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Friends remember Don Coryell with laughter, tears

By JAMES R. RIFFEL

City News Service

Former San Diego State and Chargers football coach Don Coryell was memorialized Monday for his competitiveness and respect for his players during a moving and often humorous service on the SDSU campus.

Coryell, the only head coach to have won 100 games in both college and professional football, died of pneumonia at the age of 85 on July 1 at Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa.

Coryell is credited with helping to revolutionize football’s passing game, nicknamed “Air Coryell,” and developed the now-common I-formation while an assistant at USC.

“Don had the greatest passion I ever witnessed for football,” said Joe Gibbs, who played and coached for Coryell at SDSU before becoming a Hall of Fame coach with the Washington Redskins. “As a player, you knew it was real.”

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John Madden, an assistant under Coryell at San Diego State before moving to the Oakland Raiders, called him “a genius.”

“Every genius has amazing concentration powers, and Don had some amazing concentration powers,” Madden said at a service that attracted about 3,000 former players, coaching colleagues and fans to Viejas Arena.

Coryell would occasionally drive to work not realizing his then-4-year-old daughter was in the car because he was focused on the next game, and would have to apologetically call his wife, Aliisa, to come pick her up, Madden said. A few days later, he would do it again.

Worse yet, according to Madden, Coryell would put a full garbage can in his vehicle and drive it down the long driveway of his Mount Helix-area home to the street on trash pickup day — and often would forget that, too. By the end of the day, the stench in the car was horrible, he said.

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That focus helped him turn around moribund teams at SDSU, and in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chargers.

San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, a student when Coryell became coach, said “the impact was immediate.”

“He changed the school in a significant way, he changed San Diego in a significant way, and he changed football in a significant way,” Roberts said.

The Board of Supervisors declared Monday “Don Coryell Day” in the county, he said.

While Coryell is a 1999 inductee in the College Football Hall of Fame, many speakers noted he was overlooked for the professional equivalent in Canton, Ohio.

Madden tearfully recounted how he sat next to Gibbs and former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts and realized that the the three of them were enshrined but “there’s someone missing.”

Fouts expressed confidence Coryell will make the Hall of Fame in the future.

“Wouldn’t it be great to take this kind of a celebration, this kind of feeling, and take it to Canton?” Fouts asked rhetorically.

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Coryell was 72-60 with the Chargers and 104-19-2 at SDSU.

Son Mike Coryell said his father succeeded, despite being dyslexic, at a time the condition was not well understood, and became a leader during World War II as one of the original members of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and a paratrooper. His leadership and teaching skills were so valued by the Army that he never deployed, always held back to train the next group of soldiers, he said.

At a reception before the service, Madden said it was Coryell who taught him how to be a head coach.

“He had more respect for his players than anyone,” Madden said.

Speakers at the service included Coryell’s son-in-law, Mike Lewis, granddaughter Loni Lewis, former St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons head coach Jim Hanifan, and former Aztecs and Los Angeles Rams defensive end-turned-actor Fred Dryer, who brought down the house with his tale of surviving being driven to campus from the airport by an inattentive Coryell during a recruiting visit.

Coryell removed himself from football entirely after the 1986 season and retired to San Juan Island in Puget Sound, near where he grew up. He returned to San Diego two years ago to be with his family after the death of his wife, and spent much of the past year in a hospital.