When the historians sit down and try to evaluate the coaches of this era, what will they say about the San Diego Chargers' Don Coryell? A genius? Maybe. But better make that an offensive genius. One of the game's true innovators? A tinkerer, a guy never satisfied with the way his team lined up, a guy compelled to put in more and still more alignments, more motion, more ways of gulping up yards in huge bites? Or will they merely brush him off as a curiosity whose teams broke all sorts of passing records while neglecting the more traditional aspects of the game?
"He's a pacemaker, a trend setter," says Kansas City Coach Marv Levy, whose Chiefs lost to Air Coryell on Sunday, 42-31. "Don was in low cuts when the rest of the world was in high tops.
"Frankly, though, I'd have trouble coaching his kind of offense. This guy in motion here, that one in motion there. There's a certain disjointedness to it. I'd have trouble building the rhythm of an offense that way, building a ball-possession concept. In a way it's a mirror of the man himself. When you're with Don there's a herky-jerky quality to him. He'll get up, walk somewhere, come back, sit down, get up again."
"Ever since I've known him, he has come up with a new formation every week," says the Chargers' receivers' coach, Ernie Zampese, who was Coryell's assistant at San Diego State as far back as 1967. "He'll have a new one next week, and the week after."
What happens when you run out of weeks?
"Oh, there are only 16 of them—hopefully 19. Don has enough formations to go around."
One thing's for sure. Coryell, who's 56, will never make it into the Hall of Fame if he's called on to present his own credentials. Ask him about his innovations and his concepts and he looks annoyed. He seems to shrink a little. He talks in a voice that's barely audible. "The players, I just try to fit my offense to the players I've got," he says.
He's a fairly rugged-looking guy, well built, sturdy. He played defensive back and boxed at the University of Washington. He was a paratrooper in World War II and pulled some duty with the ski troops. He worked in the lumber camps of his native Washington, hooking cables onto logs. But when you see him in a locker room after a tough game he seems small and vulnerable.
Last Sunday Air Coryell put 28 points on the board in the first half while Quarterback Dan Fouts was passing for 250 yards. But in the second half Kansas City buttoned up and took away the things that were working for San Diego, and the Chiefs even looked as if they would pull the game out until their fullback, Jim Hadnot, fumbled near midfield with 4:31 left. When it was over, Coryell stood in the locker room looking tired and drained, as he always does postgame.
"Why do you like to pass so much?" he was asked. The inevitable question. The Chargers had thrown 43 times and run the ball 24, and the only reason the ratio was that close was that they were trying to sit on a lead and play ball control in the second half, which meant hand-off to Chuck Muncie. The first-half ratio was 31 passes to eight runs.