Oct. 9, 1999
by Tom Ables
Today, the mere mention of the name Don Coryell is enough to excite any Aztec fan. It has been 27 years since Don coached his last Aztec team, yet his name still conjures up joyous memories of what were truly The Glory Years.
But turn back the clock to 1961. Athletic Director Al Olsen had just hired Don Who? Seriously, at that stage no one knew the name Don Coryell. It didn?t take long for that to change!
Remember, Aztec football had hit rock bottom at the time. We had gone 1-6-1 in both 1959 and 1960. It looked like a long, hard climb back. Not to Don Coryell. He never believed in five-year plans, he believed in winning, now.
Don?s first Aztec team opened the ?61 season on the road against Los Angeles State. That may not sound awesome today, but L.A. State was a very good football team, led by running back Joe Womack, who went on the NFL success.
The Aztecs didn?t win that game, but they did tie, 13-13. And, believe me, that was an eye-opener. We wound up that season with a 7-2-1 record, including an impressive victory against the always-talented San Diego Marines in the season finale. Seven wins? That?s as many games as San Diego State won in the previous four seasons combined!
From that start, the Coryell era just got better and better. Eight wins in 1962, undefeated in conference play.
In one span - - ?65, ?66 and ?67 - - Don?s Aztecs won 25 games in a row. Then, after that one loss in ?67 (and I still am convinced that we got robbed in that one!), we went another 31 games before losing again at the end of the 1970 season.
It would be hard to single out a team that was Don?s ?best,? but you could build a solid case for the ?69 team being honored tonight. That squad went 11-0, averaged 44.7 points a game and beat Boston University, 28-7, in the Pasadena Bowl. That was also the year of the unforgettable game with North Texas State and the classic QB duel between Dennis Shaw and Steve Ramsey. Dennis (and Don) won that battle, of course!
For sheer excitement, you might prefer 1966, also 11-0, with the incredible 38-34 comeback win over Weber State on a stormy night in Ogden, Utah. Best of all, that was the year of the unbelievable 36-0 win over North Dakota State, played before the all-time record crowd in Balboa Stadium. Bob Jones stopped a last-minute NDS touchdown drive by intercepting a pass and returning it the length of the field for an Aztec TD that was truly the icing on the cake.
In his 12 seasons on Montezuma Mesa, Don?s Aztec teams compiled a record of 104 wins, only 19 losses and two ties. The average score in those 125 games: 32-13, Aztecs! Don?s overriding accomplishment was to light the fire that lifted San Diego State football from small-college obscurity to major college status, winning at both levels. In addition, he ignited a community?s interest, with crowds of 40,000 the norm. Great players he developed? Too many to mention. But the Aztec Hall of Fame sparkles with their names. Great wins, great seasons, a few we?ve mentioned. All of that, yes, but most important is Don Coryell the man.
It?s hard to match language to this remarkable man. Try any of the words you can think of. Integrity. Honesty. Loyalty. Devotion. Dedication. Intensity. Inspiration. Friendship. They all fit. Add to that the fact that Don was a brilliant, innovative coach who put a new face on the college game. His induction into the College Football Hall of Fame this summer underscores his accomplishments. And he was the best evaluator of talent I?ve ever been around. Don seldom (if ever) was wrong in judging a prospect.
Adding to his own skills, Don surrounded himself with some of the brightest football minds ever. Among his assistants were John Madden, Joe Gibbs, Ernie Zampese, Jim Hanifan, Rod Dowhower, Claude Gilbert, Sid Hall, Tom Bass.
Maybe the true mark of this great man is to ask anyone who ever played for him - - either collegiately or in the NFL - - and they?ll say without hesitation, ?I love that man!? And guys don?t usually find that easy to say.
Thanks, Don! Thanks for the memories. And thanks for all that you did for San Diego State University. May you and Alissa share many years of happiness.
(FOOTNOTE: When I was asked to write my thoughts about Don Coryell, I certainly didn?t view it as a task, I considered it a privilege, an honor. My only concern: could I do justice to this man, who is one of a kind. I don?t know that I have, but I tried. Because, even though I never played for Don, I was close to the program. I saw all but one of the 125 games he coached, and will always wonder if the doctor was right when he said I was too sick to make that road trip to Cal Poly in 1964. Through it all, just like his players, I?m proud to say, I love that man! - - TA)