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Remembering the legacy of Air Coryell
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Forsyth County News
Sad news last Thursday when innovative football coach Don Coryell passed away. He was 85.

Ironically, the evening before he died, the NFL Network chose to replay one of his most famous games. How many of you remember The Freezer Bowl?

On January 10, 1982 — the same day Dwight Clark made The Catch for the 49ers — Coryell’s Chargers met the Bengals in Cincinnati for the AFC Championship.

The Chargers’ offense, masterminded by Coryell, had become so potent that it was nicknamed for its creator:  Air Coryell.  

On game day, the temperature at Riverfront Stadium was a brisk minus 9 degrees. But a piercing 35 mile-per-hour wind ricocheting through the stadium created a wind chill of minus 59 degrees. It took that arctic blast to ground Air Coryell, 27-7. How do we know?

Just a week earlier, Coryell’s Chargers had played their other most famous game. The weather for this one came out of the tropics: 79 degrees and humidity off the charts. The Chargers beat the Dolphins in Miami, 41-38. The overtime thriller still ranks as one of the best games ever played.

The Chargers led 24-0 after the first quarter. It was 24-17 at the half. The teams wound up combining for 836 passing yards. Dan Fouts, the Chargers quarterback, went 33-of-53 for 433 yards and 3 touchdowns.

But the most enduring image of the game remains Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow repeatedly being helped off the field, totally spent by his 13-catch, 166-yard effort.

Throughout both games, Coryell paced along the Charger sideline, a bundle of nervous energy, his face twisted into a constant scowl by his incredible intensity. Coryell was the embodiment of how we picture a football coach.

“I gave it everything I had,” Coryell told the Los Angeles Times in 1992.

“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.”

Then came the insight into his softer side.

“I don’t miss coaching one bit. Not a lick. I miss the people, the coaches, and those great players. Those great guys.”

His assistants and his players were always people first to Coryell.

“As an assistant, he treated you as an equal,” John Madden told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times. Madden was an assistant on Coryell’s staff at San Diego State in the ’60s, along with Joe Gibbs, Ernie Zampese, Jim Hanifan and Rod Dowhower.

“Players were always the most important thing to him,” Madden continued.

“I think he had more respect for his players and coaches than anyone I’ve ever known. We tend to jump right to the coaching part, the offensive part, and the passing game. But his number one thing was his handling of the team. He was a master at it.”

Current Chargers announcer Hand Bauer played on Coryell’s first Chargers team.  

“He walked in and met our team for the first time and he was just this little bundle of energy, flying around the meeting,” Bauer told the Associated Press.

“He said, ‘You know what?  We’re going to have fun.  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.”

Coryell led the Chargers from 1978-’86, the culmination of his coaching career. But he was always an innovator. He’s credited with creating the I-formation as a high school coach in Hawaii in the ’50s. He installed the offense at Southern Cal in 1960 as an assistant under John McKay, who ran it so successfully into the next decade that Southern Cal became known as Tailback U.

By then Coryell was turning San Diego State from a small college about to phase out football into a competitive Division I program. From 1961-’72, Coryell went 104-19-2, with undefeated seasons in ’66, ’68, and ’69.

While at San Diego State, Coryell developed the West Coast offense.

“We could only recruit a limited number of runners and linemen against schools like USC and UCLA,” he told Bill Center of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“There seemed to be a deeper supply of quarterbacks and receivers. And the passing game was also open to some new ideas.”

Once rolling, Coryell’s Aztecs went 55-1-1 from 1965 to ’70. By 1973, the NFL had noticed. Coryell became coach of the perennially inept St. Louis Cardinals. After a 4-9-1 start, Coryell won three straight division titles. In typical Bidwellian fashion, the Cardinals let him go after a 7-7 season in 1977.

By the time he finished coaching the Chargers, Coryell had become the only coach to win 100 games in college and the NFL. He had developed the one back offense, invented the H-back position, and created the modern tight end.

But Don Coryell’s legacy went far beyond influencing how the game is played to this day.  

“It’s not just me,” Fouts told the Associated Press.

“All his players, Aztecs, Cardinals, Chargers, to a man, would tell you that he was their friend.”

Bauer echoed those sentiments.

“I feel like I lost a member of my family,” he told Center.

“The unique thing about that is that there are probably two million people in this city who feel the same way. That’s the kind of impact Don Coryell had here.”