Ernie Zampese, the onetime Santa Barbara High School football star who later helped revolutionize the passing game of professional football, died this past week at the age of 86.
Although small of stature, Zampese scored 34 touchdowns for the Dons in 1953 — both passing and rushing ― and would later be described by the Los Angeles Times as “a work of art” while playing as a running back for USC. Although Zampese would hold down many assistant coaching positions from 1962 to 2002, it was during his tenure with the San Diego Chargers in the 1970s that his legend truly developed.
Zampese’s coaching of the Chargers’ all-star roster of receivers ― known as Air Coryell, named after head coach Don Coryell — sent the offense flying. Coryell was always quick to credit Zampese for the game-plan innovations that accentuated a quick-strike, accelerated-tempo passing game.
Zampese’s first coaching gig was at Allan Hancock in Santa Maria, then head-coached by John Madden. Two years later, he’d team up with Coryell at San Diego State. Over the course of his career, Zampese coached in various capacities for the New York Jets, the Los Angeles Rams, the Dallas Cowboys, and the St. Louis Rams.
Troy Aikman, quarterback of the Cowboys when they won the Super Bowl in 1995 with Zampese as assistant coach, praised him in an Instagram post Monday, calling him “one of the brightest offensive minds in the history of the game … many of his offensive concepts are still being used to this day.”