Ernie Zampese Passes Away But The Vivid Memories I Have From My Dad Live On

August 31, 2022

So many of the former Dallas Cowboys’ players and coaches are passing away that built the Cowboys’ history. They became a team in 1960. We need to make an effort to remember that history. I couldn’t help, but remember what I’ve learned from my dad about the Dallas Cowboys when I heard of Ernie Zampese’s passing.

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to sit down and write about Ernie Zampese passing away on Primetime Cowboys. I know it has something to do with my dad. In my head, I know my dad has been gone for almost 15 years and that’s hard to imagine it has been that long. But when someone passes away that he taught me about or he got me to be aware of and root for then it makes me stop. Zampese is just the latest.

As the world remembers Princess Diana today, I’m sitting here thinking of Ernie Zampese and what he means to me since for today Zampese means memories of my dad.

The Dallas Cowboys are the first team that I can remember ever rooting for with my dad. Those 1992-1997 teams were teams that I truly remember most about NFL football in my college years. The “Triplets” as Zampese called them of Michael Irvin, my Florida Gator hero Emmitt Smith and my beloved Cowboy hero Troy Aikman, is burned into my memory of what those positions are supposed to be. But I have to remember that those three men don’t become the offense they were without their offensive coordinator, Ernie Zampese.

High School, USC, and Cal Poly

Ernie Zampese was born on March 12, 1936, and died at age 86 on Sunday, August 29th. His Wikipedia page says he played tailback at Santa Barbara High School and then went on to play at USC in 1955 and 1956 even though he was five foot and 8 inches in height and weighed 155 lbs. He didn’t play or graduate in 1957 because of having a part-time job which the NCAA ruled him ineligible for. Then he tried to play for the Canadian Football League and it didn’t work out. Zampese once said that he married his wife and she straighten him out by telling him to go back to college to become a football coach.

Zampese graduated with a physical education degree from Cal-Poly and then was hired in 1962 by John Madden at Allan Hancock Jr. College. When John Madden left to go to San Diego State, Zampese was hired as the head coach at Hancock Jr. College in 1964 and hated it. It was his only head coaching position. Zampese said, “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.” In 1966, he went back to Cal-Poly as their running back coach.

San Diego State University

When John Madden left to become a coach for the Oakland Raiders, Zampese became a defensive backs coach for Don Coryell at San Diego State University. He replaced Madden. Zampese stayed there for eight seasons (1967-1975) and learned about what a great passing attack was.

Zampese And The San Diego Chargers

In March 1979, Ernie Zampese joined his old coach, Don Coryell (Hall of Fame Finalist for the Class of 2023) at the San Diego Chargers as the wide receivers coach. He was known for coaching the future Hall of Famers, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow Sr. He stayed in that position until 1983 when he became the assistant head coach in charge of the passing game.

In 1985, he lost his assistant head coach title and became the offensive coordinator. Throughout his time with the Chargers they were one of the top offensive teams in the league with Dan Fouts as their quarterback. They led the NFL in yards passing six times and made the playoffs the first four years in his eight seasons. The Chargers reached the AFC championship game twice.


This is when I became aware for the first time of Ernie Zampese. My dad was a huge passing attack fan and the different pass routes that receivers ran to get open. I can remember going to the library and finding a book about the Chargers and Dan Fouts.

Fouts wasn’t one of the players that I liked, but I thought I would learn about him and the offense this my dad kept talking about. However, I couldn’t understand the book. It was way over my head, so my dad broke down what a route tree was in an elementary way. He also talked about how a quarterback would check off receivers. I remember asking if this was how Danny White did things as my dad laughed at me.

The Rams and Then Dallas Cowboys

In his nearly 30 years in the NFL, Ernie Zampese was a coach, scout, or consultant for six different teams and some more than once. When he was hired by the Dallas Cowboys that’s when he really got on my radar. He was the offensive coordinator from 1994-1997 under head coach Barry Switzer. During this time the offense made two straight NFC Championship Games and won Super Bowl XXX over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their third championship in four years.

In a statement from the Cowboys on Monday, the organization said: “He was a friend, mentor, leader and difference maker in many ways to many people. Our deepest sympathies go out to the Zampese family.” The Washington Commanders‘ quarterback coach, Ken Zampese is Ernie Zampese’s son.

“Norv was a student under Ernie, but Ernie is, to this day, is one of the best, if not the best in the business, in terms of developing quarterbacks and designing and developing Super Bowl championship offenses,” Cowboys executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said on his radio show on Monday.

The Other Teams He Coached

Zampese spent 1998-1999 in New England as their offensive coordinator. “I think that he is probably the top offensive brain in football today,” John Madden said. “If I were an owner I would hire Ernie Zampese to be the head coach.” Jerry Jones never agreed with this sentiment but did hire Zampese to be a consultant in 2000-2001. Then he went to St. Louis Rams in 2002 and Washington in 2004.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame gave Ernie Zampese an award of excellence this summer. “Ernie Zampese was one of the brightest offensive minds in the history of the game,” Troy Aikman wrote on Instagram with a picture of Zampese and him at practice. “Many of his offensive concepts are still being used to this day.”

My Thoughts On Ernie Zampese

I was little shocked that Ernie Zampese’s passing hasn’t been bigger news for the Dallas Cowboys and even in the NFL. He touched so many teams and coached so many Hall of Famers like Dan Fouts, Charlier Joiner, Kellen Winslow, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman and others. Also he coached at six different teams in the NFL. I guess I thought with the offensive concepts he is known for that it would have been more known. However, I guess with all the teams making deals, placing players on the waiver wire and cutting players to get down to the 53 man roster.

It’s sad to me that it seems like we are losing a lot of the players and coaches that built the Cowboys from their start in 1960 to what this season’s players know as the Dallas Cowboys. My dad was a fan of them from their very first season until the day he died. I’m extremely thankful he was because he was able to instill their history in me with his passion for them. This year has been a hard one for the team. We have already in 2022 lost Dan Reeves, Marion Barber, Gary Brown, Rayfield Wright, Don Perkins, Larry Lacewell and now Ernie Zampese. I hope we don’t lose any more past players or coaches.