When 49-year old Don Coryell arrived here in 1973, he was a typical Bill Bidwill hire. He had coached the previous 12 seaosn at San Diego State University, he was was completely new to the professional football scene, he was out of left field.
What’s more, he inherited a team that finished 4-9-1 the previous two seasons, a franchise that had accomplished next to nothing during13 years in St. Louis. But it didn’t take long for the Cardinals, the franchise and their football fans to realize there was something different about this unlikely new coach, something profound.
“After the first meeting we had with him, and he started talking about how he liked to throw the ball, and some of the things he believed in,” recalled former Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart, “it was like, ’Whoa! You got us, pal.’ ”
Cardinals running back Jim Otis, the hard-running substance in Coryell’s stylish offense, played college football for legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, and he played two seasons for Super Bowl winner Hank Stram in Kansas City. But he had never experienced anything like Coryell.
“He was totally different as a coach,” Otis said. “With the stare, the intensity, the brutal honesty and all that things that went with Don Coryell, he was one of a kind. And we loved him.”
The St. Louis sports scene has featured many accomplished coaches and managers through the years. The list includes colorful and charismatic figures like Branch Rickey, Dan Devine, Scotty Bowman, Whitey Herzog, Charlie Spoonhour, Dick Vermeil and Tony La Russa. Coryell, who died in La Mesa, Calif. on Thursday at the age of 85, demands a prominent place among them.
Ironically enough, Coryell’s first team in St. Louis also finished 4-9-1, but the difference was clear. “You could tell,” Hart said. “We were a lot closer to winning. You could feel we were on to something.”
From 1974 to 1977, Coryell’s Cardinals were something. The Football Cardinals strung together three consecutive seaons with double-fugure wins and captured two division championships - the first and only division crowns the team enjoyed in St. Louis.
By the mid-1970s, Coryell’s “Cardiac Cardinals” had morphed into the most entertaining team in the NFL and the toast of the town. During the 1975 season, the Cardinals finished 11-3 with eight of their games – including seven wins – decided in the final minute. That team sent nine players to the NFL Pro Bowl.
Mel Gray, a star at the University of Missouri, was a spot receiver until Coryell arrived and made him a full-time starter. “He came to me and said Mel, I’m going to make you my starter, and I was in awe,” Gray said. “I had no idea what this man was about, but he came in and it was just amazing. His practices were tough, but he made it fun.”
Under Coryell, Gray went to four consecutive Pro Bowls and became one of the most dangerous long threats in the game. “When he first came as a coach, I wasn’t making much money and I had a little side job to earn extra money,” said Gray, who caught passes in 121 consecutive games at one stage in his career. “I made it to the first two (summer workouts) and then I missed a couple made the last one.
“Coach Coryell came up to me at the last pratcice and said, ’You’re a hot dog.’ And I said, ’Hot dog? I kind of smiled and said, ’Coach, I don’t see any ketchup or mustard on me, why did you call me a hot dog?’
“He said, ’Well, you come out here for a couple of practices and then you leave.’ Then I explained to him what was going on, that Mr. Bidwill wasn’t paying me a heckuva lot of money and I had to have a job.
“At the end of the season, Coach Coryell came up to me and hugged me and he apologized for what he said. I mean, that’s why guys loved him, he cared about the players. It was a sad day when he left and it’s a sad day for football that he’s gone.”
Like Gray, Hart’s career took off under Coryell. In 1972, playing for Cardinals coach Bob Hollway, Hart started only four games. When Coryell arrived, he looked at film of Hart and told him he was his starter. Over the next five seasons (1973-77), Hart threw for nearly 13,000 yards and 85 touchdowns.
Like all those who knew Coryell, Hart marvelled at his former coach’s intensity.
With his wrinkled brow and squinting eye, he seemed perpetually preturbed, stalking the sidlines, encouraging his players, exuberating competitive fire. He was an infectuous combination of steely resolve and sappy emotion.
“Guys learned after the first couple of Saturday nights in teem meetings with Don not to sit in the aisle,” Hart recalled. “Because when he started talking to us about the opponent, about what we were going to do and how we were going to attack them and stuff, he’d start walking down the aisle.
“And I can still picture him with those arms kind of flexed a little at each side, walking down the middle of the aisle, and he’s punching guys as he’s punctuates his talk going by. He’s saying, ’And we’re going to do this! And we’re going do that!’ And guys are flinching and ducking to get out of the way. So after a while, those chairs on the end of the aisle were vacant when we hold those meetings.
“But you know, he would talk about George Allen (the Redskins coach), or (Tom) Landry and how we’re going to get back at them, and things like that. It was just fun.”
Mark Arneson, a linebacker with the Cardinals from 1972-1980, remembers Coryell’s gung-ho nature sometimes got the best of him.
“I remember Conrad Dobler in his rookie year would pretty much get into a fight a day,” Arneson said. “And I remember one day at practice Conrad and defensive end Charlie Davis got into a fight, and they were just throwing punches at each other like crazy. And for some reason, I don’t know why, Coach Coryell decided he personally was going to break up this fight.
“So he jumps into the middle of this fight, and mind you, he’s like 5-feet-8, like 150 pounds, but he jumps in and Charlie Davis throws a punch that lands right on Coach Coryell’s nose. There was an immediate gusher. It broke his nose and blood was pouring down his face and all over his shirt, and it was pretty hilarious.
“But we were all afraid to laugh because he was so mad and upset. He never tried to stop any fights after that.”
Unfortunately for the St. Louis football faithful, Coryell’s time with the Cardinals came to an abrupt end. After a promising 7-3 start in 1977, the team last its last four games and 7-7. Things got worse when management failed to re-sign Terry Metcalf and the electifying halfback jumped to the Canadian Football League.
Upset at losing Metcalf, disillusioned by his lack of authority in draft and personnel matters, Coryell departed as well, becoming head coach of the San Diego Chargers His “Air Coryell” offense became one of the greatest passing offenses in NFL history in San Diego, as he took the Chargers to the playoffs four times. The Cardinals would never have another season of double-figures wins.
Still, in the years to follow, St. Louis and his Cardinals players remained special to Coryell.
“When I would talk to him, I would congratulate him on his success in San Diego,” Hart said. “And he would always say, ’We could have done that. If I could have stayed, we could have had more success.’ That was one of his laments - that he wasn’t with us long enough to do something more.”
For those who played for him, there is no question Coryell belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame. Two coaches who already are in the Hall - John Madden and Joe Gibbs - were assistants under Coryell. He also mentored noted coordinators like Ernie Zampese and Al Saunders, as well as highly-regarded offensive line coach and former Cardinals head coach Jim Hanifan.
“I came from Woody Hayes and Hank Stram to Don Coryell and let me tell you, it was a shock,” said Otis, who became a 1,000-yard rusher and Pro Bowl participant under Coryell. “As far as learning football and being educated, I learned more from Don Coryell than anyone else.
“He should be in the Hall of Fame... He’s the guy those other guys would call when they had a question or needed help.”
Arneson said the Cardinals overachieved because of Coryell. “He wanted to win and we knew he wanted to win,” Arneson said. “I think we performed a notch above what he could do just because of his influence and his desire. He made all of us better player and able to reach down and do whatever it took to win. He was a great coach, he really was.”
Otis said the likes of Coryell aren’t anywhere to be seen in today’s game. “You’re damn right we’re going to miss him,” Otis added, “because he was his own guy. He was intense, but he treated the sports people with total respect, and sometimes today they don’t do that.
“It’s a very sad day for all of us.”