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|Jim Hanifan, Don Coryell, Mike Martz and Joe Gibbs renewed acquaintances at a Redskins-Rams game in 2004. Hanifan and Gibbs coached under Coryell, and Martz has cited Coryell as a major influence.|
ESPN celebrates the 100th anniversary of Vince Lombardi's birth with the "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" series, saluting the finest innovators, motivators, tacticians, teachers and champions ever to stalk the sidelines. Follow along as we reveal our list of the top 20 coaches of all time and document the lineage of the league's most influential coaching trees.
The Don Coryell branch of the Sid Gillman coaching tree is documented below with features on Coryell and his many disciples.
Tom Bass was an assistant to Don Coryell twice -- first at San Diego State in the early 1960s and then in the NFL in the 1980s.
He saw Coryell's evolution from small-college coach to conductor of the San Diego Chargers' dynamic "Air Coryell" offense. Yet over that long span -- from JFK to Ronald Reagan -- Bass says Coryell was the same guy, a man whose mind never stopped spinning with X's and O's or searching for mismatches to exploit.
"I remember one time when he came to me during the game and said, 'What do you think would happen if I moved a wide receiver in and lined him up as a tight end?'" recalls Bass. "And I said, 'Jeez, I don't know, Coach. I don't know if they'd bring the corner in or what.' He said, 'Well if they left the safety there we'd have a mismatch.' I said, 'You're right.' He did it and we scored a touchdown."
To those who played for him and coached with him, that was Coryell, one of the most innovative and influential coaches in pro football and the only coach to win 100 games in both college and the NFL.
"I always tell people that our greatest day of the week wasn't Sundays, it was Wednesdays when we would get the game plan and we would sit there and we would go, 'Yeah, well they can't stop that,'" said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, now a CBS Sports analyst. "And, 'Shoot, they can't stop that one.' And, 'How are they going to stop this one?' We'd come out of the meetings a mile high because we knew we'd have success on Sunday."
Coryell, who died in 2010 at the age of 85, won everywhere he coached with an attitude many of his former assistants and players describe as "fearless," which isn't much of a surprise, considering Coryell's background as a boxer and World War II paratrooper.
At little Whittier College in California from 1957-59, Coryell went 22-5-1 and won three conference titles, first with the cutting-edge I-formation running attack and later with a wide-open, spread passing game. After moving on to USC as an assistant -- where he helped install the Trojans' version of the I -- he was hired as the head coach at San Diego State. He went 104-19-2 over 12 seasons with the nation's most sophisticated passing offense and an ability to improvise.
From there he took his offensive philosophy to the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals.
"I believe in a wide-open style of play," Coryell told the St. Louis media when he was hired. "I like to throw the ball. I believe in attacking the defense."
Soon, the previously hapless Cardinals won division championships in 1974 and '75. With quarterback Jim Hart, running back Terry Metcalf, receiver Mel Gray and tight end Jackie Smith, Coryell's Cardinals went 42-27-1 over five seasons.
When he returned to San Diego during the 1978 season to coach the Chargers, the offense took flight. Fouts, running back Chuck Muncie and a parade of brilliant receivers such as Charlie Joiner, John Jefferson, Wes Chandler and tight end Kellen Winslow prospered. The Chargers led the NFL in passing yards seven times in nine seasons. Five seasons they led the league in total yards. Though the Chargers never reached the Super Bowl under Coryell, they went 69-56 and reached the AFC Championship Game twice.
Coryell's impact on the game, however, went far beyond wins and losses or the teams he coached.
He changed the way the NFL game is played. His vertical passing schemes stretched the field and created space to open routes and create mismatches. His numbering system for receivers' patterns was simple, easy to learn and adopted as a standard. He was a pioneer of one-back, two-tight end sets after earlier being a champion of the I. His offenses used shifts and multiple formations and sometimes put the tight end outside and a wide receiver inside.
Coryell studied the schemes and ideas of passing game innovators such as Dutch Meyer of TCU (who wrote the book "Spread Formation Football" in 1952) and Rams and Chargers coach Sid Gillman -- then spun them through his own mind to create something new.
When Bass watches NFL pass offenses today, he sees Coryell's fingerprints. How much of it traces to Coryell?
"I'd say between he and Coach Gillman, about 100 percent," Bass says, laughing. "Because they took it to another level. Sid was not nearly where Don was as far as moving people around or using multiple wide receivers in the game, but that's where Don was so good, because he could just see that if we added a receiver here, it was going to create enormous problems for the defense. That's what he was thinking all the time."
Fouts said Coryell's goal was to force the defense to defend the entire field, "Not just the width of the field, but the length as well."
"To do that you had to threaten them deep every play," said Fouts. "And so not every play that we ran had a guy going deep, but I would say 90 percent of them did. And that was our first look. If you got it, you'd take it, regardless of down or distance or field position."
It was an offensive philosophy Coryell implemented at San Diego State, when he determined he could best compete with bigger programs by adopting a wide-open passing game. Brian Sipe led the nation in passing in 1971 under Coryell and went on to win an NFL MVP award during a 10-year pro career.
"I thought that the NFL was relatively conservative when I arrived, having played for Coach Coryell, and relatively easy, to be honest with you," says Sipe, who's now the quarterbacks coach at SDSU. "That was probably the main reason that I was able to get that foothold, having been a 13th-round draft pick … [because of] how I'd been prepared at San Diego State."
Coryell's assistants also recall a man whose approach was steeped in common sense. Bass said Coryell put a premium on receivers with great hands, even if they didn't have great 40 times. Ernie Zampese, a longtime NFL offensive coordinator who was with Coryell at SDSU and the Chargers, said Coryell had a talent for finding good coaches, putting them in positions to succeed and letting them do their jobs.
The list of assistants who worked with Coryell and later achieved notable success as head coaches or coordinators includes John Madden, Joe Gibbs, Jim Hanifan, Zampese, Rod Dowhower, Al Saunders, Bass and Jim L. Mora.
Coryell was the same way with his players, Zampese said.
"Don allowed people to do what they did well, as far as the offense," he says. "If you could run fast, catch the ball and be a great receiver, then he was going to let you do that. He wasn't going to hamstring you because he didn't like to throw the ball to the tight end. … He allowed them to be as good as they could be doing what they did best."
Fouts is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So are Madden and Gibbs and Joiner and Winslow. Not in is Coryell, the man who launched or molded their careers.
Said Madden at Coryell's memorial service in 2010: "You know, I'm sitting down there in front, and next to me is Joe Gibbs, and next to him is Dan Fouts, and the three of us are in the Hall of Fame because of Don Coryell. There's something missing."
-- Doug Williams
Before he was famous as the face of a massively successful video game franchise, and before he was famous as TV analyst and pitchman, Madden was famous as a coach.
Al Davis named him head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1969, when Madden was only 32 years old. In 10 seasons coaching the Raiders, he never had a losing record and won 17 straight games at one point. His teams won seven division titles, including five in a row, and one Super Bowl. He also compiled a career winning percentage of .763, best in NFL history among coaches with at least 100 games.
Madden had been an Oakland assistant for two seasons when Davis handed him the reins. In the mid-1960s, he worked on Don Coryell's staff at San Diego State. Madden played both offense and defense at Cal Poly and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but an injury cut short his pro career.
Madden retired from coaching at age 42 after the 1978 Raiders failed to make the playoffs. He then began a long career in broadcasting.
Among the coaches who worked under Madden is Tom Flores, who won two Super Bowls with the Raiders. Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
-- Shawna Seed
Flores was the Oakland Raiders' starting quarterback in their inaugural season and later led the franchise to two Super Bowl victories as head coach. He was the second man, after Mike Ditka, to win championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
Flores was Oakland's leading passer for five of the franchise's first seven seasons. Future Raiders owner Al Davis was Flores' head coach for three seasons (1963-65). Flores also played for the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. He was on the Chiefs' roster as a backup to Len Dawson when they won Super Bowl IV.
Flores got into coaching in 1971 as the Bills' receivers coach. In 1972, he returned to Oakland as receivers coach under John Madden. In that job, he worked with future Hall of Famer Fred Biletnekoff and helped Cliff Branch develop into a Pro Bowler. The 1976 Raiders, on the strength of the NFL's No. 3 passing offense, beat the Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI.
Madden retired after Oakland missed the playoffs in 1978, and Flores succeeded him. In nine seasons (1979-87) with Flores as head coach, the Raiders made five playoff trips. Flores' 1980 Raiders were the first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl. Davis moved the franchise to Los Angeles in 1982 (he would move it back to Oakland in 1995), and the Raiders won a second championship under Flores in the 1983 season.
Flores spent the 1988 season in the Raiders' front office before leaving to become the Seattle Seahawks' president and general manager in 1989. He returned to the sideline as Seattle's head coach in 1992, but the Seahawks fired him after three losing seasons.
-- Kevin Stone
Hanifan, an offensive line specialist who had close ties to Don Coryell, was head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals for six seasons.
Hanifan played end at Cal and led the nation in receiving in 1954, his senior year. He played for Coryell while in the Army in the 1950s and eventually joined Coryell's staff at San Diego State in 1972.
Coryell became the Cardinals' head coach in 1973 and brought Hanifan along as offensive line coach. Coryell took over the San Diego Chargers in 1978, and Hanifan joined him a year later.
Hanifan returned to the Cardinals as head coach in 1980, and the team made the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1982 season. He was fired after the 1985 season with a record of 39-49-1, including a loss in the lone playoff appearance.
Hanifan remained in the NFL as an offensive line coach until 2003 with the Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams. He was winless in four games as the Falcons' interim coach after Marion Campbell was fired in 1989, bringing his career record to 39-53-1.
-- Shawna Seed
During a 12-season run as Washington's head coach that began in 1981, Joe Gibbs led the Redskins to four Super Bowls, winning three. His teams went to the playoffs eight times, and his worst record in that period was 7-9.
It was a body of work that earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 1996 class. But he wasn't through. After a break from coaching to focus on his successful auto racing team, Gibbs returned to the Redskins as head coach in 2004 for four more seasons and two more playoff berths. During the 11 seasons Gibbs was away, the Redskins reached the playoffs just once.
Gibbs played and coached under Don Coryell at San Diego State. Both men were greatly influenced by then-San Diego Chargers coach Sid Gillman, who recommended Gibbs for his subsequent job as offensive line coach at Florida State.
Gibbs served as a Coryell assistant two more times, from 1973-77 as running backs coach with the St. Louis Cardinals and 1979-80 as offensive coordinator of the Chargers. He was also offensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978 under John McKay, whom he also served at USC for two seasons (1969-70). Gibbs' final stop in the college ranks was at Arkansas, where he worked under Frank Broyles for two seasons (1971-72).
In 1981, Gibbs took the job in Washington, where he won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks -- Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien -- a feat which hasn't been duplicated.
Gibbs ranks as the Redskins' winningest coach, with 154 regular-season victories. He went 17-7 in the postseason for a winning percentage (.708) that ranks among the top 10 all time and is the best out of the 14 coaches with at least 10 postseason appearances.
Future NFL head coaches Joe Bugel, Dan Henning and Richie Petitbon were among the assistants to serve under Gibbs during his tenure in Washington.
-- Shawna Seed
Henning, a former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers, saw his greatest NFL success as an offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins in 1982 and the NFC champion Carolina Panthers in 2003.
Henning played one season at quarterback with the Chargers for legendary coach Sid Gillman. He was an assistant coach at the collegiate level – working alongside Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells at Florida State -- before starting his NFL career on staff with the Houston Oilers in 1972, under his former FSU boss, Bill Peterson. He later worked for the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins, under Don Shula, before coming to Washington under Gibbs in 1981.
Atlanta hired him as head coach in 1983, but he didn't have a winning season in four years. He returned to Washington for one season and then became San Diego's head coach in 1989. He didn't have a winning season in three years there.
Henning then worked for the Detroit Lions, succeeded Tom Coughlin as head coach at Boston College, and eventually worked for the Buffalo Bills, Jets, Panthers and Dolphins.
-- Shawna Seed
Bugel was head coach of the Phoenix Cardinals for four years and the Oakland Raiders for one, but he is best known as the man who nicknamed the Washington Redskins' offensive line the "Hogs" in the early 1980s.
Bugel, who played at Western Kentucky, began his college coaching career at his alma mater, then Navy, Iowa State and Ohio State. His NFL career began in 1975 with the Detroit Lions. After two seasons in Detroit, he spent four seasons with the Houston Oilers before joining Joe Gibbs' staff in Washington.
During Bugel's nine seasons as offensive coordinator in Washington, the Redskins won two Super Bowls and the Hogs became fan favorites.
In 1990, he became head coach in Phoenix but never posted a winning season in four years. Oakland hired him as offensive coordinator in 1995 and promoted him to head coach in 1997, but his tenure lasted only one season. He was later on staff with the San Diego Chargers and then returned to the Redskins with Gibbs in 2004. He retired after the 2009 season.
-- Shawna Seed
Petitbon, a longtime defensive coordinator, was head coach of the Washington Redskins for the 1993 season.
Chicago drafted Petitbon out of Tulane in the second round of the 1959 draft, and he played 14 NFL seasons. He was coached by George Halas with the Bears and George Allen with the Los Angeles Rams and Redskins.
He began his NFL coaching career in 1974 under Sid Gillman with the Houston Oilers. He remained with Houston until 1977, working under Bum Phillips.
In 1978, Petitbon joined the Washington Redskins' staff under Jack Pardee, whom he played alongside with the Rams and Redskins. Petitbon remained in Washington after Joe Gibbs became head coach. He was defensive coordinator for the 1983, '87 and '91 teams that won the Super Bowl. He was promoted to head coach when Gibbs retired after the '92 season, but the Redskins went 4-12 in 1993 and Petitbon was fired.
-- Shawna Seed
Dowhower, who had a long career as an offensive coordinator, was head coach of the Indianapolis Colts for two seasons.
Dowhower played quarterback for Don Coryell at San Diego State and also was an assistant to Coryell at SDSU. He held several collegiate positions, including a stint as Stanford's head coach in 1979, before joining the Denver Broncos' staff in 1980. After two seasons in Denver, he became the St. Louis Cardinals' offensive coordinator in 1983 under Jim Hanifan.
He was hired as the Colts' head coach in 1985 but was fired after an 0-13 start to the 1986 season. Future Vikings coach Brad Childress got his first NFL job under Dowhower in 1985 as the Colts' quarterbacks coach.
Dowhower later was on staff with the Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles and was head coach at Vanderbilt.
-- Shawna Seed
Saunders led the San Diego Chargers for three seasons, taking over as head coach during the 1986 season after the resignation of Don Coryell. As an assistant, he worked with two of the NFL's most prolific offenses -- San Diego's "Air Coryell" and the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf."
Saunders was an assistant at the collegiate level for 12 years, including stints at Cal and Tennessee. His first NFL assistant job came in 1983, when he joined the Chargers' staff.
After he was fired as Chargers head coach, Saunders was an assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs for a decade under Marty Schottenheimer, then worked two seasons with the Rams, including the 1999 team that won the Super Bowl. He later worked in Kansas City and St. Louis again, and also was on staff with the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders.
Among the coaches he worked under are Coryell, Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs.
-- Shawna Seed
Mora, the son of former NFL coach Jim E. Mora, was a longtime defensive assistant before becoming the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.
In 1985, Mora began his NFL coaching career on Don Coryell's staff with the San Diego Chargers. From 1992 to 1996, he worked on his father's staff with the New Orleans Saints. His next stop was San Francisco, where he worked for seven seasons, five as defensive coordinator.
Atlanta hired Mora as head coach in 2004. The Falcons went 11-5 and won a playoff game in his first season, but they fell to 7-9 in 2006 and fired Mora.
He joined Mike Holmgren's staff in Seattle in 2007 and replaced Holmgren as head coach in 2009. That lasted just a year, with the Seahawks firing Mora after a 5-11 season. He then worked in broadcasting before returning to football as head coach at UCLA in December 2011.
-- Shawna Seed
With an aggressive defensive philosophy, Allen rose quickly through the NFL coaching ranks before being named the Oakland Raiders' head coach in 2012 at age 39.
Allen's defenses are known for forcing turnovers and getting sacks rather than limiting yardage.
Allen, the son of former Texas A&M and Atlanta Falcons linebacker Grady Allen, played safety for Texas A&M and worked for the Aggies as a graduate assistant. He moved on to a job as secondary coach at Tulsa (2000-01) before getting his start in the NFL as a defensive quality control coach for the Falcons under Dan Reeves in 2002. Allen was also a defensive assistant for Reeves' successor, Jim L. Mora.
When Sean Payton became New Orleans' head coach in 2006, he brought Allen in as defensive line coach. Allen stayed with the Saints until 2010 and was their defensive backs coach for the 2009 Super Bowl championship season. He spent 2011 as the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator under John Fox before the Raiders hired him as head coach.
-- Kevin Stone
Special thanks to the Elias Sports Bureau for research assistance in compiling this project.