Donald David Coryell was born in the state of Washington in 1924, grew up there and, like many of his generation who came of age during World War II, served in the United States Army for three-and-a-half years as a paratrooper.
After getting out of the service he enrolled at the University of Washington where he played football as a defensive back from 1949-1951.
He decided to try coaching and became an assistant at Washington in 1950 and after earning a master’s degree, coached at Farmington High School in Hawaii in 1952. After stops at the University of British Colombia, Wenatchee Valley State and Fort Ord, he became head coach at Whittier College (Richard Nixon’s alma mater) from 1957-59, compiling a 22-5-1 record for the Poets.
After a stop at USC as an assistant, he spent 11 seasons as head coach at San Diego State. He went 104-19-2 with three undefeated seasons and helped develop the program to the NCAA Division I level.
He was influenced by the nearby San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman and often took his team to observe the Chargers’ practices.
Gillman was one of the first coaches to realize the importance of spreading the field or utilizing the field horizontally. Up until then football was seen as a vertical, up and down the field game, mainly utilizing the run as the primary offensive tool.
Coryell adopted the technique of short passes to sides of the field and added to it sending two receivers deep, making the passing game dominant in the offense. Up until that time the pass had been used to set up the running game.
Several notable quarterbacks who had success in the NFL emerged from San Diego State, the most notable of which was Brian Sipe, who was one of the last successful quarterbacks for the Cleveland Browns.
In 1973 Coryell moved to the NFL to coach the St. Louis Cardinals. In his rookie coaching year the team went 4-9 but the following season improved to 10-4 and a trip to the playoffs.
After five seasons in St. Louis he moved back to San Diego to coach the Chargers where he would gain success and fame. He teamed with QB Dan Fouts, and Fouts threw so many times that the term “Air Coryell” was coined.
In 1978 in Coryell’s second season at the helm, Fouts’ passing attempts increased from 381 to 530 and his yardage to 4,082. In 1979 he became the first QB to have consecutive 4,000-yard seasons and had a third in 1981 with 4,805 and a league-leading 609 attempts.
That year they would play in one of pro football’s most memorable games for the AFC championship in Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati against the Bengals in a game later termed the “Freezer Bowl.”
The game time temperature was -9 degrees with a 40 mph wind, making the wind chill factor an astounding -58 degrees!
This made it difficult for the Chargers, who were accustomed to sunny California. Their previous week’s game had been held in 88 degree Miami.
Cincinnati coach Forest Gregg had already played in the famous “Ice Bowl” under Vince Lombardi against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 NFC Championship Game in Green Bay so knew what to expect in cold weather. But Coryell had little experience in cold climates, and cold weather makes passing more difficult.
The 40 mph wind blew across the field, and even though the Bengals won the coin toss, they elected to kick off so to have the wind at their backs. This was repeated in the second half so Fouts had to throw into the wind the entire game.
The Chargers turned the ball over four times, including two interceptions, and the Bengals won 27-7. The game was notable that rookie Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth played for Cincinnati.
The Bengals scored on two Jim Breech field goals, two touchdown passes from Kenny Anderson to M. L. Harris and Don Bass and a 1-yard run by fullback Pete Johnson.
The Chargers’ lone score came on a 33-yard score from Fouts to Kellen Winslow.
Don Coryell would never get to the Super Bowl although he also got to AFC Championship Game in 1980, losing 34-27 to Oakland. He finished his NFL career 111-83-1, becoming one of only a few coaches to win more than 100 games in both college and the NFL.
He was one of those people whose influence on the game – the emphasis on passing – was more important than his won-lost record.
Don Coryell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.