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Coryell, Madden and Kingsbury

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St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

In today’s NFL football—-as well as 40 years ago—-if a coach can bring something special to the table, he will find himself in high demand.

Kliff Kingsbury was hired because of his innovative, up tempo, high voltage offense. In many ways, Kliff Kingsbury feels like Air Coryell, Part II. When Bill Bidwill hired Don Coryell in 1973, Coryell had zero NFL coaching experience—-but he had the special je ne sais quoi—-as in a novel approach to running an offense.

Coryell, unlike Kingsbury’s 35-40 record at Texas Tech, delivered an outstanding 104-19-2 record at San Diego St. But, for the sake of a comparative context, Coryell’s Aztecs did not play in a Power 5 conference and Coryell had some impressive coaching help on the other side of the ball, most especially in the banner years when John Madden was his defensive coordinator.

Speaking of John Madden and that certain je ne sais quoi, he made the jump from defensive coordinator at San Diego St. to linebacker coach with the Oakland Raiders in 1967 and everyone thought 2 years later that Al Davis was out of his mind to hire Madden, then just 32 years old, as head coach.

Both Coryell and Madden—-unlikely as they were—-to be appointed NFL head coaches as quirky and eccentric as they were—-were virtually instant NFL mavericks—-Madden became the quickest and the youngest NFL head coach to reach 100 regular season wins, which he accomplished in a mere 10 years—-while Coryell, after his 4-9-1 inaugural season in St. Louis, led the Cardinals to 3 straight 10+ win seasons and 2 NFC East titles before moving on to San Diego where he surpassed his overall 100 regular season win total in his 12th NFL season.

Between Madden’s 10 years as head coach of the Raiders and Don Coryell’s 5 years as head coach of the Cardinals they combined for only one losing season, Coryell’s first in 1973.

That’s pretty amazing.

But, on other levels, many more things about Coryell and Madden are amazing.

For starters, John Madden met Don Coryell at a coaching clinic where highly heralded USC head coach John McKay gave a lesson on the “I” formation. At the time, John Madden was the head coach at Allan Hancock College. Ever heard of it? it’s in Santa Maria, California.

Madden said he was totally enthralled by McKay’s teaching of the “I” formation and was furiously scribbling down notes and diagrams when all of a sudden McKay said, “To be honest, I am not the inventor of the I formation—-the inventor is sitting right over there” and McKay pointed to the man and said, “It’s Don Coryell.” “Don introduced it when he was an assistant coach as USC in the early 50s.”

So after McKay concluded the clinic, as many of the coaches rushed up to the podium to get more info on the ‘I” from John McKay—-Madden decided he’d rather go talk to the coach who invented it.

That was the day when a special, life-changing bond happened for both Don Coryell and John Madden.

When Madden delivered his eulogy for Coryell at a memorial tribute at San Diego St., Madden opened his remarks by saying, “I am John Madden. Condolences to the family. You know—-I am sitting down in front and am sitting there and next to me is Joe Gibbs and next to him is Dan Fouts—-and the three of us are in the Hall of Fame—-because of Don Coryell.”

By then John Madden was tearing up and choking on his words and he said, —-”There’s something missing.” (Despite being a finalist 3 times, Don Coryell has still not been elected into the Hall of Fame, presumably because he never won a Super Bowl)

I was a senior in high school (1973) when Don Coryell was named the Cardinals’ new “outside of the box” head coach. I can remember very well the cynical reception Coryell received around the league—-not only because Coryell had some big, new ideas, but he was quirky and talked with a lisp.

But, boy oh boy did Coryell know how to build an offensive line—-the best in the history of the Cardinals with three notable studs: T Dan Dierdorf, C Tom Banks and G Conrad Dobler—-and boy oh boy—-did Coryell know how to get the ball to young RB Terry Metcalf in space and how to attack defenses downfield with darts from Jim Hart to WR Mel Gray, WR Earl Thomas and TE Jackie Smith.

Then in 1983, I was in my fifth year of high school coaching when I met and worked for John Madden. Before I had the chance to meet him and to start diagramming his plays, he sent me his book on coaching called “John Madden’s Man to Man Football.” He had signed the cover of it and asked that I absorb every word of it and study every diagram.

It was—-and still is—-an amazingly detailed and comprehensive read—-and the genius of it is that Madden miraculously managed to detail pretty much everything any coach (from Pop Warner to the NFL) needs to know about coaching football—-in all 3 phases of the game—-in a mere 147 page manuscript in large old typewriter font.

While as TV color commentator Madden could ramble passionately on and on about the game, the coaches and the players, in his book, and as a coach, he knew it was best to be to communicate as succinctly and tersely as possible—-even back then in the 70s Madden was well aware of the players’ short attention spans and diverse learning abilities.

Madden told me that he always installed the two hardest plays the first day of training camp when they players’ minds were the freshest. Both plays were weak side off-tackle isolations—-one with the FB iso blocking the OLB with the tailback running the ball and depending on what kind of leverage the LT gets on the DE, the RB can run outside the shoulder of the LT or inside the shoulder—-the second weak side off-tackle play hs the tailback flanked to the left side of the QB behind the LT and now he is the iso-blocker on the OLB, and the FB, lined up directly behind the QB, rushes the off-tackle hole, reading the shoulder of the LT.

As I was reading through the book the other day I thought of how similar Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive philosophy and modus operandi are similar in theory to John Madden’s.

Be short and direct and clear in instructions. Challenge the players by putting in some of the hardest plays first. Give the players much needed breaks in meetings and ptractices. Design plays that give the offense an advantage in the numbers game. And—-get this one—-Madden even wrote a whole chapter on how important “the element of surprise” is for an offense “on first down.”

The surprise element is certainly something that John Madden learned very well from Don Coryell. In fact, all of these aforementioned philosophies were shared by Coryell and Madden.

Mind you that Madden’s book was written and first presented at UC Berkeley in 1979.

Here it is 40 years later—-and it just goes to show how much of a genius Don Coryell was—-same with the assistant coaches whom Coryell helped to groom in John Madden, Joe Gibbs., Ernie Zampese, Al Saunders and Jim Hanifan—-that “Air Coryell” is still in vogue, now moreso than ever.

Upon reflection, what appears to be a salient common denominator between Don Coryell and Kliff Kingsbury—-even though both coaches love to run the ball, particularly when it is least expected—-coming into the NFL they both arrived at the conclusion that the highest scoring offenses are ones where the QB can deliver the ball to playmakers in open areas of the field.

In other words—-pass to set up the run—-not vice versa.

Make heavy use of the element of surprise.

Keep defenses off-balance and on their heels.

Just as John Madden always liked to exploit the numbers game in his rushing attack—-and, by the way, those 2 weak side off-tackle plays he mentioned as his bread and butter plays accounted for 175 yards in Madden’s Raiders’ 32-14 win over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI—-Don Coryell was the original master of exploiting pass coverage numbers and mismatches. And he liked to do it as simply as possible.

Dan Fouts said one time on the sidelines during a game that one of Coryell’s offensive assistants was going over a 4 part series of progressions on one play to the point where Fouts said his head was spinning—-and when he started to run out on the field he felt a tug on his shirt—-turned around and Coryell said, “Just hit, J.J. on the dig route!” as in Chargers’ WR John Jefferson.

Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel has said that there were times when Kingsbury, his OC with the Aggies back then, would make things simple on him—-giving him a primary read, then a check down and if neither could be completed immediately—-Kingsbury would say” take off and create.”

In terms of handling personnel, Dan Fouts said of Don Coryell that “he always treated his players like men”—-that coaches don't need to be screamers and bullies to motivate players—and that Coryell was a master of staying positive. One time after Fouts had thrown two interceptions in practice and was feeling extremely frustrated, Coryell came over and said, “What’s the matter? You’ve got 40 more passes to go!”

Kliff Kingsbury is cut from a similar cloth. Like Coryell he is a nurturer, a taskmaster for detailed repetitions and an eternal optimist.

Kingsbury’s young legacy of developing QBs such as Case Keenum, Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield puts him on track with Don Coryell—-for developing QBs was Coryell’s college and NFL calling card.

Based on the similar elements of Kliff Kingsbury’s philosophy to Don Coryell’s and John Madden’s—-and Kingsbury’s insatiable passion for innovation, combined with his off-the-charts work ethic—-in my opinion—-gives Kliff Kingsbury a chance to be a highly successful NFL head coach/offensive coordinator.

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: the Story of Success”, Gladwell attributes success to a 10,000 hour rule—-that if someone spends more that 10,000 hours working his or her craft, then he or she has a tremendous chance to be successful. Two of the more salient examples he gave of this rule are the work ethics of Bill Gates and The Beatles. In the case of The Beatles, Gladwell points to the year they spent playing all-night gigs in Hamburg, Germany as the game changing occasion the band tightened their chemistry so well they could start touring the world—-and those long gigs inspired them to become creative—-because playing the same songs over and over, night after night would get monotonous—-so why not invent and create and present?!

Kliff Kingsbury has already logged far more than 10,000 hours as a college play designer and play caller—-both if which are an art. Now he’s 7 months into logging his 10,000 in the NFL.

Kudos to John Madden for this stunningly poignant and funny tribute to Don Coryell. It is so worth the look and for those of us who saw Coryell perform his magic with the Cardinals, it is a very pleasant trip down memory lane to a time when watching the Cardinals play offense was an utter joy and thrill.