TGS MOUNTAIN WEST RETROSPECTIVE...THE DAYS OF AIR CORYELL AT SDSU!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Among college football’s less-subtle differences from past decades for us at TGS are simply the numbers of games and teams covered on a weekly basis. College football for us at TGS in the ‘60s and ‘70s and early ‘80s meant following just over half as many teams as appear on the weekly cards these days. The major conference themselves had fewer teams. Even the independent entries of the day (which would eventually comprise many of the new conferences) had limited numbers. Leagues such as the Big East and Sun Belt and Conference USA and the American were still decades off on the horizon. The Mid-American and WAC games did not appear regularly on the weekly lines until 1985. The lone exception to the major conferences thru those years was the Ivy League, which stayed on the “big boards” in Las Vegas into the early ‘90s.
That is not to say, however, that we at TGS, and the college football audience, didn’t follow some of those under-the-radar schools that would compete in the old “college division” (a predecessor to I-AA, and nowadays the FCS). Occasionally, one of those sides would rise up and surprise a big-name program during the regular season (refer back to last year’s TGS Conference USA retrospective price on Southern Miss’ shocking 30-14 upset over Archie Manning and Ole Miss in 1970). Indeed, a look at pro football drafts of the ‘60s and ‘70s would confirm the big-time talent at a number of these schools.
In the late ‘60s, there was no more prominent lower-division football power than the one assembled by Don Coryell at San Diego State. Through 1967, the Aztecs would compete in the CCAA (California Collegiate Athletic Association) with a collection of other in-state schools such as Long Beach State, LA State, and Fresno State. The competition was high level and entertaining. For a time in the early and mid ‘60s, there was belief among several gridiron observers in the Los Angeles area that Homer Beatty’s LA State Diablo powerhouses could compete favorably with the local big-time programs at USC and UCLA.
But none of those CCAA entries, or “small college” powers, could compare to what Coryell would eventually assemble at San Diego State in what remains as the golden era of Aztec football, even after the program subsequently moved into the higher levels of gridiron competition.
And, since Mountain West history remains disjointed (SDSU did not join the predecessor WAC until 1978), the story of the Coryell Aztecs from a half-century ago remains among the more-colorful of the current programs than now call the Mountain their home.
It was during this time at San Diego State when the innovative Coryell first made an impression upon the football masses. Coryell’s progressive offensive concepts would revolutionize the game and influence proceedings for decades, where many Coryell disciples would continue to impact the game with schemes that were rooted in the "Air Coryell" philosophy. Including Super Bowl XXVII between the Cowboys and Bills, more than six years after Coryell retired from pro football.
That Super Bowl was significant, as it had showcased Troy Aikman and a Dallas passing game that would be an NFL staple throughout the ’90s. Coordinating the Cowboys offense was Norv Turner, a onetime backup to Dan Fouts at the University of Oregon who worked alongside a former Coryell disciple, Ernie Zampese, with the Rams in the late ‘80s. Fouts, of course, would flourish with the Coryell San Diego Chargers from the late ‘70s into the mid ‘80s.
The Dallas links to Coryell, via Turner and, effectively, Zampese (who would succeed Norv as Cowboy o.c. the next season when Turner took the HC job with the Redskins) were easy to note as Aikman had peppered the Buffalo defense with scoring passes: a 23-yarder to tight end Jay Novacek, running straight up the middle; a 19-yard slant to wideout Michael Irvin, slashing diagonally across the field; another 18-yard touchdown to Irvin, planted at the right sideline; and a 45-yard bomb to receiver Alvin Harper, open far beyond the deepest Bills defender.
From his home, Fouts had watched Aikman on TV like a man staring in a mirror. On the morning after the game he called his old friend Turner, offered congratulations and then said, "O.K., let me see if I got this right." Fouts then recited the play calls on each of Aikman's four touchdowns.
"He’s like, ‘The first touchdown was 370, right?’” Norv remembered. “‘Then the second one was 839? The third one looked to me like 787 Special. And then the last one was 989.’ He called every single play, exactly." Turner laughed and Fouts laughed back, two men linked across time by the Coryell genius, which continues to impact the NFL more than two decades later.
There was not mch hint of an upcoming “San Diego State Miracle” in 1961, as the Aztec program inherited by Coryell (a U. of Washington grad and onetime Army paratrooper) barely registered a blip on the college football radar screen. Coryell arrived at Montezuma Mesa after spending a year on John McKay’s first staff at USC, which followed a three-year stint at Richard Nixon’s alma mater Whittier College, where the Poets would post a 23-5-1 record for Coryell.
At Whittier, Coryell endlessly ran the power I, yet he was fascinated with the possibility of diversifying his offense after reading 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.
San Diego State and Coryell, however, proved a perfect fit. The growing school was at the center of a burgeoning metropolitan area 120 or so miles south of Los Angeles, and SDSU’s enrollment would grow accordingly in tandem with the city, to where over 20,000 students would be attending at the end of the decade. The San Diego area was also beginning to develop more top-level talent but the real treasure trove for Coryell and coaches of the day who were shrewd enough to look deep into the weeds for players was California’s bountiful junior college system. Though Coryell would only have those sorts of players for two years, they would become a cornerstone of the Aztec revival.
Coryell, however, never considered the limited time he had with JC transfers as an impediment, even for his sophisticated offense. “You can get a guy and teach him the whole thing (offense) in two days,” said Coryell. The reason, according to the coach, was that his system was visual rather than cognitive. Whereas many offenses named each play with a word (say, Cowboy or Maverick), the backbone of every Coryell play was a two-or three-digit number that not only named the play but also told what it would look like. A play with the number 335 showed the “X” receiver running a deep out (3), the “Y” receiver also running a deep out (30) and the “Z” receiver running a comeback (5).
Coryell never stopped experimenting, constantly tinkering with his offensive machine. “You look at your players, and you figure out what the hell they can do,” Coryell would say. Coryell had been a single wing quarterback in high school. In 1955, while coaching Wenatchee Valley College, Coryell’s top RB was injured during the preseason, and the coach, ever tinkering, adjusted accordingly, “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 (indeed, a staple of the John McKay offenses at Southern Cal) for much of the later 1960s and into the 1970s. Its precise origins are unclear, but Coryell was certainly one of its pioneers, and Coryell’s Wenatchee went from winless to unbeaten in one season.
When Coryell arrived at SDSU, the Aztecs had won just seven games in the previous four years. But Coryell made the Aztecs better immediately, winning 38 games in his first five seasons. Coryell concluded that the best way to win was to make full use of quarterbacks and wide receivers, and beat more complete teams with the pass. “I decided, hell, you can't just go out and run the ball against better teams,” the coach said. “You’ve got to mix it up. So we started throwing the ball.”
Over Coryell's first six seasons, San Diego State was 49-10-1, becoming a national phenomenon. The Aztecs sometimes drew more fans than the hometown Chargers, who were then a power in the AFL. Among Coryell's assistant coaches besides the aforementioned Zampese were Joe Gibbs (also an SDSU player in the early years of the Coryell regime) and John Madden. Games were moved from the on-campus Aztec Bowl to the larger Balboa Stadium, adjacent to downtown on the site of San Diego City College and in those days also the home to the Chargers. Aztec games under the floodlights, sometimes on Fridays, became a ritual in San Diego, which was far enough south from USC and UCLA that the locals had their own heroes to cheer without worrying about Mike Garrett or Gary Beban to the north.
The names for that generation of Aztecs became well-known in the region. In 1964, senior QB Rod Dowhower led a passing attack that gained 2,083 yards, nearly double the ‘61 total. (Dowhower, of course, became another distinguished Coryell coaching disciple in a long and decorated career that included HC gigs at Stanford and Vanderbilt). Flanker Gary Garrison (who would become an AFL All-Star with the Chargers) caught 78 passes from Dowhower in '64 and 70 from QB Don Horn (right) a year later, for a total of 26 touchdowns. Wide receivers Haven Moses, Ken Burrow and Isaac Curtis (who would transfer from Cal and be a part of the final Coryell SDSU team in ‘72) would follow Garrison into pro football. Horn was followed by Dennis Shaw, and Shaw by Brian Sipe; all would play in the NFL, as would two dozen more of Coryell's Aztecs players.
Any questions about what Coryell was building at SDSU were certainly answered in the 1967 pro football draft, the first conducted after the merger. Eight Aztecs were selected, which tied SDSU with Notre Dame and Michigan State, who had finished 1-2 in the polls and played the epic 10-10 tie at East Lansing that previous November 19, for the most draftees. Five SDSU players were called within the top 48 picks; QB Horn went to Vince Lombardi’s Packers Bay near the end of the first round; DE Leo Carroll (Falcons), RB Don Shy (Steelers), DE Bob Williams (Bears), and DB Bob Howard (Chargers) were all second-round picks.
Indeed, in a three-year draft period between 1967-69, the Coryell Aztecs would produce a first-round pick every year...Horn (Packers) in ‘67, WR Moses (Bills) in ‘68, and DE Fred Dryer (Giants) in ‘69. A t least four Aztecs would be taken in every draft (which in those days did comprise 17 rounds) encompassing Coryell’s last seven SDSU teams from 1966-72.
Coryell’s biggest struggle at SDSU was moving the Aztecs up the college football food chain. The provincial CCAA was not conducive to the big-time status desired by Coryell, who was instead spending part of his time worrying about the program being downgraded despite the success and adulation and support the Aztecs were generating in the border city. In the mid ‘60s, the rules committee of the CCAA was threatening a cutback in athletic aid, which prompted Coryell and the program to think about independent football status.
Within that backdrop for the Aztecs came an important game in the 1966 season at San Jose State, which had earlier gone the “indie” route in football and was showing that it could compete with the big boys, having trounced AAWU Oregon and Cal earlier in the campaign. The visit of SDSU in late October was considered something of a watershed game for both programs, a fact not lost upon Coryell.
“This is the most important football game in San Diego State's history,” said Coryell. “We are playing a major college team, one that has beaten Oregon and California. If we win impressively we can prove we're good enough to play anybody, major or minor. It takes guts to go off on your own."
The game brought together the NCAA's major college offensive leader, San Jose QB Danny Holman, and the college division’s second best in total offense, SDSU QB Horn, another of Coryell’s many jucos who was improved from his impressive debut season in ‘65 when he tossed 21 TD passes. But the shootout never materialized, mostly because while Coryell had developed a potent offense in his football laboratory he had also assembled an aggressive, in-your-face defense that rattled Holman and limited him to just 7 completions good for 46 yards. “I've never in my life been rushed like that,” Holman said after the game. "All I saw were No. 77 [future Falcon draftee Leo Carroll] and No. 61 [DE Cliff Hancock]. We never stood a chance. They may be a small college, but they were bigger than us." The Aztecs rolled, 25-0.
Much credit for the San Jose effort was due d.c. John Madden (yes, that John Madden), who devised a scheme that would blitz his linebackers Jeff Staggs (a future San Diego Charger) and Jon Wittier in the direction in which Holman was expected to roll. “We wanted to force Holman to pull up short and drop the ball to his waist. That way he couldn’t flick it into our secondary as quickly as he had done against everybody else," said Madden, who also had his players belting Holman's receivers at the line of scrimmage. As a result, Holman had few clear targets and no place to scramble when he simply had to run. Meanwhile Coryell's wide-open offense, which featured everything from I-slot sets to double-wing spread formations, functioned beautifully for QB Horn, who had so much respect for Holman he predicted it would take five touchdowns to win the game. Horn checked off adroitly at the line of scrimmage all night long, sending his two 9.7 runners, 210-pound Teddy Washington (a future original Bengals draftee) and the aforementioned future Steeler 207-pound Don Shy, bursting through the heart of San Jose State's defense on clever traps and delays.
After the game San Jose’s players were the first to admit they had been beaten by a faster and superior team. Many were convinced that next to USC and UCLA, San Diego State was the best football team on the Coast. "Look," said one. "We beat Cal 24-0, San Diego beat us 25-0, Cal beat Washington 24-20 and Washington only lost by three to USC. (The Huskies would eventually deal UCLA its only defeat of 1966.) That makes San Diego about 50 points better than USC, doesn't it?"
SDSU would eventually earn an invitation to the Sacramento Camelia Bowl, where it would pound Montana State 28-7 and be named small college national champion, completing the season at a spotless 11-0. By this point the Aztecs had become newsworthy even in the L.A. metro area, as replays of the SDSU games were starting to draw a TV audience to points far north of Oceanside and Camp Pendleton, into the L.A basin on KTTV Channel 11.
Coryell’s quest for the big-time received a bigger boost in the following 1967 season with the opening of the new and shiny San Diego Stadium and its 50,000+ seats in Mission Valley, just a couple of miles west from campus. By this time the school has exploded into a sprawling urban scene, with 21,000 students, 1600 faculty members, and about 40,000 or so fans who would regularly show up for the games in the new stadium. Coryell and SDSU were now on the brink of declaring to the NCAA that the Aztecs wanted a major-league university-division standing. Having won back-to-back mythical small college national titles the previous two years fueled the enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, the Coryell Aztecs would be content to grind up the nation’s better small college teams. A showcase event would come in the '67 opener against another acknowledged small-college power, Big John Merritt’s Tennessee State Tigers, a proper foe for the Aztecs in their debut at the new stadium. Pro scouts certainly knew the way to San Diego that September night, as at least 17 of them showed up for what amounted to a showcase of talent for the upcoming draft. After graduation had hit the Aztecs hard following the previous ‘66 season (when SDSU would have eight players taken in the draft), TSU's '67 edition was considered to have more pro prospects. And with good reason...the Tigers would have 12 players selected in the draft over the next two years, including a future HOFer in DE Claude Humphrey, and a Pro Bowl CB in Jimmy Marsalis. The star for TSU, however, was QB Eldridge Dickey, who would also eventually be drafted (by the Raiders) and considered at the time as the likely first black NFL/AFL QB of the modern era, an honor that would instead go to Denver’s Marlin Briscoe in 1968. So potent was Dickey’s TSU offense that it had scored 83 points in a 1966 game.
The 1967 season was a year in which Coryell was caught between two of his star QBs, Horn and Dennis Shaw, with neither Doug Matheson nor Tom Williams nor Joe Turpen in such decorated company. But the offense still had WR Haven Moses and the slashing RB Teddy Washington. It also had defense, fortified by the arrival of juco DE Dryer from El Camino JC in the L.A. area. More than 45,000 fans would jam the new stadium in Mission Valley on a warm Saturday night to watch the collision of these powers that were only small-college in designation...not ability.
The game was more of a defensive battle than the Coryell legacy would suggest, but it was the Aztecs, after falling behind 6-0 in the first half, who would be in control much of the night. Big plays on the defensive side, many of those courtesy cat-quick DE Dryer, who harassed Dickey all evening, keyed the effort. Meanwhile, Turpen would throw a key TD pass to WR Tom Nettles to finally put SDSU ahead 10-6. The SDSU stop unit would completely dominate the second half, with Dickey eventually knocked out of the game late by the hard-charging Dryer and his defensive friends. The 16-8 win would catapult the Aztecs to another big season that was blemished only by a 31-25 loss vs. Utah State. The Aztecs won the rest, including the Camelia Bowl in Sacramento against the Gators of San Francisco State and their controversial school president, future U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa, by a 34-6 count. Once again, the Aztecs were named college division champs.
In this era was another famous Aztec, a linebacker who became better-known for exploits elsewhere...Carl Weathers, a.k.a. Apollo Creed from the "Rocky" movies, who along with Dryer would make SDSU a training ground for actors as well as football players.
By this time, the Aztecs had outgrown the CCAA, however, and with an eye to a move up the college division ladder, SDSU would campaign as an independent in 1968 and fashion another unbeaten 9-0-1 mark behind the latest Coryell QB discovery, Dennis Shaw. The following spring, the Aztecs would enlist in the new Pacific Coast Athletic Association with several regional school such as San Jose, Long Beach, Fresno, Pacific (football only), and UC Santa Barbara, all intent on hitting the big-time as members iof the University Division. Coryell, with Shaw leading the offense, authored another masterpiece in 1969, once again undefeated in the regular season after winning a breathtaking November 27 clash vs. former John McKay USC disciple Jim Stangeland’s potent Long Beach State, featuring future NFL draftees WR Billy Parks and RB Leon Burns, by a 36-32 count. The city fathers of Pasadena, who had long sponsored a “Junior Rose Bowl” for the national JC championship, changed formats and were now inviting four-year schools to a new event entitled the Pasadena Bowl, which Shaw and the Aztecs win easily over Boston University, 28-7.
In an overall glorious run for Coryell at SDSU, there was nothing quite like the 1966-69 span in which the Aztecs produced a 41-1-1 overall record!
By this point, and into the early ‘70s, Coryell was also getting a bit anxious about his future and that of SDSU football. The school, like many during the era, was becoming a hotbed of student activism, with a politically-militant student council. The idea of avoiding those distractions and moving into pro football would prove enticing to Coryell. Finally in the 1972 season, Coryell was able to get a Pac-8 team, Oregon State, into San Diego Stadium, and behind new QB Jesse Freitas, the Aztecs won the opener over the Beavers, 17-8. But the vision of a major college power in San Diego was becoming a bit blurred for Coryell, who many believed would be tapped by the Chargers to become their new coach the previous winter after Sid Gillman’s comeback season had fizzled in 1971. Owner Gene Klein, however, would instead make an uninspired hire, Harland Svare, who had failed miserably with the Rams in the early 1960s and would do so again with the Bolts.
The win over Oregon State would prove a highlight of another sparkling 10-1 season in '72, but the wheels were nonetheless spinning for Coryell, who, after the previous year's disappointment with the Chargers job, had decided to make another stab at pro football the following winter. When hearing of an opening with the St. Louis Cardinals, who had just fired HC Bob Hollway after back-to-back 4-9-1 campaigns, Coryell wrote to Big Red owner Bill Bidwill, who agreed to meet on Coryell’s turf, a preferred Mexican restaurant on Coronado Island. Before he was done with dinner, Bidwill offered the Cardinal job to Coryell, who accepted.
So, at a Mexican restaurant in Coronado, ended the Coryell era at San Diego State.
Though successor Claude Gilbert had some success in the following years, and the program would move up to the major level when it joined the WAC in 1978, and eventually the Mountain West, staying relatively competitive most years since, the Aztecs have never approached their successes of the Coryell era.
No matter. By the time he left for the NFL in 1973, Coryell had forever changed the San Diego State program. He compiled a 104-19-2 record with three undefeated seasons, three bowl appearances and winning streaks of 31 and 25 games. Coryell was the force behind upgrading the program to Division I. With strong support because of what Coryell was delivering on the field, the program elevated to Division I in 1969. The Coryell legend was further embellished in the pro ranks, where he turned around the moribund Cardinal and later Charger franchises (owner Klein would redeem his mistake of 1972 when hiring Coryell to replace Tommy Prothro midway in the '78 season) with high-tech and exciting offenses that became a part of gridiron lore.
Whatever his NFL success, the Coryell roots were firmly established at SDSU, which held the coach dear. In retirement, Coryell would tell reporters that the best years of his life were spent at San Diego State in the 1960s. Which made it fitting that SDSU would host a celebration of life for Coryell after his passing in 2010. (For a kick, go on YouTube and look for Fred Dryer’s memorable speech at the service.)
"Don had the greatest passion I ever witnessed in football," Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs told the crowd at the memorial service. Another HOFer, John Madden, had similar praise for Coryell at the memorial service. "I learned everything from him," Madden said. “I learned how to be a head coach.”
There remains a push for Coryell to be inducted into Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, of which Coryell has been one of the finalists in recent years, including 2015. Gibbs and Fouts are among the most-vocal supporters. As is Madden, who summed up his thoughts on the subject at the Coryell memorial.
“You know, I'm sitting down there in front, and next to me is Joe Gibbs, and next to him is Dan Fouts, and the three of us are in the Hall of Fame because of Don Coryell,” said Madden before pausing. “There’s something missing.” Hall of Famers Fouts and Kellen Winslow have said they would not have been enshrined in Canton without Coryell.
One Hall of Fame that includes Coryell, however, is in Atlanta, as the College Football HOF bestowed the honor back in 1999. Which is fitting, because it is at the college level where the Coryell genius was first noticed. And few coaches have had such a profound impact on their programs as Coryell did at SDSU, which would honor Coryell by unveiling a bust of him at the athletic facility.
"The whole country learned about San Diego State during the ’60s and early ‘70s," former Coryell Aztec QB Brian Sipe said at the unveiling. “It was purely the result of Don Coryell."
Now that is one nice legacy!
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