Thousands came out to remember the former Aztecs and Chargers football coach.
Current SDSU football players look on as the Coryell family speaks.
'Football Genius' Don Coryell Remembered
Remembering Don Coryell
The Coryell family is introduced by pastor Miles McPherson.
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Remembering former Aztecs and Chargers head football coach Don Coryell drew tears, but much more laughter.
The winningest coach in SDSU history was memorialized Monday by his family and former coaches and players before 2,000 guests at Viejas Arena. The Air Coryell legacy echoes throughout today’s football—from the I-formation to the modern passing game to the so-called West Coast offense.
Many shared memories of the absent-minded football genius, from his halftime “pep” talks and orange-throwing tirades to the sincere man he was in private. The county of San Diego also recognized Coryell with SDSU alumnus and County Supervisor Ron Roberts declaring the day Don Coryell Memorial Day.
In remembering Coryell the coach, former SDSU football assistant coach and NFL head coach John Madden noted the Hall of Famers sitting in the front row. Next to him sat former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts and Joe Gibbs, a two-time SDSU alumnus, former Aztec player and assistant coach, and former NFL head coach.
“The three of us are in the Hall of Fame because of Don Coryell,” Madden said with a cracked voice. “There’s something missing.”Madden’s memories
During his time with the Aztecs, Madden was responsible for matching current student-athletes with summer jobs. In the 1960s, the best job was with Coca-Cola. While Madden initially wanted to give the best summer job to Haven Moses, a new recruit and future NFL player, Coryell asked him to give it to a former player, Rod Dowhower, instead.
Initially, Madden didn’t understand why Coryell would give Dowhower the best job. He admitted thinking it was another sign of Coryell’s well known absent-mindedness. However, Coryell's explanation blew Madden away.
“Rod just got cut by the 49ers,” Madden recalled Coryell saying. “And he’s married and his wife’s pregnant. He needs it.”
“I’d never thought that way in my life,” Madden continued. “I never did. Don was the greatest competitor, but where a lot of people do what’s best for them, or what’s best for the team, Don did what was right.” Gibbs recounts Coryell's passion
While Coryell was well-known for doing what was right, he was also known for his love of the game.
“One of the things that I think set Don apart was his passion,” Gibbs said. “Don had the greatest passion I’ve ever witnessed in football … And sometimes it manifested itself in little different ways to some of us who played for him.”
Gibbs told a story from his playing days, highlighting one of Coryell’s more memorable halftime talks. The team, then full of future stars yet tied at 14 against San Fernando Valley, was expected to win. After minutes of waiting for Coryell at halftime, the coach finally showed, the door flying open as he lambasted the team.
“They had a thing of oranges sitting up front for us at halftime. He grabs these oranges and I mean he is pounding us with these oranges … He’s putting these oranges right in our face masks.
“So, that was our halftime pep talk. Needless to say, in the second half, we played with a lot more enthusiasm,” Gibbs continued, laughter erupting from the crowd. “His passion for things came through in every single thing he did.”Dryer finds his place
Others shared similar stories. Former Aztec and NFL star Fred Dryer recounted his white-knuckled recruitment ride from the airport to campus courtesy of Coach Coryell.
At the time, Dryer was attending junior college in the Los Angeles area and was invited to visit SDSU. When Coryell picked Dryer up, it led to a frightening ride to campus that showcased the head coach’s poor driving skills in a state-owned vehicle.
Finally arriving at the football coaches’ office, then in Peterson Gym, Coryell introduced Dryer to Gibbs, Madden, and future NFL assistant coaches Sid Hall and Ernie Zampese.
“I’m getting a real good look at the group, thinking ‘so this is the irresponsible clump of humanity that gave Don Coryell, head football coach, the keys to the station wagon,’” Dryer said dryly.
“I took a look around the room, and I shook my head and I just said, ‘yeah, this is the place for me.’”
Other speakers at the memorial included:
- Coryell’s family, including his son and SDSU alumnus Michael Coryell, son-in-law Mike Lewis and granddaughter Loni Lewis, also an SDSU alumna
- Jim Hanifan, one of Coryell’s former assistant coaches and a former NFL head coach
- Dan Fouts, Chargers quarterback under Coryell
- Miles McPherson, former Chargers player under Coryell and pastor of the Rock Church
In lieu of flowers, the Coryell family asks those interested in honoring Coryell to make a contribution to the Don Coryell Scholarship Fund, in care of The Campanile Foundation, 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego, CA 92182-4313. Or give online to the fund.