Amidst the sadness of Don Coryell’s passing are some extraordinary reminiscences of this revered Aztec.
While iconic NFLers and esteemed scribes alike passionately speak to the abundance of Coach Coryell’s innovative expertise and beautiful human qualities, I can’t help but consider Don’s impact on the college-turned-university, San Diego State.
So let’s think back a bit. Don came to Montezuma Mesa in 1961 and left 11 years later with a record of 119, 24 and 2. It has always been difficult for me to fathom the enormity of that record. But what about State? How were we transformed in that era, and what did the football coach have to do with that transformation?
In 1961 enrollment had skyrocketed to 13,000! Freshmen women wore beanies. The homecoming game was played before 4,000 in Aztec Bowl. By 1969 the undefeated Aztecs had moved into San Diego Stadium (now Qualcomm) and drew 48,000 fans at the Pasadena Bowl. When Don left after the 1972 season for the NFL, we were on the verge of becoming a university and no one had played a higher-profile role in setting the stage for that designation than Coach Coryell.
Don Coryell provided us a platform of hope. In 25 years of talking with Aztec alums on a daily basis, I have seen no one come close to generating as many impassioned and reverent soliloquies as our beloved coach. I contend that Don gave us a confidence that transcended football. He gave us the foundation for excellence. He bolstered our self esteem to such enormous heights that State propelled itself into becoming a world-class academic institution.
Our alumni of the era and the subsequent generation, who never missed a Saturday night in San Diego Stadium as youths, had no chips on their shoulders. For example, Tom Helmantoler ('68) writes: “We could always look to Saturday night fun at the stadium and an Aztec win, after we all got off from our weekend jobs. We all knew, without thinking about it, that we had a good, decent, honest and friendly man in charge of the program, it made us proud to say that we were SDSU Aztecs. It still does.” And while many have been frustrated at the relative mediocrity of our football fortunes in the subsequent four decades, who can question that San Diego State University has become an elite institution whose desirability as measured by application rates is annually now in the top 10 in the country?
But what about the retired Coach Don Coryell? How did he continue to forge a legacy of excellence for SDSU? How did he convert a singularly driven compulsion for success on the football field to his life after football? As someone whose job it was to regularly invite Don to campus to attend big events, be the honorary homecoming chair, or simply to attend games and visit our coaches and teams, I was always struck by his humility. He was kind to everyone and completely unpretentious. He remembered your name. He was always genuinely interested in people. There was zero phoniness.
I came to really enjoy my phone calls with Coach Coryell. I would ask him about what his retired life was like while he was in Friday Harbor. He’d tell me this: “Well, today I am going to ride my bike downtown like I do most days and then my big decision is going to be whether to buy clams or fish for dinner.”
Then, on those delightfully special days when I would get to escort Don and Aliisa around the campus or the stadium, I began to realize that his driving passion for our university never faded. He loved San Diego State. He loved our alumni and he wanted nothing more than to optimistically and enthusiastically speak with any and all about how we were always getting better.
Speaking of Coach Don as the obsessively driven coach whose mental focus rarely strayed from strategies to get into the end zone, Vickie Idhe, 25-year Aztec ticket manager, shares this gem: “I was coming out of our offices at the stadium when Don was coaching the Chargers and I saw him exit onto the sidewalk. He stopped, put down his briefcase and fished for his car keys. Then he left without grabbing his briefcase. I ran to catch him but he got away so I took his briefcase back into my office. Not being able to resist the temptation to see what top secret game plan was in store that week, I peeked. It was empty!”
Thank Don’s family, including his daughter Mindy Lewis and her husband Mike and Don’s granddaughter Loni, for understanding and facilitating Don’s many interactions with us on campus. And thanks also to the scores of players including the household names like Sipe and Buchanon and Dryer, whose imitation of the Coach surely brought down the house at Bully’s a hundred times. All of these former Aztec football players universally loved their coach and their collective passion is a real part of our school’s excellence.
So thanks, Coach Coryell, for inspiring us and for inspiring San Diego State University to greatness. May your inspiration remain in the hearts of all Aztecs for all time.