Legendary Head Coach Don Coryell is Pro Football Hall of Fame bound

Another Aztec Enshrined in Canton: Don Coryell to be inducted into Pro Football’s Hall of Fame

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By Ken Ables

Legendary SDSU Head Coach Don Coryell is entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame this Saturday, August 5th. The Enshrinement ceremony will take place at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio beginning at noon ET. Fans can watch the 2023 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement on NFL Network and ESPN.

Air Coryell will be joining his Aztec player and assistants Joe Gibbs and John Madden in Canton; an honor well-deserved and long overdue. It’s a shame this didn’t happen while Don was alive.

Don is still the only coach with 100+ wins in both college and the NFL. He won 104 games as Aztec head coach (plus 22 at Whittier), and 111 games as head coach for the Cardinals and Chargers.

The moment Dan Fouts notified the Coryell family that Don had been elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So how did such an accomplished head coach and offensive genius land at a struggling College Division (similar to D-II today) program? Under Paul Governali, the Aztecs had suffered back-to-back 1-6-1 seasons in 1959 and 1960.

Governali was given five seasons to return the Aztecs to their early ‘50s glory. His 1956 team finished barely over .500 (4-3-2), and followed that with four consecutive losing seasons.

Don was hired away from USC in 1961 to become the ninth Aztec head coach, and to change football culture on Montezuma Mesa. Back then, he was known for bringing the I-formation to college football—a hard nosed, run offense led by a former boxer and World War II paratrooper.

Yes, the same Don Coryell we all knew for his wide-open offenses was hired for his run game expertise. 

The first game of the 1961 season was a road game at Cal State Los Angeles. The young Aztecs—18 of the 33 players were sophomores—led 13-7 in the fourth quarter. But it was a late 83-yard Diablo TD run (and missed extra point) that ended the game in a 13-13 tie. Despite that, there was no letdown: the Aztecs responded by winning 7 of their next nine games to finish 7-2-1.

Don’s first team included future Aztec Hall of Famers Kern Carson, Mario Mendez, Joe Gibbs and Neal Petties, plus future NFL coaches Wayne Sevier and Gibbs, along with many others who coached high school football in San Diego. Not bad for a team coming off consecutive 1-6-1 seasons.

Of course, Don never had a losing season as Aztec head coach, and only had one season with less than 7 wins. Here are some of the highlights of Don’s 12 seasons as Aztec head coach:

  • 104-19-2 record
  • Three undefeated seasons, including 11-0 records in 1966 and 1969
  • Three College Division National Championships 1966-68
  • A 55-1-1 run between 1965 and 1970
  • His Aztecs won their first 20 games as a D-I program (1969-70)
  • Created Air Coryell/West Coast Offense
  • Black jerseys, black pants, red helmets; a look copied by many teams at all levels, even when black is not one of their official colors.

As mentioned earlier, Don’s early teams were run-oriented with backs like Mario Mendez, Eldridge Cooks, Kern Carson, Don Shy, Jim Allison, and other powerful backs. That was the emphasis through the start of the 1966 season.

After a 45-0 victory over Mexico Poly, the Aztecs headed to Ogden, Utah, for a game at Weber State. Down 20-13 at the half, and the offense going nowhere, some changes had to be made. They didn’t know it at the time, but an undefeated, national championship season was on the line.

Aztec Quarterback Don Horn recalled the halftime adjustments that changed the course of offensive football at all levels and eventually led to Don Coryell’s induction in Canton:  “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.’”

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.  Goodbye ground-and-pound, hello Air Coryell.

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. From Don Horn to Dennis Shaw to Brian Sipe, to Bill Donckers to Jesse Freitas. Aztec quarterbacks under Don Coryell threw the ball all over the field to great receivers like Tom Nettles, Tom Reynolds, Tim Delaney, Isaac Curtis, Craig Scoggins, Haven Moses, and many others. 

The NFL became aware of Don’s success with the Aztecs and when the St. Louis Cardinals were looking for a new head coach, they came calling and offered Don the job, which he took and turned around one of the historically worst teams in the NFL.

Would Don’s success at San Diego State translate to the NFL? After a 4-9-1 season in 1973, Don’s Cardinals finished 10-4, 11-3 and 10-4 (1st, 1st and 2nd in the NFC East). After a 7-7 record in 1977, the Cardinals foolishly let Don go (and floundered for decades after). 

Don wasn’t unemployed for long. After a 1-3 start to the 1978 season, the Charges fired Tommy Prothro and brought Don back home to San Diego, where he immediately turned the season around going 8-4. He coached the Charges for 7 more seasons, finishing first in the AFC West three times and second another time. After starting the 1986 season 1-7, Don was let go by the Spanos family. The first of many missteps by Charger ownership in the years to come. 

Don is a charter member of the Aztec Hall of Fame, as well as the College Football Hall of Fame (along with Aztecs Fred Dryer from his 1967-68 teams, George Brown and Marshall Faulk). And this weekend he takes his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

On behalf of myself and the Ables family and Sons of Montezuma, we say a big congratulations to the Coryell family and thank you for everything you did for football in San Diego.

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