Don Coryell dies at 85; longtime coach of the San Diego Chargers

Don Coryell, longtime coach of the San Diego Chargers and architect of an ahead-of-its-time passing offense, died Thursday. He was 85.

Coryell had battled a lengthy illness and was surrounded by his family when he died at Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, the Chargers said.

FOR THE RECORD: The obituary of former San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell in Friday’s LATExtra section misidentified Coryell’s wife and said that she died last year. Her name was Aliisa, not Barbara, and she died in 2008.

“We are terribly saddened by the passing of Coach Coryell,” Chargers President Dean Spanos said. “He revolutionized the game of football, not only in San Diego but throughout the entire NFL.”

Coryell spent 14 seasons as an NFL head coach, five with the St. Louis Cardinals and nine with San Diego. He compiled a career record of 111-83-1, and his famed “Air Coryell” offense led the league in passing yardage every season from 1978 through 1983.


“It was a unique style, very atypical and yet successful,” Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts said. “I don’t think there will ever be another coach like him. There’s a lot that want to imitate him, which is fantastic.”

Under Coryell, the Chargers played in four divisional title games, winning three of them, and reached two AFC championship games. His groundbreaking passing attack helped revolutionize pro football as it’s now known.

“He’s one of just a handful of people who had an impact on this game forever. He changed it,” said Mike Martz, the Chicago Bears’ offensive coordinator whose football philosophy is based in part on Coryell’s teachings. “I’m not sure why that hasn’t been acknowledged by the Hall of Fame.”

Super Bowl-winning coaches John Madden and Joe Gibbs were assistants under Coryell, as were notable coordinators such as Ernie Zampese, Al Saunders, Jim Hanifan and Rod Dowhower. Those NFL notables formed the branches of a coaching tree that later helped shape coaches such as Norv Turner (who learned under Zampese) and Martz (who studied under Zampese and Turner).


“It was the way he treated players,” Madden said by phone. “I think that was something that was missed. We tend to jump right to the coaching part, the offensive part, and the passing game. But his No. 1 thing was his handling of the team. He was a master of it.

“As an assistant, he treated you as an equal. Players were always the most important thing to him. I think he had more respect for his players and coaches than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Coryell’s influence wasn’t felt just at the pro level. He was a successful coach at Whittier College and San Diego State, amassing a record of 127-24-3. He was the only head coach to win more than 100 games in college and the pros.

“I have the highest regard for him and his impact on the sport,” Turner, the Chargers’ current coach, said of Coryell. “Even though I didn’t get a chance to personally work for him, you almost feel as though you did because of the influence he had on the guys who I learned from, guys like Ernie Zampese. He will most definitely be missed.”


It was Coryell who originated the three-digit play-calling system that most NFL teams still use.

He came up with the idea of a one-back offense, and essentially invented the H-back position.

His “passing tree” of receiving routes is now commonplace at all levels of football.

And perhaps most notably, instead of using the tight end as an extra offensive lineman, he split him wide, away from the formation. He used sleeker, faster tight ends — most famously Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow — thereby creating an exceptionally dangerous receiving target.


The player with whom Coryell is most closely linked is Fouts, who spent his entire career with the Chargers, from 1973 through 1987.

A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Fouts threw for more than 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, led the NFL in passing four years in a row and threw at least 20 touchdowns six times. His season-high passing total of 4,802 yards during the 1981 season was an NFL record at the time.

Fouts led a campaign last year to get his former coach into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That fell just short, however, as Coryell reached the final 15 candidates in February for the first time but failed to make the final cut.

“I owe him so much,” Fouts said by phone Thursday night. “It’s really hard.”


Donald David Coryell was born Oct. 17, 1924, in Seattle. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Washington.

He coached the Chargers from 1978 through 1986. When he was done with coaching, he and his wife, Barbara, split their time between homes on Molokai in Hawaii and in Washington’s San Juan Islands.

“This retirement business is really easy,” Coryell told The Times in 1992. “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 wife died last year. Information on survivors was incomplete Thursday.