To many local football fans, ex-players and coaches of note and more than a few influential media types, it has become a festering and confounding issue. To say that it has and continues to stick in their craws is to put it lightly. It’s got them fired up, somewhat angered and even a bit indignant. They simply can’t understand the resistance against it.
So what is the issue that’s creating such passion, frustration and angst among those mentioned above? Simply put, it is the question as to whether former Charger coach Don Coryell is worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To his most ardent and zealous boosters it qualifies as a colossal oversight if not a heinous crime that Coryell’s bust can’t be found anywhere within the city limits of Canton, Ohio. To them, his exclusion amounts to a form of football heresy. To his legion of supporters, a great outrage is being committed.
And though that position can be convincingly articulated, an opposite viewpoint can also be strongly advocated, particularly in regard to Coryell’s coaching achievements. The trouble with a vast majority of Coryell supporters is that it’s often difficult to reason with them. They have taken a firm stand and refuse to listen to any sort of rebuttal, even in the face of persuasive evidence and statistical data that clearly undermines Coryell’s case for HOF induction, specifically as a coach.
And there’s the rub. Those that have been pushing Coryell’s candidacy strictly based on his coaching record and accomplishments have made and continue to make a catastrophic mistake. Under that strict and limited criterion, the ex-Charger mentor comes nowhere near reaching the threshold that must be met to be deemed a Hall of Famer. Some of you may say bull to that assertion and cry foul for painting Coryell in such a questionable light.
But that doesn’t change history or alter the reality. Don Coryell simply doesn’t qualify in terms on-the-field results to be considered one for the ages.
Now, if we’re talking about trying to sell voters on Coryell in another light, such as someone who redefined and revolutionized the passing game, who took his “Air Coryell” attack to dizzying heights, who was a master at route philosophies and tormenting defenses, and whose towering influence continues to resonate to the very present, well then, you’re on the right track and clearly onto something. In that context, there can be no downplaying Coryell’s monumental influence on the NFL, whether it be in his heyday or even now. Presented on that basis, I’ll be glad to hop aboard the Coryell bandwagon and become one of his biggest boosters for enshrinement.
But unless the point of emphasis is significantly changed and the totality of his candidacy goes well beyond his coaching numbers, then Coryell has no business being considered for the Hall. Specifically as a coach, he falls well short of what’s required and to put him in while others with superior achievements are left hanging—now that would be a real injustice.
To be honest, contending that Coryell wasn’t a superstar coach, as far as the bottom line is concerned, isn’t a hard case to make. Now look, no one is saying that the former Charger boss wasn’t of high caliber, gifted and didn’t do a marvelous job at turning around the moribund St. Louis and San Diego franchises. Coryell was, at that time of his service, one of the more prominent practitioners of his profession. But being very good and highly competent is not that same as being superlative or great.
And when everything else is stripped away such as creativity, motivational skills, X’s and O’s acumen, likeability, etc., there’s only one barometer that measures a coach’s true worth beyond all others. It’s the bottom line of wins and losses, with a heavy emphasis on postseason success and championships won. It is an absolute absurdity for anyone to state that a coach can be a Hall of Famer without ever having won, at the very least, a conference championship or a Super Bowl. Yes, divisional titles (of which Coryell won five) are noteworthy and are usually indicative of splendid regular seasons but, by and large, they amount to glorified preliminaries, generally not where greatness is truly established or where reputations are forged. Coryell’s overall NFL record of 114-89-1 is solid enough but it’s hardly anything glorious. And that 3-6 slate in the postseason puts a stain on his scoresheet that just can’t be ignored.
And that’s the trouble with trying to sell Coryell as a HOFer, based solely on his coaching credentials. Never once did he win, let alone get to a Super Bowl and he definitely had teams capable of doing so. He managed to guide two Bolt squads to conference title games but came up empty on each occasion, being bested on his own home field by the Raiders 34-27 in 1981 and then a year later, watching his team completely unravel in the numbing conditions that overtook Arctic-like Cincinnati. In that debacle, the Chargers meekly succumbed to both the elements and the Bengals, 27-7.
Yes, Coryell compiled an admirable coaching resume of which to be proud, but without any championship hardware, it’s one that has a hole large enough for a Peterbilt to power through. You can’t be considered an immortal, if you were never even once, the best of your day. It’s as simple as that and no matter how fervently his defenders may press his case, Coryell’s coaching cred lacks the necessary gravitas to be considered among icons like Lombardi, Noll, Walsh and Parcells.
It has irritated this writer the way that those who have not looked favorably on Coryell’s candidacy have been denigrated as know-nothing buffoons. Those voters have been portrayed as unsophisticated rubes who couldn’t tell the difference between a football and a kicking tee. The venom that has been cast in their direction from the San Diego sporting community, in all its forms and variations, has been particularly toxic.
But guess what? From where I’m sitting, they did their due diligence and arrived at a reasoned conclusion. Don’t blame them for the misguided insistence of those Coryell endorsers who attempt build his case around its weakest link, the results or lack thereof that were achieved on the gridiron.
To be sure, Coryell has some heavyweight backers who have publicly and aggressively pushed his cause. Luminary ex-Charger players like Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow rave about his impact and influence. Esteemed coaches like Joe Gibbs and John Madden, who were schooled in the Coryell methodology as assistants, find it stunning that their former boss hasn’t yet gotten the necessary love from those casting ballots. Their abiding feeling and loyalty for Coryell is undeniable and it’s their unshakeable belief that he was a true genius and football pioneer.
And you know something, they’re absolutely right! But not as a record- based coach, but rather as an innovator, a creative force, a forward thinker who transformed the game and was decades ahead of his time. That’s where Coryell’s strengths reside and that’s the agenda that should and must be advanced in his best interests.
Perhaps one of the main obstacles that seems to be working against Coryell is the fact that for some curious reason, coaches are cast into the same pool as player candidates which can make their pathway toward enshrinement all the more intricate and tricky. Worse yet, there is some strange resistance to consider coaches for the contributor category, a classification apparently reserved only for former owners, execs and personnel types—which makes absolutely no sense. You’d be hard pressed to find a more narrow-minded, exclusionary and nonsensical position than that.
As someone who has resided in the County for many years, no one has to brief me on Coryell’s popularity and his beloved status within the San Diego community. In many respects, he is the titan who still casts the largest shadow over the football landscape in this town. First, as the energetic coach who took over at State and turned the program into a pass happy powerhouse and one of prominence. Then, he returned like a long lost son six years later to rescue the Chargers from their futility and transform them into a team of relevance and unrivaled excitement.
Moreover, Coryell was an original, with that piercing glare, bubbling intensity and encouraging hand-clap that conveyed that both he and his team were primed for action. Coryell also looked the part on the sideline, with his well- pressed slacks, golf shirts emblazoned with the Charger logo and low-cut football shoes, all of which adorned a body that still looked to be in pretty damn good shape. I kept getting the vibe that if given the chance, Coryell would have gladly taken the field and butted heads as he had done during his college days as a defensive back at Washington.
And beyond everything else, Coryell was, at his very core, a class act and an exceedingly decent human being. As a coach who believed in treating his players like men and with the utmost respect and consideration, he in turn earned reciprocal esteem and affection. Coryell was one of the few coaches who engendered almost universal approval from those he led. No higher compliment can be paid to anyone in a leadership capacity.
It’s not like Coryell’s candidacy hasn’t been given serious weight or due consideration. Eight times he has made the semifinalist list and thrice he has advanced all the way to the final stage. But there the momentum for his enshrinement has stalled and stopped. Is it just a matter of time before the Coryell candidacy finally breaks through or has it run its course and maxed out, destined to go no further? To that question, there is currently no definitive answer.
So what to do? Not pretending to an expert about what goes on behind closed doors when the merits of candidates are discussed and hashed out, it’s hard to say.
But this much is for sure: Those that are advocating the Coryell case and advancing his narrative must make certain their calibration is correct. Any attempt to sell him principally on his coaching record or on-field accomplishments won’t make for a compelling argument and, will in fact, jeopardize his cause. Coryell must be sold in his entirety, fully dimensional and with every aspect of his career being brought to bear. In short, paint Coryell for the unique hybrid that he was, a winning and admirable coach but whose true greatness and legendary status rested in his offensive schematics and the manner in which his creative approach forever altered the sport. Push that viewpoint with persistence and aggression and then maybe, Coryell will get finally get his bust in Canton.
Yes indeed, Don Coryell should be a Hall of Famer but only within the context and framework as explained above. Trying to remove him from that niche only serves to confuse the issue and give firepower to his naysayers.