The wooden deck was in his mind before it was under his feet.
Don Coryell now stands high amid a thicket of fragrant cedars
and Douglas firs, soaking in the June day and the skree of a
passing gull. Before him to the north is the rest of the San
Juan archipelago, a maze of rugged, wooded islands off the
Washington coast that stretches out past the azure bay and on
toward British Columbia. Coryell began designing this
three-story house a decade ago, shortly after he ran a go route
from coaching in the NFL--and kept on going. He had never
designed a house before. "One thing I've always loved," the
71-year-old Coryell says, "is to take a blank sheet of paper and
make something out of it."
This is an article from the Aug. 1, 1996 issue
He was the NFL's Niels Bohr, Norman Vincent Peale and Nutty
Professor all rolled into one. The mere thought of Don
Coryell--with his revolutionary game plans, new formations every
week and unrelenting air attack--drove opposing defensive
coordinators to tormented distraction. His own players and
assistants held him no less dear than their firstborn children,
fondly swapping stories about how he used to coach in golf shoes
without spikes (a charge he denies to this day), or about the
burning single-mindedness that stamped the Scowl, in which his
mouth would tighten into a scar and his blue eyes would dance
like mad beetles under a hedgerow of eyebrows. The game demanded
total immersion, so Coryell would diagram plays on index cards
for hours on end; he would take drives in his car to dump the
garbage only to return home hours later with a new offensive set
in his head and the trash still in tow.
Coryell was the first--and still only--coach to amass at least
100 victories both in college, where he won 83.4% of his games,
and in the pros, where he won five division titles. As an
assistant at USC in 1960, he installed the I formation, which
went on to become college football's offense of choice for
decades. Under him the San Diego Chargers led the NFL in passing
a record six straight years, from 1978 to '83. Over five seasons
with the St. Louis Cardinals and in eight-plus with the
Chargers, he created the numbered system of pass routes that is
now used by every team; the H-back position that the Washington
Redskins later rode to three NFL championships; and, with Air
Coryell, a benchmark for the bombardment of passing that has
become commonplace in the NFL.
"Don exploded the myth that if you threw the football, three
things could happen and two of them were bad," says John
Madden, who was Coryell's defensive coordinator at San Diego
State in the mid-'60s. "All of a sudden it didn't matter the
down or the distance. Just throw it."
Coryell was at once wound tight and laid-back. One time, during
his reign at San Diego State (he was there from 1961 to '72,
taking what had been a doormat of a program to a 104-19-1
record), he switched off the lights in the locker room at
halftime and had his Aztecs listen to the opposition as it
readied itself upstairs for the second half. "You can hear them,
they're right up there," he whispered. "You hate them." In the
NFL he would stalk the sidelines looking like the light
heavyweight boxer he had once been--shoulders rolling, elbows
out, the Scowl on his face. Every play was his call. "He also
threw every pass, made every catch and made every block,"
recalls Jim Hanifan, a Coryell assistant for seven years and now
the Redskins' offensive line coach. "After every game he was
wringing with sweat."
But at the same time, Coryell was a fount of enthusiasm and
encouragement who shunned petty rules, office politics and the
usual raging egotism of coaching. He trusted his people and
created a safe environment in which they could, in turn, create.
"I loved that part of it--the pressure situations, everyone so
dedicated," Coryell says. "People talk about the prima donnas
and all. I don't remember any of them."
Coaching was his job, and in 35 years of doing it he missed two
days of work. He was an imaginative guy who loved to draw plays,
a former lieutenant in the paratroopers who loved to motivate
men. But finally, in 1986 at age 62, at loggerheads with the
Chargers' ownership and with a 1-7 record, Coryell resigned. He
stopped dreaming up schemes. He withdrew from public view.
Perhaps no one of his stature and his passion has ever quit the
game so cold.
His days are all blank sheets of paper now; his life is doodling
on them with his wife of 40 years, Aliisa. "I was wondering if
we should see if we can catch a crab out there--it's the lowest
tide I've ever seen," Coryell says. "Or maybe dig some clams,
scrape an oyster off a rock."
The Coryells have two homes: Over Here and Over There, depending
on where they are at the time. During the summer, Over There is
a remote corner of Hawaii. They live in a one-bedroom house that
sits atop a bunch of poles, hard by the crashing surf and the
humpback whales, 23 miles from the nearest store. At the end of
every week they like to have a champagne brunch, but they often
lose track of time and a Sunday or two slips by untoasted.
During the summer, Over Here is San Juan Island (pop. 5,500), a
90-minute ferry ride from the Washington mainland. It has a
town, Friday Harbor, with a brisk tourist trade, but the
Coryells live a good 20 minutes away by their '78 Jeep, near
where the lime kilns used to operate, at the foot of a steep,
weedy drive. A bald eagle has built its nest on a limb above the
deck out back, and most days a raft of five otters romps beneath
it. Though the Coryells can see their neighbors' houses, they
seldom hear another human voice, not uncommon in the San Juans.
On another island, residents once complained about the
earsplitting din of passing kayaks.
Coryell grew up in Seattle, spending summers on Vashon Island in
Puget Sound. When he got out of the service, he went to the
University of Washington to study forestry, but he ran into a
roadblock, a class called The Grasses of Montana. So he worked
on his boxing, played defensive back and majored in phys ed.
What followed was an island-hop of coaching: two high schools in
Hawaii, the University of British Columbia, Wenatchee (Wash.)
Junior College, Fort Ord, Whittier College, USC, San Diego
State, the NFL. He would look for a new job only when an
administration or an owner wouldn't let him do the one he had.
To apply for the position of coach of the St. Louis Cardinals
he wrote a letter to team owner Bill Bidwill, who invited him
for an interview and hired him on the spot.
While he deeply cherishes the people he once worked with,
Coryell doesn't see them very often, though to a man, his former
assistants and players proclaim him to be one of the most decent
and sincere people they have ever met. Coryell does surface
occasionally. There is the odd fishing junket; there are trips
to Canton, Ohio, for Hall of Fame inductions; and in 1995 there
was a ceremony in San Diego to name the dry hillsides
surrounding Jack Murphy Stadium (aptly) Coryell Pass. But any
attention makes Coryell uncomfortable. More often there are
monthlong trips with Aliisa to Finland, her native country, or
Fiji. The Coryells always favor the least traveled routes. "I
like to get lost now," he says.
Coryell always has. Even when he was at the height of his
profession, he had the rare ability to purge football from his
system. After the season he and Aliisa would take the kids, Mike
and Mindy, camping for weeks in the High Sierra; on team flights
he would settle into a window seat and dream about one day
visiting the land zooming by below. Coryell says that he can
recall just a few of the hundreds of games he coached--among
them AFC Championship Game losses to the Raiders in 1981 and the
Bengals in '82--and that the latest developments in football are
about as close to his heart as the grasses of Montana. In San
Juan he picks up only Canadian TV; in Hawaii he reads accounts
of Sunday's games days later.
Coryell has always had pinpoint concentration. It is what once
allowed him to see an exotic air show in a blank index card, and
it is what today allows him to wade through the muck of a San
Juan bay in his battered Footjoys and dig contentedly for clams.
Afterward, sitting on a stump as the sun goes down, Coryell
scrapes away the grit from what will soon be dinner. "I have no
regrets about football--none," he says. "But jeez, I'm so glad I
didn't have just one life."
Coryell's spike-free golf shoes left footprints that are still
clear a decade after they last trod on NFL sidelines. Of the 10
most prolific passing seasons in history, five belong to
Coryell's Chargers. In 1972, the year before he entered the NFL,
teams averaged 152.1 yards passing per game; when he left, in
1986, they were throwing for 53.4 more. "Don was a very intense
guy, and usually that type of coach goes with defense," says
Madden. "What was unique about him was that he took that
intensity and that demeanor and put it into offense, and not
only offense but the passing game."
Air Coryell earned its inventor the label of genius. He has
always called that tag "the biggest bunch of garbage in the
world." He says he merely adapted some of the notions of Sid
Gillman, the offensive guru who was coaching the Chargers while
Coryell was at San Diego State. Years later in San Francisco,
Bill Walsh would package those ideas more conservatively and
produce the West Coast offense. But either because he didn't
care enough about defense or threw the ball with too much
abandon or never had quite enough talent to work with, Coryell,
unlike Walsh, never basked in Super Bowl glory. And so some
prefer to dismiss Coryell as an eccentric: the mad-bombing,
prune-faced Type A in high-water pants.
But Coryell cannot be dismissed. "Basically, we're doing the
stuff Don did at San Diego State," says his former assistant
Ernie Zampese, now the offensive coordinator of the Super
Bowl-champion Cowboys. "He was the real forerunner of the
passing game today."
"It's hard to say who's the greatest coach ever," says
ex-Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who played under Coryell in college
and coached under him for 10 years, "but it would be hard to
imagine anybody else doing what Don did." Gibbs and Madden have
won a total of four Super Bowls. Six of Coryell's former players
are in the Hall of Fame, all from his favorite side of the ball.
"The best days were Wednesdays," says former Chargers
quarterback Dan Fouts, one of those Hall of Famers, "when we'd
get the game plan and walk out of the room 10 feet off the
ground. We'd open up games with a draw play. That's
influence--changing the way people defend, the way they think
about the game."
Besides, why measure Coryell's legacy by Super Bowl rings he
wouldn't even wear? At least as enduring, and more endearing, is
how he envisioned the game as no one else had, how he is
remembered with such reverence, how he came to football and left
it without pretense.
On San Juan Island, out where the orcas frolic, a woman
approaches him as he is being photographed. She asks if he is
famous. "Oh, no, nothing like that," Don Coryell says. "Just