Don Coryell’s family and his biggest supporter chose to look at Saturday as a beginning rather than an end.
“I’m really thrilled that he got this far,” said Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback who has led the campaign for his former coach to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I think it’s a great first step.”
Coryell, who coached the Chargers from early in the 1978 season through 1986 and is credited with molding football’s modern passing game, was denied passage to the Hall Saturday.
A panel of 44 writers who cover the NFL did select all-time receiving leader Jerry Rice, all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith, Denver Broncos running back Floyd Little, Detroit cornerback Dick LeBeau, Washington guard Russ Grimm, New Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson and Minnesota defensive tackle John Randle as the Hall of Fame’s 2010 class.
This was the first time Coryell has been among the 15 finalists considered by the selection committee on the Saturday before the Super Bowl.
According to one of the voters, the debate over Coryell was the longest among the 15 before the list of finalists was trimmed to 10, which Coryell did not make.
Coryell’s daughter, Mindy Lewis, said, “He wanted to thank the players and coaches who worked so hard for him and to congratulate the guys who did make it.”
Coryell, 85, is in the hospital, but Lewis said her father “is doing better.” He has lived with Lewis and her family in San Diego for about a year.
“We were all very disappointed,” Lewis said, adding the family remains “optimistic” Coryell will make the Hall.
Coryell’s Chargers team led the NFL in passing six straight seasons (1978-83), and “Air Coryell” led the league in passing again in 1985. They also led the league in total offense five of the six years from 1980-85.
Coryell’s “passing tree” is used by most NFL teams to this day, and the way he used his offensive personnel — splitting the tight end wide and essentially inventing the one-back offense, among other innovations — spawned new defenses in the 1970s and ’80s.
In their Hall of Fame acceptance speeches, Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow, former Coryell assistant and Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs and former Coryell assistant and Raiders head coach John Madden all mentioned Coryell and lobbied for his inclusion into the Hall.
Additionally, Ernie Zampese and Al Saunders, who would later be offensive coordinators in Super Bowls, once coached under Coryell. Norv Turner, who won Super Bowls as a coordinator, would learn from Zampese. Mike Martz, who worked under Turner, also won a Super Bowl as a coordinator.
“Look at the number of people who are in this league who he’s had an effect on,” Turner said last night. “... You can’t argue with the guys they selected, but there is a place for Coach Coryell in the Hall of Fame.”
Coryell’s detractors point to his never getting to a Super Bowl.
Despite leading the Chargers to the playoffs from 1979-82, Coryell’s teams never made it to the big game. The Chargers twice lost in the AFC Championship.
His record with the Chargers was 69-56 (. 552), plus 3-4 in the postseason.
Coryell coached the St. Louis Cardinals from 1973 to ’77 before he came to San Diego, leading them to division titles in 1974 and ’75 and going 42-27-1.
In fact, he turned around both franchises. The Cardinals had not made the postseason in the 24 seasons before Coryell arrived, and the Chargers had gone 13 years without a playoff appearance before hiring Coryell four games into the ’78 season.
When it was mentioned some voters decry Coryell’s Hall credentials because of his lack of Super Bowls, Fouts said last night: “I hope they enjoy watching the Super Bowl tomorrow. They’re going to see Coryell’s influence on the game.”
Fouts began an earnest campaign two years ago, urging Hall voters to consider the man who is often referred to as the father of the modern passing game.
Others joined the fight, including Gibbs, who in a letter to voters this year called Coryell “a football genius” and wrote that “Don pioneered the way for an explosive passing game in our league.”
Fouts said he looked forward to continuing the campaign.
“To get into that room, to get into the discussion and see the outpouring of support he got (from) all the people who talked to voters on Don’s behalf, that group will only grow,” Fouts said. “... It’s going to get stronger and louder.”
Kevin Acee has been at The San Diego Union-Tribune since 1999 and a sportswriter for more than two decades. Before assuming his role as Padres beat writer, Acee was the Union-Tribune's lead Chargers beat writer for seven seasons and then a columnist for six years. A San Diego native and Chico State alumnus, Acee covered the Anaheim Angels for the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Dodgers for the Daily News of Los Angeles.