(Updated Jan. 4, 2016)
Don Coryell, a finalist among candidates for induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was the best coaching hire in St. Louis Cardinals football history.
An innovator known for producing winning college teams and high-powered offenses, Coryell overcame his lack of NFL experience and transformed the Cardinals into a championship-caliber club.
In five seasons (1973-77) under Coryell, the Cardinals posted a 42-27-1 record and twice qualified for the playoffs. Those were the Cardinals’ first playoff berths since 1948 and their first division titles since moving from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960.
Few predicted such success in January 1973. The Cardinals had finished the 1972 season with their second consecutive 4-9-1 record under head coach Bob Hollway. They ranked 23rd in scoring in the 26-team NFL.
Coryell, 48, had a 104-19-2 record in 12 years at San Diego State. He had developed future NFL players such as quarterbacks Dennis Shaw of the Bills, Don Horn of the Broncos and Brian Sipe of the Browns, and receivers Isaac Curtis of the Bengals and Gary Garrison of the Chargers.
But, wrote Rich Koster of The Sporting News, Coryell was “an unfamiliar name to most” outside of the San Diego area.
In the book “Big Red: The Story of the Football Cardinals” (1975, Piraeus), author Robert Burnes wrote that reporters at the St. Louis press conference announcing Coryell’s hiring asked, “Don who?”
Seeking a challenge at a higher level, Coryell had written a letter to Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, inquiring about the job after Hollway was fired. Meanwhile, Bidwill told Koster, “people told me that, if I wanted a college coach, there was this guy at San Diego State.”
Coryell received a three-year contract from the Cardinals. The only other candidate considered for the position was former Packers quarterback Bart Starr, United Press International reported.
“I wanted someone who could put the offense back into the Cardinals,” Bidwill said to the Associated Press. “(Coryell) has always had this. He comes to us very highly recommended from many sources. He has a consistent record of winning seasons.”
Said Coryell: “I believe in a wide-open style of play. I like to throw the ball. I believe in attacking the defense.”
One reason Coryell was confident he could succeed was the presence of veteran quarterback Jim Hart on the Cardinals’ roster. Hollway had soured on Hart and had tried Gary Cuozzo and Tim Van Galder at quarterback in 1972.
Coryell watched film of Hart and determined Hart would be his starter. “(Hart) can throw long and he can throw the deep sideline pattern,” Coryell said to The Sporting News. “If he can do that, I know he can throw the short stuff. I want a quarterback who can explode the ball, particularly against the zone defense.”
Said Hart to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2010: “After the first meeting we had with him, and he started talking about how he liked to throw the ball … It was like, ‘Whoa, you got us, pal.’ ”
After a 4-9-1 record in 1973 (the Cardinals did improve to 11th in the NFL in scoring), St. Louis was 10-4 and won a division championship in Coryell’s second season, 1974. Hart thrived in an offense that included running backs Jim Otis and Terry Metcalf; receivers Mel Gray, Earl Thomas, Jackie Smith and J.V. Cain (Ike Harris and Pat Tilley later contributed significantly to the receiving corps); and linemen Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler and Tom Banks.
The Cardinals were 11-3 and won a second consecutive division title in 1975. Their offense ranked seventh in the NFL in scoring. St. Louis won seven times in the last minute of a game that season, earning the nickname “Cardiac Cardinals.”
Winning championships with flair, the football Cardinals began to rank in popularity with the baseball Cardinals, who went without a championship in the 1970s, and Coryell began to emerge as one of the iconic coaches in St. Louis sports history.
A 10-4 finish in 1976 was followed by a 7-7 record in 1977. Coryell and Bidwill feuded over control of the draft and personnel decisions. Disenchanted, Coryell went back to San Diego to coach the Chargers and led them to the NFL playoffs in four consecutive seasons.