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"And he is exactly that," says Martz. "He was way ahead of everyone in terms of innovation. [Back then] everyone was running the same kind of plays. Coryell changed all that. He had this aggressive mind-set. He was always attacking, never going into this conservative mode where you try to win through attrition. Now, 40 years later, you're seeing the second and third generations of coaches running Coryell's system."
The recent history of the NFL is rich with successes due to the Coryell offense. Zampese won with it in L.A. Joe Gibbs, who played for Coryell at San Diego State and coached under him there and with the Cardinals, took the playbook to the Redskins, expanded it and won three Super Bowls. Turner took it to Dallas, then Washington, then San Diego. Martz turned the league upside down with it in St. Louis. Jason Garrett (Aikman's erstwhile backup) called Coryell's plays into Tony Romo's helmet as the Cowboys' offensive coordinator. Players have been made famous by running Coryell-inspired patterns: Irvin, the Bang 8 slant; Novacek, then Marshall Faulk and most recently Antonio Gates, the F post.
By the start of the 2008 NFL season there was scarcely a team that didn't incorporate some part of the Coryell passing game, whether the numbering of routes or the spacing concepts or specific plays. Today several teams—notably the Ravens, Cowboys, Chargers and 49ers—rely almost exclusively on the Coryell offense. "If you brought Don Coryell to Dallas and handed him our playbook," said Garrett in the fall of 2007, "he would recognize an awful lot of stuff."
The word coming through the football pipeline in March 2008 was that Don Coryell, then 83 and in poor health, had become a recluse, living a quiet life on Puget Sound, resistant to questioners. Some of this, I found out, was true: Coryell resided far from the noise of Sunday afternoons and had done few interviews in recent years. He had slowed with age. But he was not a recluse. It's just that inquisitors had to go to him, and even in a world made small, that was not easy.
It is a 66-mile drive north from Seattle to Burlington, then 16 miles west to Anacortes, a staging point for ferries that service the San Juan Islands. One boat stops first at Lopez Island and 20 minutes later at Friday Harbor, a village of 2,200 year-round residents on San Juan Island, the second largest in the chain. A late-model SUV slowed to a stop along Front Street, with Coryell at the wheel.
The old coach wore a heavy fleece pullover, baggy sweat-style pants and walking shoes. A baseball cap covered his thin gray hair. His blue eyes were full of vigor, but a recent knee replacement had left him hobbling. It was a 25-minute ride over rolling hills and sweeping curves to the three-story wood house where Coryell lived with his wife, Aliisa, above a peaceful horseshoe-shaped inlet called Neil Bay.
As we drove across the island Coryell unfurled the story of his life: raised in Seattle, played football at Lincoln High, enlisted in the Army in 1943 and spent 3½ years as a paratrooper. Returned to Seattle in the fall of 1946 and played defensive back for Washington. "I wasn't good enough to play offense," he said. "Even on defense, I think I started one game, and that was in my senior year." He also began sliding, almost accidentally, toward his calling.
"I started out as a forestry major," said Coryell. "I wanted to be a forest ranger. But there was no way I could get through all that science. So I withdrew before I flunked out and switched to physical education." He graduated in 1950 and, after getting a master's degree in P.E., embarked on a classic coaching odyssey: two years at high schools in Hawaii, two years as head coach at the University of British Columbia, a year at Wenatchee (Wash.) Valley College, a year coaching a military team at Fort Ord in Northern California, three years as head coach at Whittier (Calif.) College and a year on John McKay's staff at USC before taking over at San Diego State in 1961.
At every stop Coryell tinkered. "You look at your players, and you figure out what the hell they can do," he said. Coryell had been a single wing quarterback in high school. In 1955 Wenatchee's outstanding running back was injured during the preseason. "We took one of our fullbacks and put him at tailback," Coryell said. "The other fullback played fullback, right in front of the halfback. We called it our hash-marks offense because we'd use it on the hash marks and put the other halfback to the wide side. For us, it was backs-left and backs-right." Football historians call it something else: the power I. It would dominate college football in the 1970s. Its precise origins are unclear, but Coryell was certainly one of its pioneers, and Wenatchee went from winless to unbeaten in one season.
At Whittier, Coryell endlessly ran the power I, yet he was fascinated with the possibility of diversifying his offense and read a book by TCU coach and athletic director Dutch Meyer titled Spread Formation Football. In his third year Coryell moved a tailback to quarterback, spread out his wide receivers and began throwing.