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Pioneers of the West Coast Offense
Richard Linde, 4 March 2006

In some cases, not knowing one’s ancestral tree is better left alone. What good service to your psyche is rendered by finding out that a person from your lineage was beheaded about the time that Ann Boleyn was disloyal to her husband Henry VIII?

“Let the brigand’s foul deeds lie undisturbed,” King Thomas Hansen might say (see our spoof, “A day at Castle Pacifica”).

In the case of the West Coast Offense (WCO), many questions of proper lineage arise. Are they better left alone? Probably they are.

However, I’ll take a stab at answering some of them, as in who was the father of the West Coast Offense? If you ask a fairly knowledgeable football fan, he or she will say that Bill Walsh developed the offense at the time he coached the San Francisco 49ers. Actually, Walsh was tutored in the offense by Al Davis at Oakland, then developed a variant of the offense at Cincinnati and refined it fully at San Francisco.

Some of the confusion arises from an interview that Paul Zimmerman (a.k.a., Dr. Z) had with Bernie Kosar in 1993. Zimmerman asked Kosar, who was a backup quarterback with Dallas, what the Dallas offense was like.

"Oh, you know, the West Coast Offense," he said. "(Norv) Turner and (Ernie) Zampese and Don Coryell and Sid Gillman. That thing," he replied.

Later, a wire-service reporter picked up the quote, misinterpreted it, and associated it with the offense that Bill Walsh had used in San Francisco's Super Bowl run of the '80s.

Really, though, Kosar had it right on two counts, although Turner and Zampese had ties to the west coast.  

So to answer the question: The real fathers of the WCO are Sid Gillman and Don Coryell, who coached the San Diego Chargers and the San Diego State Aztecs, respectively, both in the early 1960’s. They were the first coaches to use the passing game to open up the run. Forget all of the formations Gillman and Coryell used, forget their sets and forget their X’s and O’s. That’s where most of the confusion arises.

The WCO is a generic term describing a set of passing plays designed to facilitate the running game, and not the other way around. Put another way, it’s a philosophy of coaching a strategic offense that emphasizes the passing game. In the early 60's, its defining moments occurred in San Diego, California -- which is located on the west coast. Any offshoot of the WCO, a passing game that seeks ball control, is best described by the offensive coordinator or coach who developed it. That’s where the X’s and O’s come into play, a prime source of confusion. So we have the Walsh offense, the Turner offense, Urban Meyer’s spread offense, and so on, all of them followers of Gillman’s and Coryell’s WCO philosophy.

Early in his career, Coryell concentrated on the vertical passing game, the long ball, and augmented it with power running and zone blocking. Walsh went to a horizontal passing game, with his quarterbacks tying their feet to their receivers’ routes, with an emphasis on timing. He used man-to-man blocking at San Francisco.

Further evolution of the West Coast Offense at the college level

Among football’s BCS conferences, the Pac-10 was the first true passing conference, its members featuring top-notch throwing quarterbacks from top to bottom. It dominated the Rose Bowl from 1970-1992, going 19-4 against the ground-oriented Big Ten.

Although Coryell and Gillman served as an inspiration to those air-minded coaches in the Pac-10, the fact that no one ran much on USC (“Tailback U”) in the 60’s and 70’s added further motivation to go with a passing attack. A treasure trove of skilled athletes came out of California high schools and Junior Colleges in the late 60’s and 70‘s, most of them ending up in the Pac-10. In fact, they still do, as of today. Those modern-day writers who refer to the “pass-happy Pac-10” ignore its original love affair with Gillman’s and Coryell’s offenses. The conference’s affinity for the passing game didn’t happen overnight, it was an evolutionary sort of thing.

If you can’t run over them, through them or around them, then transfer the ball and hope that one good thing happens.

Ironically, Jim Owens of Washington went to the WCO in 1970, using quarterback Sonny Sixkiller for its implementation. Up until that time, Owens (1957-1974) had been a ground-oriented coach, who, in the rainy northwest, relied on 3 yards and a cloud of “rust” to get the job done. Using our definition of the WCO, it can be said that Owens brought that offense to Washington -- the “Sixkiller” version.

On September 19, 1970, a resigned crowd filed into Husky Stadium, expecting to see another loss, this one at the hands of Michigan State. The Huskies had finished 1-9 the year before, using the wishbone offense, and it was its first game of the season. Washington got the opening kickoff, and what certainly would follow would be a series of boring running plays designed to set up a pass. In their minds, fans had made book on that. On the first offensive play of the game, Sixkiller lit up the dark stadium with a spiraling pass over the middle, connecting with senior tight end Ace Bulger, who bullied an astonished safety for a first down. Husky Stadium erupted, applauded and Sonny began to shine. The zany passing attack that followed resembled that of the San Diego State Aztecs. Fittingly, Don Coryell had matriculated at Washington. The Huskies ended up beating the Spartans 42-16, posting the most points they had scored since the first game of the 1960 season.

Years later (2002), quarterback Cody Pickett of Washington ran nearly to perfection the Keith Gilbertson offense, which was a child of the Walsh offense, which was a child of the original WCO. In that year Washington finished first in the Pac-10 -- fourth nationally -- in passing offense, averaging 352.4 yards per game.

Most of the offenses in the Pac-10 today are offshoots of the Walsh offense, which Walsh brought to the conference when he coached at Stanford in 1977 and ’78, his first head coaching job.

In defining the WCO and who invented it, it’s best to use Occam’s Razor, which states, “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.”

Why can’t people just agree on Coryell and Gillman as fathers of the West Coast Offense? It's okay for people to refer to Walsh's WCO, as long as they realize he didn't invent the West Coast Offense. Bill Walsh would agree.


The Structure below, derived from our simple definition of the WCO, shows the proper lineage of the offense, with coaches at the University of Washington used as an example.

Many of today’s college and professional coaches run a variation of the Walsh offense, which is a descendant of the coaching philosophy Sid Gillman and Don Coryell pioneered on the west coast.


Richard Linde (a.k.a., Malamute) can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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