7/01/2010 9:30 PM ET By Nancy Gay
Senior NFL Writer
Don Coryell, the legendary St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers head coach and architect of one of the greatest passing games in NFL history, died Thursday afternoon following a lengthy illness. He was 85.
Coryell's family told the Chargers organization that he died at 3:15 p.m. PDT at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, Calif., in East San Diego County. He had been suffering from pneumonia and complications from that illness since last fall.
"All of us have lost a great one," said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, who thrived under Coryell's tutelage and considered his coach to be a friend and father figure. "He was unique. Definitely one-of-a-kind. A guy who touched, so positively, so many players' lives, it's just incredible."
One of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010, Coryell engineered the prolific "Air Coryell" offensive attack that made Fouts, wide receiver Charlie Joiner and tight end Kellen Winslow into Hall of Famers, and helped lead the Chargers to three consecutive division titles from 1979-81.
Under Coryell's watch, San Diego led the NFL in passing yards an NFL-record six consecutive seasons from 1978-83 and again in 1985. The prolific passing attack also made the Chargers the league leader in total yards from 1980-83 as well as in 1985.
He is considered to be one of the fathers of the modern NFL passing game, and numerous Hall of Fame players and coaches have recognized Coryell's tremendous contribution to the league.
Fouts -- who led the NFL in passing four consecutive seasons (1979-82) and threw more than 20 touchdown passes six times, including a career-high 33 in 1981 -- said Coryell's greatest attribute as a coach was his willingness to listen to his players and accept their feedback and ideas.
"A lot of football coaches believe it's my way or get on the highway-thing. But Don gave us as players a feeling of ownership of the offense, the plays. He took our ideas and tried them. He wasn't afraid to try things."
-- Dan Fouts on Don Coryell "He was an atypical coach," Fouts told FanHouse Thursday evening. "A lot of football coaches believe it's my way or get on the highway-thing. But Don gave us as players a feeling of ownership of the offense, the plays. He took our ideas and tried them. He wasn't afraid to try things."
In Coryell's offense, Fouts rarely threw out of the shotgun and played a modified, timed version of the hugely successful Bill Walsh "West Coast offense" high-percentage passing attack. The late Walsh -- another Hall of Famer who pushed hard for Coryell's place in Canton -- had planted the seeds of the West Coast offense in San Diego in 1976, where he had served as offensive coordinator under Tommy Protho.
"When Don came to San Diego in midseason (1978), he didn't change hardly anything that offense was about at the time," Fouts said. "He added a few things. Then when he took over full time the next year, he kept the best things from what we were doing, and those were the Bill Walsh things.
"(Coryell) recognized the things that Charlie Joiner and I liked to do because we had success doing it with Walsh. Don was just unique – his teams were unique and he respected us, we respected him."
Chargers president Dean Spanos said Thursday, "We are terribly saddened by the passing of Coach Coryell. He revolutionized the game of football, not only in San Diego , but throughout the entire NFL. Don Coryell was a legend not only with the Chargers but throughout San Diego . Though unfortunately he did not live long enough to see it, hopefully one day his bust will find its proper place in Pro Football's Hall of Fame. He will be missed."
Share John Madden mentioned Coryell's impact on his career in his 2006 Hall of Fame induction speech, recalling his time at San Diego State "with a great coach that someday will be in here, Don Coryell. He had a real influence on my coaching."
Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs also has sung Coryell's praises as a coaching inspiration to so many.
Mike Martz, who engineered the record-setting St. Louis Rams passing attacks dubbed "The Greatest Show on Turf," has said of Coryell, "Don is the father of the modern passing game. People talk about the 'West Coast offense,' but Don started the 'West Coast' (offense) decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and so many teams are running a version of the Coryell offense. Coaches have added their own touches, but it's still Coryell's offense. He has disciples all over the league. He changed the game."
Coryell coached 12 seasons at San Diego State, compiling a record of 103-19-2 before moving on to the NFL, where he won two division titles with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1974-75. He coached 14 seasons in the NFL, with a career record of 111-83-1.
At San Diego State, Coryell's teams became known as "Quarterback U", with several well-known passers going on to have brilliant careers in the NFL. He had 54 players from those Aztecs teams go to the NFL, including five players drafted in the first round