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Coryell to Take New Trails : Down From the Hills, He Talks Mostly of Future

November 14, 1986|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — For his 62nd birthday, which he observed Oct. 17, Don Coryell was given three books by his daughter, "The Mountains of California," "How to Survive in the Wilderness" and "Hiking Trails of California."

He had no expectation of reading any of them in the near future. After all, the last book he could recall reading was something about Africa. That was 30 years ago, when he was coaching the Army team at Fort Ord.

Twelve days after his birthday, Coryell suddenly underwent a change of life that has brought him the time to catch up on his reading. It was on Oct. 29 that Coryell, discouraged by a 1-7 record and seven straight losses, met with team owner Alex Spanos and tendered his resignation as coach of the Chargers.

Coryell and his wife, Aliisa, immediately headed for their retreat in the Laguna Mountains. In the days that followed, the couple rose early each morning and took a short hike before breakfast. Later, as the morning warmed, they would walk at a comfortable pace, stopping in a quiet, unpopulated spot, where they would sit down and read.

Coryell, who for years hadn't read anything other than the sports section or a game plan, selected "The Mountains of California" by John Muir, a choice that reflected his interest in nature. It also helped him to escape from the unnatural pressures that had been consuming him in recent weeks.

"It's fun to relate to places I've been that (Muir) talked about in his book written a century ago," Coryell said. "I'm about halfway through it now, and I've really enjoyed reading about the geology of Yosemite and the High Sierra and how lakes were formed, things that Muir talks about."

Thursday, two weeks after his surprise decision to resign, Coryell came down from the hills to talk with players, coaches and the local media at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

In a moving and sincere manner, Coryell made his first public appearance as just an ordinary guy, albeit one still struggling to let go after 33 years as a head coach.

"It's kind of fun to get up in the morning without a gun staring you in the face," he said. "What I want to do now is just relax and find out what a life of leisure is like. Of course, I'll be working hard at the things I want to do, along with my wife."

Coryell later said Aliisa had been waiting a long time for him to retire. "She would have loved it if I had stopped coaching way back, but I signed a seven-year contract to coach the Chargers and that brought me up to this year, when I was 62," he said.

This was a man often ridiculed for his preoccupation with passing, his absent mindedness, his stern expression, his wardrobe and his lisp.

But beyond all that, Coryell was a survivor.

Proudly, and a bit defiantly, Coryell said he couldn't think of another active coach who could match him in longevity.

"In my own mind I've been successful over a bunch of years," he said. "I lasted a long time. Tom Landry has got me by about a month (in age), but I have survived a lot of tough times and I'm very proud of that."

He lasted, in part, because he trusted in himself.

"I never second-guessed myself," Coryell said. "I always did the best job I could, and at the end, if that wasn't good enough, tough. I still do the same things I did for many years. I tried not to change too much.

That wasn't entirely the case, however. Coryell did change in fundamental ways. Earlier in his coaching career, his teams were oriented to the rushing game. In fact, it was Coryell who devised the power-I formation back in 1955.

"A lot of you here wouldn't remember it, but the I-formation was mine," he said. "That's my biggest contribution to football, I think."

He said he also was proud of his innovation in the passing game, the area with which he has been identified for a decade or more.

There aren't likely to be any more Coryell-inspired wrinkles. He wouldn't be interested in college coaching, and he probably would decline if another pro job came up, Coryell said.

"I don't think I could get my wife to leave San Diego again, and I'm going to stick with her," he said.

Coryell would have liked to stick it out with the Chargers this year, but he concluded it would be best for him and the team if he left at mid-season.

"I planned to stick it out, but when I talked to Alex, we both agreed it was the right thing, that the team needed a change to turn it around," he said.

His relationship with Al Saunders, who succeeded him as head coach, was not uncomfortable, as many had supposed. Saunders, who served Coryell as assistant coach and go-between with Spanos, was easy to work with, according to Coryell.

"It would have been very, very awkward with anyone other than Al," Coryell said. "Alex wants input on every little detail, and I'm not accustomed to that. Al and Alex could talk and (Spanos) could stay informed, but the coaching went on as it always had. It wasn't uncomfortable for me."

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