The old coach has still got it: The flat stomach, the sturdy, proud chest, the ruddy-faced enthusiasm. And for the wrong question--that sideline scowl.
At age 67, Don Coryell still looks very much like a football coach ready to tackle training camp, but when the Chargers gather at UC San Diego next month, they will do so for the sixth consecutive year without Coryell.
Has it really been that long?
The offensive wizard, who placed San Diego State on the football map and who just missed putting the Chargers into the Super Bowl, remains one of this town’s shining lights in sports. But all that ingenuity and all that intensity have gone fishing.
“This retirement business is really easy,” Coryell said. “I don’t miss coaching one bit. Not a lick. I miss the people, the coaches and those great players. Those great guys.
“But I gave it everything I had. I didn’t want to die on the football field and I might have if I had stayed around much longer. I was tired. No question, I was physically and mentally shot.”
Coryell’s game plan, beginning with his acceptance of a seven-year contract in 1980 to continue coaching the Chargers, was to retire at the conclusion of the 1986 season. He looked forward to retirement, he said at the time, but he also had the look of man who was preparing himself only for the next first-and-10.
“When it came time, I was really hoping we would win that last year,” he said. “That’s my only regret in football . . . and we started off so well.”
Coryell’s Chargers blasted Miami, 50-28, on opening day in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, and although he did not know it at the time, it was his final victory as a coach. The Chargers went on to drop seven games in a row. Owner Alex Spanos summoned Coryell to his office. There were eight games to play, but less than an hour after meeting with the owner, the Chargers announced in a press release that Coryell had informed Spanos that he had quit.
“I was fired,” said Coryell, addressing the unceremonious end to his coaching career for the first time since his departure. “Hell yes, I was fired.”
So why did he allow the Chargers to contend at the time that he had left the team voluntarily.
“Just easier,” he said.
Coryell departed the good soldier on Oct. 29, 1986, but he has not returned.
He has attended several San Diego State football games and he was inducted into the Aztec Hall of Fame. He has contributed his time to SDSU’s fund-raising endeavors, and each year an Aztec freshman football player from the San Diego area receives a scholarship in Coryell’s name.
Coryell, however, has not revisited San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium to watch the Chargers.
“The Chargers were my whole life, but not anymore,” he said. “I’m just not ready to go to a game. Maybe I will be ready some day.”
When the Chargers grounded Air Coryell, they did so without fanfare. With the passing of time, there has been no attempt to honor or acknowledge the accomplishments of Coryell and his crowd-pleasing athletes.
His watch is gold, but it has not come from the Chargers. “It’s an old Pro Bowl one,” he said. “The battery in my other watch went crazy.”
The Chargers have not inducted anyone into their Hall of Fame since 1985, ignoring so far such memory-makers as Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. This past week the team announced the return of the Lightning Bolt on the uniforms this season; there was no mention of the coach who had initially put the charge in that symbol for football firepower.
When Coryell assumed command of the Chargers on Sept. 25, 1978 they were retreating at 1-3. By season’s end, Coryell had them winning seven of their last eight games. The following year the Chargers were in the playoffs. In 1980, they were playing for the AFC Championship.
“The first 10 years in this league--the five in St. Louis and the first five in San Diego--they were great,” Coryell said. “The last four were tough. We just didn’t do it.”
Gene Klein, who hired Coryell to coach the Chargers, sold controlling interest in the club to Spanos in 1984. Spanos made it clear within his new organization that he did not like Coryell, but he was not about to publicly challenge Coryell’s popularity.
After the Chargers went 8-8 in 1985, Spanos promoted Al Saunders to assistant head coach, and then ignored Coryell. Spanos empowered the politically minded Saunders to make all the football decisions usually reserved for the head coach.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have (put up with that),” Coryell said. “I had another year before I was going to retire. I was going to leave no matter what at the end of that year. I had just one year left . . .
“I always said, get me the players and give me the field and I’ll do my best to coach them. But no, you’ve got to have a say in what players you get and what players you keep. When they shipped off (linebacker) Linden King, I couldn’t believe it. Maybe I should have quit right then.”
Down the stretch, the team no longer belonged to Coryell. Personnel decisions were handed to Ron Nay, who had Spanos’ ear as director of college scouting. When it came time to hire a new defensive coordinator, Saunders hand-picked Ron Lynn. Spanos, Saunders and Nay met routinely to plot the future of the team; Coryell was not invited.
“They were bad years,” he said. “We had no control of who was going to play and who was going to stay. With Gene and Johnny (Sanders, former Charger general manager), you could sit down and talk to them and they would listen. Gene was going to do what he wanted to do anyway, but at least he would listen. Johnny would do anything he could to help. We’d work together.”
Coryell is not comfortable discussing days best forgotten, but the fisherman remains a proud competitor. “I wanted so badly to win that last year. I have nothing against the organization, but no question . . .
“He (Spanos) has his own ideas. He wanted his team, he’s the owner and he wanted to hire his people. That’s fine. I just wish we could have won and then there wouldn’t have been any problem.”
He began his final season as head coach with Saunders peering over his shoulder, but he did not complain to management or media. “I had learned from what had happened in St. Louis,” he said. “In St. Louis I just blew my stack with management and raised hell and I wasn’t going to do that again.”
In St. Louis, Coryell believed he was losing control in personnel matters to owner Bill Bidwell. Uncharacteristically, he said so publicly, and was dismissed.
“I hit the wall,” he said. “We lost to Washington and I couldn’t stand to lose to that guy (George Allen). I hated that guy so much, I just went haywire and never should have. I should have had more loyalty to the guy who hired me. A lot of the players there felt I had turned on them, although I didn’t in my mind. I didn’t want that to happen here.
“This is my home,” he said, while pounding the table. “This is the town I loved. These fans, they were the best. I didn’t want anyone saying that it was sour grapes. So I told myself, just keep your mouth shut and go on your way.”
For the longest time--the best of times--the Chargers were Don Coryell. But Don Coryell is not here to dwell on the past, he said. “There is too much living to do,” he said.
He said he has given away most of his Charger memorabilia. He swears he has not doodled an offensive play since the day he left San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. He has one copy of a Charger playbook, but he noticed recently, “that of all things, it doesn’t have the pass offense.”
He has accepted an invitation to visit the Redskins’ training camp this summer. He said he watches the Redskins’ games because so many of his former coaching associates are with Washington, and of course he follows the Rams because former Charger offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese calls the plays.
He loves to watch John Madden, Dan Fouts, Jim Laslavic and Hank Bauer on TV. “Jim has really gotten good, hasn’t he?” he said. “I’m so damn proud of Hank, that sometimes I get as excited as he does.”
He believes in the power of vitamins and bananas, just as he did when he was coaching. He still has the lisp when he talks, and it’s hard to stifle a laugh while recalling how well players such as Fouts and Billy Ray Smith could mimic him. He hears folks mention, “Air Coryell,” and it makes him both proud and embarrassed. “It sounds kind of corny,” he said. “But it’s funny, people remember it.”
The old coach is still one of a kind. Those stories detailing his paranoia about spies being here, there and everywhere, well, they were true. When he saw a helicopter fly over Mission Valley, he figured it was manned by the opposition. When he spotted shiny objects off in the distance, he sent staff assistants climbing the hill beyond Interstate 8. “There sure as hell could have been some spies,” he said upon reflection. “The game means a helluva lot to a lot of people; you don’t think some of them might not try?”
He is asked all the time for his most memorable moment with the Chargers. He said, “There are so many,” and then his eyes become red and misty. “I remember the 17-7 win over Denver (1979) and Charlie Joiner limping around. He could hardly walk and he caught that touchdown to put the game out of reach. That was a do-or-die game and Charlie did it. Charlie was quite a guy.”
He is still in love with his players, a coach who genuinely appreciated the skill and camaraderie of the game. “Oh, wasn’t Danny something?” he said. “I think Kellen would have been the greatest tight end to ever have played the game if it wasn’t for that damn knee he hurt. . . . Shoot, even at the end all those guys were putting out; they would never lay down no matter what the score.”
His team lost an AFC championship game to Cincinnati in deep-freeze conditions, but he frets more about the title defeat to Oakland following the 1980 season. “I feel we should have won it,” he said. “Philadelphia was there in the Super Bowl, and I think we had already beaten them that year and could have again.”
He compiled an astounding 104-19-2 mark at San Diego State from 1961 to 1972, then won a pair of division titles with the Cardinals. In his first 10 years in the National Football League, his combined record with the Cardinals and Chargers was 89-49-1. “I made a mistake,” he said with a grin. “I should have quit after 10 years.”
There were tough losses, but he’ll be damned if he can remember many of them. “That’s one reason I was able to last so long in this game,” he said. “I’ve been able to forget anything I didn’t want to remember.”
His concentration on game day, however, was legendary. He would stare straight through his closest friend and never know they had crossed paths. “I’m afraid I may have embarrassed people or hurt their feelings,” he said. “I was thinking about the ballgame and I’d walk right by people.”
A visitor refers to him as one of the biggest sports personalities San Diego has known, and a blushing Coryell will have none of it. “Ever hear of Ted Williams?” he said. “Archie Moore? That shrimp cocktail must be getting to you.”
He has known Charger General Manager Bobby Beathard since those grand days at San Diego State when Beathard would come to scout. “There is no question in my mind that he is going to win,” he said. “I’ve heard things about Bobby Ross and he’s a great coach. I’d like to meet him.”
Bobby Ross should be so successful. Coryell coached the Chargers through 132 games--and how many times did that cannon go off? But he has videotape of only one contest--the Chargers’ stirring 41-38 overtime victory over Miami.
“I’m not exactly sure where it is,” he said. “My wife says that I have seen that game, but I don’t think I ever have. I think she imagines that. It might be fun to look at, but there are too many other things to do right now. When I get old and can’t do anything else, OK.”
By the time Don Coryell gets old, you and yours will have passed. His mother is 99, and still tough enough to tell her son that she needs no help keeping her own house in order.
Try and keep up: Since leaving the Chargers, Coryell and his wife, Aliisa, have visited Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Austria, New Zealand, Fiji and Hawaii. He will go fishing in Alaska with former Charger Ed White in August, and he would like to spend several months making his way around Australia.
Coryell drew the plans and helped build a new home on Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands just above Washington state. He has put his home in El Cajon up for sale, but he said he will return to San Diego each year. “We have a forest service cabin that we lease in the Laguna Mountains,” he said. “It’s just a 70- or 80-year-old shack with no running water, but we’d like to come back each year and use it.”
Nothing’s changed--the days continue to be too short for Don Coryell. Coryell and his wife are on their bicycles for a two-hour ride each morning before most consider breakfast. After packing a lunch, they take to their canoe or their ’78 Jeep, and do not return until dark.
“It’s a good life,” he said. “We could eat fish, crab and clams every night if we wanted to, and we do just about. We’re right on the water. In two minutes we can get into our boat, take off and be in a bay where there isn’t anyone.”
He’s as protective of his crab traps as he was about his football team. When he discovered some crabs missing recently, his first thought was that someone had stolen them--spies, you know--but then he laughed. “There’s no way that could happen,” he said. “I don’t know, though.”
An ailing knee has ended his backpacking days, but now the fish don’t have a chance.
“I’m really not that good, you know,” he said. “I just drop a line in the water, and if they take it, OK. I’m just learning.
“But I love the water. Out on the water there are no problems. There are not too many people around. We get plenty of exercise. No stress. No strain. We go into town on Monday and Thursday usually, get the mail and buy the papers so we can start a fire during the week. We don’t get TV. No ballgames. I love it.”
This was the tightly wound coach who was obsessed with the game of football. As the story goes, when he was told that the Chargers would not be able to use the stadium for practice, he objected.
“The Padres need it,” he was advised.
“They’re still playing baseball?” he replied.
“They are in the World Series,” he was told.
“Good for them.”
The story is repeated for Coryell’s benefit, and he waves his arms in disbelief, but he does not deny it.
“I thought about football all the time,” he said. “Every minute of the day. The only time I could turn it off was when I went backpacking because there would be so many problems up in the mountains. You’d be tired, and aching, and you’d have to find some wood, and a place to boil the damn water.
“In football I was really behind the door in anything else that went on in the whole world. I didn’t pay any attention. I didn’t know who the national news commentators were. Singers, actors, any of those people. I remember seeing one movie with my daughter, ‘The Love Bug.’ That was it in 20 years.
“Maybe I’d get home on Friday night for dinner, but we were working every night. People talk about TV shows they have watched, but I never saw them. You do whatever you can to win.”
Don Coryell won, all right, but in retrospect didn’t he miss out on some things in life?
“Shoot,” he said. “Not that I know of.”