and humidity, Winslow caught 13 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown, and also blocked a potential game-winning field goal.
Bauer said Coryell changed the way opponents had to play defense, “And you see it today. When we started splitting Kellen out, for instance, teams didn’t know what to do. He was a wide receiver in a tight end’s body. So a lot of teams started playing zone against us and we started picking them apart. Some teams tried to put a safety or linebacker out there and play man-to-man, and we licked our chops and went with Kellen.
“Because of Air Coryell, nickel and dime defenses became an every-game proposition,” Bauer said. “He changed the way the game is played today.”
Fouts said Air Coryell meant many things.
“I don’t know that it’s so much one thing that you could point to,” Fouts said. “It was an attitude of fearlessness and aggressiveness and of fun. He was not afraid to try new things. He was not afraid to attack the entire length and breadth of a football field. He wanted his players to enjoy it.”
In 14 NFL season, Coryell had a record of 111-83-1.