SAN DIEGO — The old coach has still got it: The flat stomach, the sturdy, proud chest, the ruddy-faced enthusiasm. And for the wrong question--that sideline scowl.
At age 67, Don Coryell still looks very much like a football coach ready to tackle training camp, but when the Chargers gather at UC San Diego next month, they will do so for the sixth consecutive year without Coryell.
Has it really been that long?
The offensive wizard, who placed San Diego State on the football map and who just missed putting the Chargers into the Super Bowl, remains one of this town's shining lights in sports. But all that ingenuity and all that intensity have gone fishing.
"This retirement business is really easy," Coryell said. "I don't miss coaching one bit. Not a lick. I miss the people, the coaches and those great players. Those great guys.
"But I gave it everything I had. I didn't want to die on the football field and I might have if I had stayed around much longer. I was tired. No question, I was physically and mentally shot."
Coryell's game plan, beginning with his acceptance of a seven-year contract in 1980 to continue coaching the Chargers, was to retire at the conclusion of the 1986 season. He looked forward to retirement, he said at the time, but he also had the look of man who was preparing himself only for the next first-and-10.
"When it came time, I was really hoping we would win that last year," he said. "That's my only regret in football . . . and we started off so well."
Coryell's Chargers blasted Miami, 50-28, on opening day in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, and although he did not know it at the time, it was his final victory as a coach. The Chargers went on to drop seven games in a row. Owner Alex Spanos summoned Coryell to his office. There were eight games to play, but less than an hour after meeting with the owner, the Chargers announced in a press release that Coryell had informed Spanos that he had quit.
"I was fired," said Coryell, addressing the unceremonious end to his coaching career for the first time since his departure. "Hell yes, I was fired."
So why did he allow the Chargers to contend at the time that he had left the team voluntarily.
"Just easier," he said.
Coryell departed the good soldier on Oct. 29, 1986, but he has not returned.
He has attended several San Diego State football games and he was inducted into the Aztec Hall of Fame. He has contributed his time to SDSU's fund-raising endeavors, and each year an Aztec freshman football player from the San Diego area receives a scholarship in Coryell's name.
Coryell, however, has not revisited San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium to watch the Chargers.
"The Chargers were my whole life, but not anymore," he said. "I'm just not ready to go to a game. Maybe I will be ready some day."
When the Chargers grounded Air Coryell, they did so without fanfare. With the passing of time, there has been no attempt to honor or acknowledge the accomplishments of Coryell and his crowd-pleasing athletes.
His watch is gold, but it has not come from the Chargers. "It's an old Pro Bowl one," he said. "The battery in my other watch went crazy."
The Chargers have not inducted anyone into their Hall of Fame since 1985, ignoring so far such memory-makers as Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. This past week the team announced the return of the Lightning Bolt on the uniforms this season; there was no mention of the coach who had initially put the charge in that symbol for football firepower.
When Coryell assumed command of the Chargers on Sept. 25, 1978 they were retreating at 1-3. By season's end, Coryell had them winning seven of their last eight games. The following year the Chargers were in the playoffs. In 1980, they were playing for the AFC Championship.
"The first 10 years in this league--the five in St. Louis and the first five in San Diego--they were great," Coryell said. "The last four were tough. We just didn't do it."
Gene Klein, who hired Coryell to coach the Chargers, sold controlling interest in the club to Spanos in 1984. Spanos made it clear within his new organization that he did not like Coryell, but he was not about to publicly challenge Coryell's popularity.
After the Chargers went 8-8 in 1985, Spanos promoted Al Saunders to assistant head coach, and then ignored Coryell. Spanos empowered the politically minded Saunders to make all the football decisions usually reserved for the head coach.
"Maybe I shouldn't have (put up with that)," Coryell said. "I had another year before I was going to retire. I was going to leave no matter what at the end of that year. I had just one year left . . .
"I always said, get me the players and give me the field and I'll do my best to coach them. But no, you've got to have a say in what players you get and what players you keep. When they shipped off (linebacker) Linden King, I couldn't believe it. Maybe I should have quit right then."