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FOR DON CORYELL . . .BETTER HALF MAY PREVAIL : Charger Coach Keeps Job, for Now, on His Offense

October 25, 1985|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

They're dusting off a chair in the big house for one of football's acknowledged geniuses, San Diego's Don Coryell, who has courted disaster by outlasting the owner who hired him and fielding two losing teams in a row.

Coryell has finished below .500 only three times in a 27-year coaching career. And blame for the last two could be laid elsewhere, like at the feet of the old owner, Gene Klein, who routinely answered player requests for salary increases by providing directions to the airport.

But then, what has Coryell done lately?

What has he ever done for Alex Spanos?

Spanos, in his second season as Charger owner, is author of the statement, "I don't want any excuses from my coaching staff."

He has said he expects the Chargers to go 8-8 or better this season, which might be tough. They're 3-4 going into Monday night's game against the Raiders, the first of four in a row against the Raiders and Broncos. A season ago, the Chargers didn't win a game in the AFC West.

Before their game against Kansas City Oct. 13, NBC's ubiquitous Larry King announced that the Chargers had to win or Coryell would be replaced, either by Charger assistant Ernie Zampese or former Raider assistant Charlie Sumner. The Chargers won.

Since, Spanos has issued a vote of confidence in Coryell. In other places, these are considered such kisses of death that owners will try to label them as something else.

But not Spanos. He's proud of his and he's sticking to it.

"As far as I'm concerned, there's no question about the vote of confidence from here on in," Spanos said from his office in Stockton.

Did that mean until the end of the season, or beyond that?

Spanos: "That means, hey. . . . That just means whenever. . . . That's a rough question you've thrown at me. As far as I'm concerned, the only comment I have to make is, he has my vote of confidence."

How about the theory that Coryell is a genius?

"Well, I know he's a damn good offensive coach. The best there is. He's proven it."

So he's half a genius, anyway. That will count for something, as long as the Chargers finish 8-8 or better.

Coryell watchers report little change in his bearing. He still stares at the field with his eyebrows knitted into a frown and his eyeballs bulging, looking like a bird of prey that has just swallowed something indigestible.

Quarterback Dan Fouts said: "As players, we really haven't seen it. He's a very intense guy, anyway. It's been pretty much business as usual.

"As far as the so-called pressure, it's been written about. But you know us football players, we're too dumb to read."

Why should he look any different? Coryell has coached every day of his career as if someone were perched over his shoulder, about to pull the trigger. The only difference is that now it might be true.

When he was in St. Louis, they used to talk about the day Coryell's wife handed him the garbage on the way out of the house and told him to drop it off. Coryell, preoccupied as usual, took it to the stadium with him.

Whatever he was doing, it worked. His offenses were all but unstoppable. Assistants poured off his staff and became legends in their own rights--Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Jim Hanifan, John Madden.

He rebuilt the Cardinals into a contender, if one with too much offense and too little defense. After a falling-out with Cardinal owner Bill Bidwill, he rebuilt the Chargers the same way. They could score 40 points on anyone, even if anyone could get 38 on them.

They had three straight first-place finishes in the AFC West, but something kept happening in the playoffs. In 1979, the Houston Oilers came into San Diego with Earl Campbell injured, spotted a Charger lineman tipping plays and staged a stunning 17-14 upset as safety Vernon Perry intercepted four passes.

The following season, the Chargers played the second-place Oakland Raiders in the AFC title game at San Diego. Jim Plunkett threw a 65-yard scoring pass to Raymond Chester on the game's first possession, the Raiders ran up a 21-0 lead, won the game, 34-27, and went on to become the first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl.

A year after that, amid muttering about their not being able to win the big ones, the Chargers got back to the AFC final after Kellen Winslow's memorable performance in Miami. A week later, the Chargers lost the AFC title game in Cincinnati, 27-7, on the coldest day in playoff history.

Klein had already started letting his stars out. John Jefferson and Fred Dean were traded away in salary disputes. Gary (Big Hands) Johnson went later.

No. 1 draft choices Mossy Cade and Gary Anderson were lost to the USFL. Several other No. 1 picks went for offensive players, whether or not the defense needed help, which had also happened in Coryell's Cardinal days. Other top picks went for defensive players who didn't turn out to be all they were advertised to be.

In 1983, Fouts got knocked out of six games, of which the Chargers lost five, and fell to 6-10. Klein let himself out.

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