Many of the NFL’s greatest players and coaches have expressed their respects to the recently deceased Don Coryell since his passing last week. The man truly was a brilliant innovator and strategist, and fans of the NFL have him partly to thank for the entertaining product we enjoy each year. One of Coryell’s ‘rivals’ (for lack of a better word) was Miami Dolphin’s head coach Don Shula. Shula’s Dolphins and Coryell’s Chargers squared off in several noteworthy games over the years, but none bigger than their confrontation in the 1981 AFC Playoffs. It was the Divisional Round, two division winners, two brilliant coaches, and a game for the ages.
Shula joined XX 1090 in San Diego to talk about that epic playoff battle, where that loss ranks in his pantheon of tough ones to swallow, why he respected Don Coryell so much as a coach and innovator, how preparing for Coryell and Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts used to give him nightmares, how losing that playoff game was surpassed only by his loss in Super Bowl III as the head coach of the Colts, and what he thinks about Coryell’s Hall of Fame credentials.
On San Diego’s 41-38 victory over Shula’s Dolphins in the 1981 Divisional Playoff game:
“Well that had to be one of the great ones. You know I was a coach for a long time – 33 years – and a lot of exciting games, but that probably had to be the most exciting or certainly one of the most exciting games. It just had everything. It had the big plays, the spectacular defenses, and the kicking game was outstanding. So it had everything.”
On what he remembers about preparing his defense to play Air Coryell’s explosive offense:
“I tell you that was Air Coryell at its best. And Dan Fouts, you know, was just such a great quarterback. I had an opportunity to coach him at a couple of Pro Bowls and get to know him on a different level, and I really enjoyed the times that I had with him at the Pro Bowl games because the guy was just a great passer and he knew the game inside out. And he had so much confidence in his ability to make the big plays and make it happen.”
On the preparation that went into that game and was it about him vs. Coryell:
“Well it was never me versus the other coach in my mind. It was preparing my team to play the other team and then knowing the rival coach and what he stood for and the kind of offense that he believed in and the defense he believed in. And when you’re preparing to play the San Diego Chargers, it was Don Coryell and Fouts and Kellen Winslow and people like that – it blew your mind as far as the preparation goes, because they had so many weapons and Coryell wasn’t afraid to use them. A lot of coaches at that point in time were afraid to open up their offenses and throw the ball the way that Coryell threw it and the way that Fouts and San Diego threw it. So they were special.”
On if he subscribes to the cliche that coaches remember the losses more than they remember the wins:
“Yeah I’ve got one loss that I remember pretty well – to the Jets in Super Bowl III. I remember that.”
On if he thinks Coryell’s Hall of Fame credentials were unfairly dinged by his lack of winning a Super Bowl:
“Yeah I think what you have got to do is make sure people understand what his contribution was to the game. And then you got to somehow get it out there where the things that he’s done compared to coaches that are in the Hall of Fame. And if he deserves to be there, then he should be voted in. A lot of times, I think there’s too much politicking that goes on and guys that accomplish things don’t get the recognition that they deserve. And there ought to be somebody that should be able to take Coryell’s record and put it down there and compare it to the coaches that are in the Hall of Fame. If he belongs, he should get in.”