Those jilted fans, however, might find some solace in knowing that two former Chargers heroes are finalists for the Hall of Fame, which traditionally gains four to eight new members in a vote on the Saturday before the Super Bowl.
Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is nearly a sure thing, while Coach Don Coryell is a long-overdue thing. And how appropriate a thing it would be if both were honored, and if San Diego fans could celebrate their team just one more time — maybe by salvaging Chargers jerseys from the pile that angry fans left in front of the team’s office — just as the door closes on the city’s relationship with pro football.
Tomlinson, a five-time Pro Bowler who was the N.F.L.’s most valuable player of the 2006 season, was drafted by the Chargers in 2001 and turned out to be one of the best running backs in history. It would be no surprise if he made it into the Hall on this, his first ballot.
Coryell’s chances are much slimmer, but they shouldn’t be. He coached the Chargers from 1978 to 1986, after five years with the St. Louis Cardinals. While he never won a Super Bowl, he did make one tiny mark on the game that might just warrant an acknowledgment from the Hall of Fame.
He made the game what it is today. And that’s exactly what the Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts has been arguing for about 23 years now.
Under Coryell with the Chargers, Fouts became a star in an offense that didn’t emphasize running the ball, which was the standard approach in that era. To create mismatches, Coryell didn’t set up players in the exact spots and roles prescribed in textbooks.
Before the snap, he had players moving. After the snap, he had Fouts throw, throw and throw the ball, farther and more often than any team before. Those Chargers even threw to the usually neglected tight end position, where they had the future Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow. The Chargers’ passing game became so distinctive that it gained a nickname: Air Coryell.
“My best argument for why Don Coryell should be in the Hall of Fame is this: Ask yourself, how did the game get to the point where 4,000 yards is the norm now and where this three-, four-, five-wide-receiver stuff is the norm, and passing more than running is the norm?” Fouts said. “That was Don Coryell.”
Coryell brought life to the Chargers, who hadn’t had a winning season in nearly a decade before he showed up, and his explosive offense — Fouts said the players considered any game under 40 points disappointing — rallied the city around the team. Finally, San Diego had a franchise to be proud of, and the Chargers were winning in style: They led the league in passing for six straight seasons, from 1978 through 1983, and then did it again in 1985.
“Before Coryell, things were rough,” Fouts said. “We were drawing 25-30,000, and most of them were booing the quarterback. He helped turn things around, and Charger power was born. You hear about love affairs, and it was kind of like that. It was special.”
Mindy Lewis, Coryell’s daughter, remembers her father, who died in 2010, as the city’s saint. She recalled bumper stickers reading “Coryell for President” and “Coryell Saves.”
She is convinced that her father will make it into the Hall of Fame, she hopes sooner than later.
Lewis thought he might be elected in 2010, the first time he made the final ballot of 15 candidates, because he was in the hospital, battling pneumonialike symptoms caused by a muscle disease. Even though he was on a breathing tube, Coryell, 85, talked to Fouts during Super Bowl week then, getting updates on the vote. The whole family was crushed when he didn’t make it, though Lewis said her father never complained about his exclusion. He died about five months later.
“I think it’s because he never won a Super Bowl, and isn’t that so silly,” Lewis said, “considering what he contributed to the game and how many coaches talked about what they learned from him?”
Some of the best coaches in history learned from him. They include Hall of Famers and Super Bowl winners, like Joe Gibbs and John Madden, who were assistants under Coryell at San Diego State.
As Fouts said, if you look at those coaches, you can see how Coryell has influenced the teams of today, like the Dallas Cowboys, because Coach Jason Garrett learned from Ernie Zampese, who coached under Coryell.
“You can see Don almost everywhere,” Fouts said.
Especially in San Diego.
Madden said Coryell “made football relevant” in San Diego because he changed the whole culture of the game there and made players and fans feel like family.
Coryell shared his football knowledge with any coach who wanted it, said Madden, who learned all about the I-formation from Coryell. Coryell is widely considered the pioneer of the I, which features two running backs in a line behind the quarterback.
“He was a football genius, a guru, a big thinker and a deep thinker on offense who shared his information with little people who couldn’t help him, and that just doesn’t happen anymore,” Madden said. “One time, he came to speak at a graduate night class I taught in adult education in football, and I didn’t even give him an apple.”
All that, and still no Hall of Fame for Coryell? Madden isn’t worried. He is sure Coryell’s time will come because he deserves it, football deserves it and San Diego deserves it. It would be a reminder that the San Diego Chargers helped change the face of football. Even though the team has gone, nothing can erase that.
Chargers fans like Casillas just might find a speck of happiness in that.
“It would be great if he got into the Hall,” Casillas said, “but only as a San Diego Charger, with no mention of L.A.”