Ernie Zampese
Biographical details
Born(1936-03-12)March 12, 1936
Santa Barbara, California, U.S.
DiedAugust 29, 2022(2022-08-29) (aged 86)
Playing career
Coaching career (HC unless noted)
1962–63Allan Hancock J.C. (backfield)
1964–65Allan Hancock J.C.
1966Cal Poly (backfield)
1967–75San Diego State Aztecs (def. backfield)
1976San Diego Chargers (def. backfield)
1977–78New York Jets (scout)
1979–82San Diego Chargers (receivers)
1983–85San Diego Chargers (asst. head coach)
1986San Diego Chargers (off. coordinator)
1987–93Los Angeles Rams (off. coordinator)
1994–97Dallas Cowboys (off. coordinator)
1998–99New England Patriots (off. coordinator)
2000–01Dallas Cowboys (off. consultant)
2002St. Louis Rams (off. consultant)
2004Washington Redskins (off. consultant)
Accomplishments and honors

Ernie Zampese (March 12, 1936 – August 29, 2022) was an American professional football coach in the National Football League (NFL). Playing for Santa Barbara High School, he was selected as the CIF Player of the Year in 1953 and went on to play at the halfback position for the USC Trojans in 1955 and 1956. Between 1962 and 1975, he was a college football coach at Allan Hancock Junior College (1962–1965), Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (1966), and San Diego State University (1967–1975).

Between 1976 and 1999, Zampese served as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator for various National Football League teams. He gained his greatest acclaim as the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers under head coach Don Coryell. He was the father of NFL coach Ken Zampese.

Football player

Santa Barbara High School

Despite his small size (5 feet, 8 inches and 155 pounds), Zampese played tailback for Santa Barbara High School from 1951 to 1953. As a senior in 1953, Zampese rushed for 869 yards (9.3 yards per carry) and 19 touchdowns. He also passed for 1008 yards and 14 passing touchdowns.[1] In December 1953, he was selected by the Helms Athletic Foundation's football board as the CIF Player of the Year.[1] The Los Angeles Times called him "Little Ernie Zampese, a durable workhorse who did everything well for the Santa Barbara High Dons."[1] Zampese later recalled his days playing for the Dons as follows:

We had a great tradition at Santa Barbara. The stadium was on the school grounds in a little bowl. The town was much smaller then and everyone watched the Santa Barbara Dons on Friday nights. The epitomy [sic] of success was to play for the Santa Barbara Dons. That was as high as you could go.[2]

USC Trojans

After graduating from high school, Zampese enrolled at the University of Southern California. He played left halfback for the USC Trojans football team from 1955 to 1956.[3] Zampese developed a reputation as a colorful character at USC. In a 1987 feature story, the Los Angeles Times wrote of Zampese in his college days, "Zampese was a work of art, or so the legend goes, a guy who could paint the town Trojan Red at night and be seen whistling at sunrise the next morning, a Daily Racing Form folded under his arm, a soda in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Let's just say he wasn't headed for biology class."[4] He had his best season for the Trojans as a junior in 1956. In the Trojans' final pre-season game in September 1956, Zampese scored two rushing touchdowns and returned a punt 66 yards. Zampese's performance led sports writer Braven Dyer to write, "A lightweight named Ernie Zampese stole the show... Weighing less than the 160 pounds credited to him on Troy's roster, the slick Santa Barbara speedster sparked the so-called second varsity unit ..."[5] In addition to playing halfback, Zampese was also the punter for the 1956 Trojans team and was among the national leaders with an average of 43.9 yards per punt.[6] He set the USC record for longest punt, 85 yards against Wisconsin.[4]

In his final college football game, Zampese ran 38 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Trojans a 28–20 win over Notre Dame at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Los Angeles Times concluded its coverage of the game with a tribute to Zampese, "Troy had the final word, though, and came up with the clutch play on Zampese's 38-yard run 46 seconds into the final period. Clutch? You bet! It was fourth and 1 on the Notre Dame 38 when Ernie decided to be a hero."[7]

Zampese was barred from competition in 1957 due to Pacific Coast Conference penalties against USC.[8] Zampese and other players had part-time jobs which were determined to be in violation of NCAA rules. Zampese later recalled that the part-time job that cost him his eligibility as a senior was sweeping leaves for $1.50 an hour. Zampese later recalled, "We did that to get extra money because you could hardly survive on what the Pacific Coast Conference allowed for scholarships. I had to report to a groundskeeper and do whatever he did."[2]

Having been ruled ineligible for the 1957 season, Zampese did not complete his degree at USC. He later recalled having academic problems in his senior year: "The thing that happened my last semester was that I never went to class. I took Incompletes and they turned to F's, and I blew the whole thing off. At that time, I wasn't real interested and I had no direction, other than having fun."[4]

Ottawa Rough Riders

In June 1958, Zampese signed a contract to play professional football for the Ottawa Rough Riders in the Canadian Football League, reportedly for $9,000.[8] He was cut by the Rough Riders in August 1958.[9]

Football coach

Cal Poly and Hancock College

After being cut by the Ottawa Rough Riders in the summer of 1958, Zampese took a job driving a sugar beet truck in Bakersfield, California. He then took a job as a postman in Santa Barbara, where he was married to his wife, Joyce.[4] He later recalled that his wife straightened him out and urged him to return to college so that he could pursue his dream of becoming a football coach. Zampese enrolled at Cal Poly and received a degree in physical education. He recalled, "For the first time, I sat down and really did the work. I was really proud of myself. The first year I ended up with a 3.0 average and, boy, that was big stuff."[4]

Zampese got his start in coaching in 1962 when he was hired by John Madden as the backfield coach at Allan Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, California.[2][4][10] Zampese became the head coach at Hancock in 1964 after Madden left to join Don Coryell's coaching staff at San Diego State University.[4] The brief stint as head coach at Hancock proved to be Zampese's only head coaching experience. Zampese later noted, "I did it once, and I wasn't good at it. Why? I don't know. I don't like to be the out-front guy. I'm not comfortable in that position."[4]

In 1966, Zampese moved to Cal Poly as the backfield coach.[11]

San Diego State

In June 1967, he was hired by San Diego State head coach Don Coryell as his defensive backfield coach; Zampese replaced Madden, who resigned to join the Oakland Raiders staff.[11] He remained an assistant coach at San Diego State from 1967 to 1975 and was one of two assistant coaches to retain his job after Coryell resigned in 1973 to join the St. Louis Cardinals.[12] Zampese recalled that his years as an assistant coach at San Diego State was his first exposure to a great passing attack.[2]

San Diego Chargers

He began his NFL coaching career in 1976 as the defensive backs coach for head coach Tommy Prothro of the San Diego Chargers.[2] He spent the 1977 and 1978 seasons as a scout for the New York Jets.[2]

In March 1979, Zampese was reunited with Don Coryell as the wide receivers coach for the San Diego Chargers.[13][14] He coached the receivers, including Hall of Famers Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, from 1979 to 1983. In 1981, the Los Angeles Times published a feature story giving the little-known Zampese much of the credit for the famed Air Coryell offense of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Times feature appeared under the headline, "Zampese Puts Air in Coryell Attack", and portrayed Zampese as a behind-the-scenes strategist sitting in a cubbyhole and speaking in an incomprehensible jargon.[2] Zampese explained his approach to the passing game as follows:

Everybody uses basically the same pass patterns. Philosophy varies in the formations you throw from. We have a lot of formations and movements. When you move like we do, you get constant movement from the defense. We have to do a lot of adjusting and reading on the move. ... There's no question our movement is confusing. Our movement can change the strength of a formation from strong left to strong right. We like to eliminate the pre-snap thought and anticipation by the defense. It's a game of matchups, and our formations are primarily predicated on certain matchups.[2]

In 1983, Zampese was promoted to assistant head coach in charge of the passing game.[15][16] In 1985, the Chargers shuffled assignments, with Zampese losing the title of assistant head coach and becoming offensive coordinator. The Los Angeles Times in December 1985 wrote the following about Zampese's new role:

Fortunately for morale, Zampese is not the type to worry about what he is called. For that matter, he probably did not even know that he was assistant head coach and undoubtedly does not care that he is now a mere offensive coordinator. If he knows. Zampese's only interest is in designing a high-octane offense. All he needs is a blackboard and a projector. He does not need a desk and he cares not what it says on the door. He could work in a cave on Mt. Laguna and be happy.[17]

During Zampese's years with the Chargers, they consistently ranked among the top offensive teams in the NFL. The team ranked first in passing offense six times in seven years from 1979 to 1985 and ranked first or second in total offense four times during the same span.[18][19][20][21][22][23] The Chargers' 1982 average of 325.2 passing yards per game,[24] still ranks as the highest average in NFL history.[25]

Los Angeles Rams

In February 1987, Zampese signed as offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams. Rams head coach John Robinson had earlier been asked who he would most like to start a new coaching staff with, and without hesitation Robinson named Zampese. Zampese was described at the time as an "offensive genius" and "one of the most likable and most respected coaches in the league."[26][27] Zampese spent seven years with the Rams from 1987 to 1993. He took an offense that was ranked 17th in the league before he arrived[28] and turned it into the third best scoring offense in the NFL in 1988 and second best in 1989.[29][30] His Rams' teams ranked among the top 7 in passing offense four straight years from 1988 to 1991.[31][32][33][34]

Dallas Cowboys

From 1994 to 1997, he was the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. In his first year in Dallas, the Cowboys' offense finished second in the NFL in scoring with an average of 25.9 points per game.[35] The team finished 12–4 and advanced to the NFC championship game but lost to the San Francisco 49ers.[35] In 1995, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl and averaged 27.2 points per game—third best in the NFL.[36] During the 1996 and 1997 seasons, the Cowboys' offense dropped to 25th and 22nd best in the NFL.[37][38]

New England Patriots

In January 1998, Zampese signed as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots.[39] He held the position for the 1998 and 1999 seasons. In Zampese's first year with New England, the Patriots averaged 21.1 points per game, 11th best in the NFL.[40] In 1999, the Patriots' offensive output dropped to 18.7 points per game, 20th in the NFL.[41]

Personal life

Zampese was the father of Ken Zampese, quarterbacks coach for Washington Commanders since 2020.[42][43]

Zampese died at the age of 86 on August 29, 2022.[42][44]


  1. ^ a b c John de la Vega (December 29, 1953). "Zampese of Santa Barbara Named CIF Player of Year". Los Angeles Times.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Dave Distel (October 6, 1981). "Coaches Receivers: Zampese Puts Air in Coryell Attack". Los Angeles Times.
  3. ^ "Zampese to Stay at Half". Los Angeles Times. April 24, 1956.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Chris Dufresne (September 4, 1987). "THE GREAT ZAMPESE: Rams' Offensive Coordinator Has Now Passed Into a Class by Himself". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 292639974.
  5. ^ Braven Dyer (September 16, 1956). "Zampese Stars in SC Drill". Los Angeles Times.
  6. ^ "Kirk Wilson Leads Punters; Zampese 3rd". Los Angeles Times. November 22, 1956.
  7. ^ Mal Florence (December 2, 1956). "TROJANS DEFEAT SPIRITED IRISH, 28–20: SC's Clutch Play Clinches Triumph; Zampese's 38-Yard Scoring Run in Last Period Ruins Notre Dame". Los Angeles Times.
  8. ^ a b "Zampese Signs Canadian Pact". Los Angeles Times. June 22, 1958.
  9. ^ "Ottawa Gridders Cut Boston College Back". The Hartford Courant. August 13, 1958.
  10. ^ Jack Hawn (November 29, 1973). "QB FREITAS LEADS THE NATION: Winning Now Tradition at San Diego State". Los Angeles Times.
  11. ^ a b "Ernie Zampese, Ex-USC Gridder, on Aztec Staff". Los Angeles Times. June 8, 1967.
  12. ^ "MATSON, 3 OTHERS JOIN AZTEC STAFF". Los Angeles Times. February 21, 1973.
  13. ^ Chris Cobbs (September 2, 1983). "Chargers Get Message—Defense Is Needed to Win". Los Angeles Times.
  14. ^ Dave Distel (March 3, 1979). "San Diego Sports Scene". Los Angeles Times.
  15. ^ Chris Cobbs (June 30, 1983). "Fouts Signs 'Highest' Contract in Pro Football". Los Angeles Times.
  16. ^ Kurt Rosenberg (August 26, 1984). "Looking Behind the Scenes of Air Coryell". Los Angeles Times.
  17. ^ Dave Distel (December 25, 1985). "Organizational Chart Is Even More Complex Than Charger Offense". Los Angeles Times.
  18. ^ "1979 NFL Standings, Team & Offensive Statistics". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  19. ^ "1980 NFL Standings, Team & Offensive Statistics". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  20. ^ "1981 NFL Standings, Team & Offensive Statistics". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  21. ^ "1982 NFL Standings, Team & Offensive Statistics". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  22. ^ "1983 NFL Standings, Team & Offensive Statistics". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  23. ^ "1985 NFL Standings, Team & Offensive Statistics". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  24. ^ "1982 NFL Standings, Team & Offensive Statistics".
  25. ^ "NFL Single-Season Passing Yards per Game Leaders". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  26. ^ Clark Judge (February 19, 1987). "Zampese seeks new challenges: Levy, Theder will take over for Chargers' offensive genius". The Tribune, San Diego. ProQuest 422366746.
  27. ^ Chris Cobbs (February 19, 1987). "Zampese Takes Job With Rams Offensive Coordinator Throws Chargers for a Loss". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 292551313.
  28. ^ "1986 Los Angeles Rams". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  29. ^ "1988 Los Angeles Rams". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  30. ^ "1989 Los Angeles Rams". Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  31. ^ "1988 NFL Standings & Team Stats". Retrieved September 3, 2022.
  32. ^ "1991 NFL Standings & Team Stats". Retrieved September 3, 2022.
  33. ^ "1990 NFL Standings & Team Stats". Retrieved September 3, 2022.
  34. ^ "1989 NFL Standings & Team Stats". Retrieved September 3, 2022.
  35. ^ a b "1994 Dallas Cowboys". Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  36. ^ "1995 Dallas Cowboys". Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  37. ^ "1996 Dallas Cowboys". Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  38. ^ "1997 Dallas Cowboys". Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  39. ^ Thompson, Rich (January 30, 1998). "FOOTBALL: Pats get their man Carroll, Kraft tab Zampese; Ernie takes offense". Boston Herald.
  40. ^ "1998 New England Patriots". Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  41. ^ "1999 New England Patriots". Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  42. ^ a b "Innovative former NFL OC Ernie Zampese dies at age 86". August 29, 2022. Retrieved August 29, 2022.
  43. ^ "Redskins Announce Coaching Staff". January 15, 2020. Retrieved September 3, 2022.
  44. ^ Dixon, Schuyler (August 29, 2022). "Ernie Zampese of 'Air Coryell' Chargers, Cowboys, dies at 86". AP NEWS. Retrieved September 3, 2022.