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Does Don Coryell REALLY Belong in the Hall of Fame?

Yes, he has legendary status in San Diego. No, he is not in the Hall of Fame, which angers many Charger fans. Is that anger justified? Perhaps it is and perhaps it is not…

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The question asked in the headline will draw a quick response from most of the Chargers fan base – "OF COURSE HE DOES!" Usually followed by a "What kind of fool question is that?" What I find interesting is that many of the fans on this blog, whether they ever saw or remember seeing any Coryell coached Charger teams (or were even living during Coryell’s time here) often have the strongest opinions on the subject, which seems invariably to be - "OF COURSE HE DOES!"


It Was Not All Great

I was 16 years old when Coryell took over from Prothro. I was 24 when he was fired in the middle of the 1986 season. (Yes kids, he was FIRED after a 1-7 start. This was after missing the playoffs for 3 previous seasons, just like a coach we all should remember.) Although we did not have the internet or BFTB in 1985, we did have living rooms with friends during the game, water coolers at work on Monday, and softball teams or bowling leagues during the week. Let me share a dirty little secret with you.

The things that were being said about Norval in 2011 and 2012 on BFTB were being said about Coryell in 1985 and 1986 in those living rooms, break rooms, and wherever two or more Bolts fans were gathered together. Coryell had his supporters. He had his detractors. The consensus in November of 1985 was that Coryell was going to be fired at the end of the season. The team finished with a 3 game winning streak to get to .500 for the year and Alex Spanos apparently got cold feet. Coryell was re-signed to a one year contract extension in early 1986, before the half season pratfall and canning. (This gave me a sort of spooky feeling of deja vue in 2011, hat eating aside.)

This is offered as a reminder that sometimes, "the Good ‘Ole Days" were not good all the time. In fact, sometimes those days really sucked. Recollections aside, does Coach Coryell belong in Canton? As much as possible, let’s try to take our emotional investment out of the picture and put ourselves in the shoes of Hall of Fame voter.


The Competition

The following list is of head coaches in the Hall that coached in at least one common year as Coryell. After the names of the HoF coaches, I have listed the years that they were head coaches before enshrinement, their overall record, playoff record, and significant career achievements.

George Allen 1966-1977; 116-47-5, 2-7 (12 seasons as HC without a losing record)
Joe Gibbs 1981-1992; 124-60, 16-5 (3 time SB Champion Coach)
Sid Gillman 1955-1969, 1971-1974; 122-99-7, 1-5 (1 AFL Championship)
Bud Grant 1967-1983, 1985; 158-96-5, 10-12 (4 SB appearances)
Tom Landry 1960-1988; 250-162-6, 20-16 (2 SB wins, 5 time NFC Champ, 29 year Cowboy coach)
Marv Levy 1978-1982, 1986-1997; 143-112, 19-11 (4 straight SB appearances [1990-1993])
John Madden 1969-1978; 103-32-7, 9-7 (1 SB win and a 30 year run as a TV color man)
Chuck Noll 1969-1991; 193-148-1, 16-8 (4 time SB Champion Coach)
Bill Parcells 1983-1990, 1993-99, 2003-06; 172-130-1, 11-8 (2 time SB Champion Coach)
Don Shula 1963-1995; 328-156-6, 19-17 (All-time wins leader as Head Coach, 2 time SB Champion)
Hank Stram 1960-1974, 1976-1977; 131-97-10, 5-3 (1 time SB Champion Coach)
Bill Walsh 1979-1988; 92-59-1, 14-10 (3 time SB Champion Coach)

Don Coryell 1973-1977, 1978-1986; 111-83-1, 3-6 (0 Super Bowl appearances)

I will be referring to this list in the next sections, which will be arguments FOR Coryell being voted into the Hall (with rebuttals) and arguments AGAINST him being in the Hall (with rebuttals).


Coryell Should Be in Canton

1) Coryell revolutionized the way offense was played in the NFL. Prior to his taking over the Chargers in 1978, the NFL was a run first league. After the success the Chargers had, the NFL turned into a pass first league.

Rebuttal: The rule changes made by the league prior to the 1978 season is what revolutionized the way the NFL played offense. Without the changes to the holding rules and the 5 yard chuck rule, the league probably would have stayed run first. The rule changes made it easier to pass. Coryell himself, when he was the Cardinals coach before the rule changes, ran the ball more than the league average in every year he was the Cardinals Head Coach. He may have adapted quicker, but even in 1979 (his best year as a Charger Coach), the league’s number 1 offense was in Pittsburgh; coached by the noted offensive innovator Chuck Noll {that was sarcasm}.

2) The Coryell passing offense is the foundation of the modern passing game. You can still see parts of his playbook and philosophy in many NFL games to this very day. He was one of the coaches that changed the game.

Rebuttal: Coryell did not invent the offense we saw in the Air Coryell days. That offense had its roots in Gilman’s "Field Balance Theory". Coryell did put tweaks on the offensive system by developing the "route tree" and training QB’s to read from deep to shallow during the drop back. He later developed the "timing pattern", where a QB threw to a spot on the field, instead of to a man. Developing some tweaks to an offense does not deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame. More of Walsh’s West Coast offense is being played in the league today than Coryell’s offense and there are more of Walsh’s disciples than Coryell’s coaching in the league today.

3) Coryell’s assistants, like Gibbs, Zambese, Martz, and Madden went on to coach SB Champion teams, coordinate record breaking offenses, and coordinate SB Champion offenses. Gibbs and Madden would not have been the coaches they were without Coryell, and they are in the Hall.

Rebuttal: This is actually an argument for Coryell not being enshrined. That Joe Gibbs won Super Bowls over a 9 year run, with three different QB’s (none of which were Hall of Fame passers) and Coryell could not win one with Dan Fouts in his prime, shows that the students surpassed the master and simply turned out to be better coaches.

4) Coryell had a greater impact on the game than Bud Grant, Marv Levy, and George Allen. Those coaches all have busts in Canton and they never won Super Bowls. This is just an example of East Coast bias.

Two of those three appeared in 4 Super Bowls and one coached a team for 12 straight years without a losing record. Grant and Allen were both superb defensive coaches with a long lasting influence on the way defense was played and coached in the NFL. All of these coaches were their own General Managers. Grant and Levy drafted players that went into the Hall on both offense and defense. Coryell drafted one player that went into the Hall, TE Kellen Winslow. Marv Levy produced a consistent winner for a team that had only been in the playoffs twice in 30 years. Coryell did not accomplish as much as those 3 coaches did.


Arguments Against Coryell Being Inducted Into the Hall

1) The closest contemporaries to Coryell built complete teams and then had to rebuild them after their early success and had long running success. Walsh and Gibbs had significant turnover on their teams and were able to sustain success longer than 4 consecutive seasons. Coryell inherited a complete team and it deteriorated during his time at San Diego.

Rebuttal: Coryell was not helped by his ownership, which let several good players walk and allowed a sustained talent drain from the team he started with replacing that talent. Johnny Sanders, Tank Younger, Gene Klein, and then Alex Spanos did not help or even stay out of the way like the front offices in San Francisco and Washington DC did for Walsh and Gibbs. You can't punish Coryell for the poor decisions of his front office. He did the best he could with what he had.

2) Coryell never put together complete teams like Walsh, Gibbs, or even Gilman before him. He was a fine offensive coordinator, but not a Head Coach worthy of the Hall. In fact, his team deteriorated on his watch, even the offense.

Rebuttal: See the previous comment. Coryell had a complete team in 1979 and then management let Fred Dean, John Jefferson, and other talented players walk. Coryell was not given the authority to pay good players enough to keep them happy in San Diego and he was not the one that traded away or did not re-sign a large part of the team’s talent.

3) Coryell’s playoff record was abysmal. Not only did he never coach his team into one Super Bowl, his playoff record was .333 (3-6). This is not the stuff that busts in Canton are made from.

Rebuttal: George Allen and Sid Gilman had worse playoff records and they are in the Hall. More should go (and has gone) into induction votes than the ability to win The Big One.

4) Coryell never really coached the team’s defense. He only worked with the offensive squad and never cared about the defense. This does not indicate that he is a Hall of Fame HEAD Coach and coaches that were effectively coordinators do not get voted into the Hall.

Rebuttal: A lack of contribution to one aspect of a team should not affect a vote one way or another. Every head coach has their strengths and weaknesses. It is the coach’s total contribution to the game that should count.

For more arguments for Coryell being in the Hall, see this article.

Here are more arguments against Coryell being voted into the Hall of Fame:


For What It’s Worth

If you want my opinion, here goes: If George Allen is in the Hall, Don Coryell should be. With that being said, I do understand WHY he has not gotten enough votes for induction and I am not angered by the failure to honor Coryell with induction into the Hall.

I do not believe this is a case of East Coast bias. Air Coryell was a phenomenon for four wonderful seasons here in San Diego which did get the attention of the league. However, by the time he was shown the door in 1986, not too many of us Charger fans were upset by that. His impact on the game was large, but I believe not as impactful as the rule changes or the offense Bill Walsh perfected and taught.

It is just an opinion of mine, but I believe that Charger fans get so passionate about the Coryell and the Hall question because it is perceived as another slight against our team, which feeds into the borderline inferiority complex I see in this fan base sometimes. I find that irritating. Let me remind you Charger fan, you have nothing to feel inferior about. This team has a rich legacy of coaches and players that have entertained you, your fathers, and grandfathers since 1961 in the best place in the world to live.

Being a Charger fan means you root for a franchise that has produced more game changers that have impacted the league to this day than most of the other teams in the NFL. Your inheritance is Gilman and Alworth, Seau and Ross, Schottenheimer and LT, and yes, Fouts and Coryell. If you want some unsolicited advice; don’t be too concerned about whether Coryell gets voted into the Hall. Who knows, in another 35 years, one of you may be spelling out why and why not McCoy deserves to be in the Hall.