Subscribe for 99¢
1974-cardinals-coryell.jpg

December 1974: The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate by carrying coach Don Coryell off the Busch Stadium field after winning their first division championship. (Ted Dargan / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

The Saturday night pep talks were great theater. Players always looked forward to them, with front-row seats highly desirable.

That’s because Don Coryell was a tremendous motivator, and had no internal filter. It all came from the heart, with a couple of pre-speech martinis helping to loosen any inhibitions.

“He wore it all out in the open,” Dan Dierdorf said. “He had no hidden agendas. He couldn’t help himself. It’s what he was, and we all knew it, and we loved him for it.”

With Coryell it was always “us against the world.” Sometimes the motivation would come from newspaper articles that Coryell would bring along. Sometimes he’d cry during these talks. Sometimes he’d throw a tantrum.

But to call Coryell an eccentric would be underselling his personality.

“Oh no,” Dierdorf said, chuckling. “Don was loopy.”

And on game day, look out. A former boxer and paratrooper, the wiry Coryell was the epitome of toughness in a small package.

“He was a tough banty rooster,” Dierdorf said. “That’s what we used to call him. When we’d play the Redskins, there wasn’t one of us who didn’t think that in Don Coryell’s perfect world, the game would come down to him just kicking George Allen’s (butt) at the 50-yard line. And how much he would enjoy doing it.”

Coryell’s passion and toughness endeared him to his players. And in what was very much a “my way or the highway era” of football coaches, Coryell’s approach to player relations was almost unheard of for the times.

He didn’t make rules just to have rules. He encouraged input from players. In the 1970s, when Coryell coached the St. Louis Cardinals, and on into the ’80s with the San Diego Chargers, he was a breath of fresh air.

“Don Coryell didn’t care about anything other than whether or not you could play,” said Dierdorf, a right tackle on the “Cardiac Cards” teams of the ’70s. “He didn’t care what you looked like. He didn’t care how long your hair was. And the players really responded to that.”

But what really set Coryell apart, and what has him on the doorstep of the Pro Football Hall of Fame once again, was his creativity and innovation.

Longtime Chargers and NFL writer Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, now retired, put it best.

“Football as we see it now is played the way it is because Coryell was the coach he was,” Magee said. “Coryell was an original thinker in a game that doesn’t have many.”

He either invented or pioneered use of the digit system to call plays, the route tree of pass patterns, the one-back offense, and the hybrid tight end/fullback position known as the H-back.

The list of coaches who worked for him or were influenced by him is legendary: John Madden, Joe Gibbs, Jim Hanifan, Mike Martz, Ernie Zampese, Al Saunders, and on and on ...

Martz idolized Coryell growing up in San Diego. In high school, Martz watched Coryell’s San Diego State Aztecs play at San Diego Stadium. As a junior college tight end, Martz dreamed of playing for Coryell, and Coryell once came out to watch him practice, but never offered Martz — who was small for the position — a scholarship.

Years later, as an NFL coordinator and head coach, Martz took the aggressive Coryell offensive philosophy and turned it into the “Greatest Show on Turf.” In 2001, Coryell watched a Rams practice in Earth City and humbly praised Martz’s offense.

“Maybe (my offense) seeded something, but I tell you, he cranked up that old car and really has it moving,” Coryell said.

At a time when the NFL was low-risk and run-oriented, Coryell threw the ball all over the lot and took chances.

“He thought outside the box,” said Kellen Winslow, who played tight end on Coryell’s Chargers teams. “He wanted to move the ball down the field. He knew the quickest way to the end zone was more than likely through the air.”

With his East St. Louis roots, Winslow became a huge fan of Coryell’s Cardiac Cards, and when he finished at the University of Missouri his fervent desire was to play for Coryell in San Diego. He got his wish when the Chargers drafted him in the first round in 1979.

Those ’79 Chargers, Coryell’s first full season in San Diego, became the first AFC West division championship team to have more passing plays than rushing plays in a season. That’s how far ahead of the times Coryell was. Today, it’s highly unusual for a team to have more rushing plays than passing plays over the course of a season.

The Chargers of Winslow, quarterback Dan Fouts and wide receiver Charlie Joiner led the NFL in passing yards for a staggering six consecutive seasons and seven of the eight full seasons with Coryell as head coach.

“He was fun,” Fouts said. “Every day was a little bit different. But the message was always the same: Go for it.”

Wednesdays often were the best day of the week, Fouts said, because that’s the day they’d get the game plan from Coryell.

“We’d walk out of that meeting sky-high knowing that there were times when they couldn’t stop us,” Fouts said.

For all the passing in today’s NFL, it’s largely a dink-and-dunk world. Not so for the “Air Coryell” teams in San Diego.

“Each play had a deep ball built in, and that was my first read,” Fouts said. “And if you’ve got it, you take it. (If not), you work your way back to the line of scrimmage.”

Dierdorf, Winslow, Fouts and Joiner are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So are Coryell coaching proteges Madden and Gibbs. So why isn’t Coryell, who died in 2010 at age 85, in there with them?

He’s a finalist this year for the fourth time, and for the third year in a row. Fouts actually is a Hall of Fame voter this year, and has been lobbying on Coryell’s behalf.

“Let’s be realistic,” Dierdorf said. “How many Super Bowls did Don coach in? We both know the answer.”

None. And his postseason record was only 3-6.

“There has to me always been almost a Super Bowl bias regardless of whether you were a coach or a player,” Dierdorf said. “That it was held against you if you never were a regular participant in that game.”

But Coryell was the first coach to win 100 games both at the college and pro levels. He resuscitated struggling franchises in San Diego and St. Louis. The Cardinals hadn’t been in a playoff game since 1948 — when based in Chicago — before they got there with Coryell in 1974 (and 1975).

He won three straight division titles (1979-81) in San Diego, which previously hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1965.

“What you’re talking about with Don Coryell is not just the won-lost record. It’s the impact on the game overall,” Dierdorf said.

“Guys that changed the game that dramatically should be recognized for it,” Martz said. “He didn’t just tweak it, he changed it for good.”

Jim Thomas covers Blues hockey for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.