Growing up as a football fan in San Diego was fun, mostly because of one person: Don Coryell.

The San Diego Chargers were one of the NFL’s biggest laughingstocks until Coryell came back to town in 1978. His hiring was big news because he had been a major success at San Diego State from 1961-72.

Almost instantly, the Chargers went from bumbling buffoons to the most exciting team in the league. Dan Fouts went from an average quarterback to a Hall of Famer and “Air Coryell” became synonymous with high-octane football.

The Coryell Chargers reached offensive heights never before seen in pro football. The scoring and passing statistics were mind-boggling for an NFL that revolved around running the football. First down became a passing down with Coryell as head coach.

The multi-set offensive schemes you see in today’s modern football world were first introduced to the game by Coryell. The nickel and dime coverage packages came into play as opposing defenses tried to figure out how to deal with Coryell’s advanced three-receiver, one-back sets that also featured Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow split wide. Charlie Joiner went from an OK receiver to a Hall of Famer under Coryell’s tutelage.

When it comes to offensive football innovators, Coryell’s name is on the short list of the best ever.

Coryell, one of the most beloved people in San Diego history – not just sports – died Thursday at age 85 after a long illness.

He was a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist earlier this year for the first time ever. Can’t figure out how it took so long for him to become a finalist. He should have been inducted years ago.

He was the first coach to win 100 career games as both a college and NFL coach and he has an impressive coaching tree of people who learned from him, including Hall of Famers Joe Gibbs and John Madden.

The Chargers never won a Super Bowl during his tenure, twice losing in the AFC Championship Game, and there’s been speculation that his omission from the Hall of Fame might be tied to that. But it was the shaky San Diego defense and that frigid Cincinnati weather (minus-59 wind chill) that helped keep the franchise from making it to the Super Bowl.

All of Coryell’s contributions to the game dwarf not coaching on Super Bowl Sunday. By a long post pattern.

I’m sure the Chargers will honor Coryell during the 2010 season – how about a DC decal on the helmets or DC patch on the jerseys? – as will San Diego State, a program that went an unbelievable 104-19-2 during Coryell’s tenure.

Here’s how popular Coryell remains in the San Diego area: There will be a public memorial service for him on July 12 and it will be held in San Diego State’s 12,400-seat basketball arena.

You don’t need a venue that large to remember someone who didn’t make an impact during their life.

The saddest thing about the timing of Coryell’s passing is he died without getting his due recognition in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Coryell was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999 and it makes no sense that his pro football contributions (which includes taking the 1970s St. Louis Cardinals from bottom feeders to the playoffs) haven’t been properly recognized.

The good thing is former players like Fouts and Hall of Fame offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf (Cardinals) never miss an opportunity to salute their former coach and often remark about his omission from the Hall of Fame.

Eventually, the voters will get it right. The Pro Football Hall of Fame isn’t complete without a sculptured bust of Don Coryell inside the hallowed halls of Canton.

RIP to a true sports legend and one of the most-beloved people in San Diego’s history. Coryell’s class, intensity and exciting brand of football will never be forgotten.

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