Aztecs fans know Don Coryell revolutionized the passing game while head coach at San Diego State. After winning 104 games as Aztec head coach, he took his sophisticated passing game to the NFL, where he won another 114 games as head coach of two teams that eventually abandoned their fan bases: the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers. “Air Coryell” became synonymous with high-powered aerial football.
But when Don became head coach at San Diego State in 1961, he was hired for his expertise in the I-formation, a run-first offense he had installed as an assistant at USC in 1960. The Aztecs had great success running the I in Don’s early years, turning around a losing program to one that won 38 games in his first five years.
And then came 1966, a special team that would end up the year 11-0 and ranked #1 in College Division (the equivalent of today’s D-2). After a 45-0 laugher over Mexico Poly in Aztec Bowl, the Aztecs headed to Ogden, Utah, on September 24 for a game at Weber State; 55 years ago today, a significant date in Aztec and football history: it was the day Air Coryell was born.
The Wildcats were a big, tough team that featured 232 lb. RB Lee White, who later played for the Jets, Rams and Chargers. The Aztec offense was led by QB Don Horn (another future pro). I had the pleasure of reliving that historic game with Don earlier this week:
“We were down 20-0 in the first half. They knew everything we were going to try. And on defense we could not stop Lee White.”
The Aztecs scored 13 in the second quarter to close the gap to 20-13 at the half. Don had completed 7 of 26 passes. Halftime adjustments? Like no other before.
“At halftime, Coryell was livid. He thought Weber State had spies who knew the game plan. He yelled ‘shut the window’ and then drew up a whole new game plan. We switched to a spread and put me in shotgun formation. As the door to the locker room opened before we headed back to the field, Coach said ‘OK, same game plan as the first half.’”
Defensive coordinator John Madden, tired of seeing White gain 5-6 yards with an Aztec defender on his back, made halftime adjustments too. “Madden’s second half strategy was to not try to tackle White on your own. First guy stand him up, next guy knock him down.”
The Wildcats scored first to go up 27-13. The Aztecs answered with two Don Horn to Don Shy TD passes. The Don-to-Don scoring brought the Aztecs within two at 27-25 early in the fourth quarter. Weber State answered with a TD to take a 34-25 lead. The Wildcats would not score again.
“We were drawing plays in the ground. I got hit every play, but with a five-wide spread, someone was uncovered. We threw the heck out of the ball.”
The Aztecs finished the scoring with two fourth quarter TD passes from Horn to WR Craig Scoggins, the second with just 2:05 left in the game. It was the Aztecs’ first lead. Final score: Aztecs 38, Weber State 34. Don Horn drew, threw and took hits while completing 11-17 second half passes and finished with 346 passing yards.
How great was that 1966 team? Don’t let “College Division” fool you. Fourteen members of the 1966 Aztecs were drafted, including two in the first round and four in the second. Don Horn became the first Aztec drafted in the first round when the Packers selected him in 1967. WR Haven Moses was drafted in the first round by the Bills in 1968. Overall, eight Aztecs were taken in the 1967 draft, a total that has not be equaled since. The team also included nine first team All-CCAA players and two All-Americans: Don Horn and Leo Carroll.
The entire 1966 National Champion Aztecs has been enshrined in the Aztec Hall of Fame, as well as six players and coaches individually: Don Horn, Craig Scoggins, Bobby Howard, Jeff Staggs, Joe Gibbs (assistant coach) and Don Coryell. Coryell is also one of four Aztecs in the College Football Hall of Fame. Assistants Joe Gibbs and John Madden are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well. How Don Coryell, whose innovation and creativity changed NFL offenses and the way they are defended, is not in Canton remains an injustice that should have been remedied years ago.
The 1966 Aztecs were great guys, and my Dad made lifelong friendships with several members, including Don Horn, Haven Moses, Steve Duich, Jim Hight and Don Coryell.
For more about Aztecs football history, listen below to Podcast interview with Aztecs super-fan Ken Ables! A great resource for Aztecs football history.