The Wow Boys: A Coach, a Team, and a Turning Point in College Footballby James W. Johnson
In 2002 ESPN rated football’s shift to the modern T-formation offense as the second best sports innovation of all time—just behind baseball’s free agency. The story behind the move to the T-formation is also the story of a season unparalleled in the annals of college football—the year Stanford’s new coach, fresh from seven dismal
In 2002 ESPN rated football’s shift to the modern T-formation offense as the second best sports innovation of all time—just behind baseball’s free agency. The story behind the move to the T-formation is also the story of a season unparalleled in the annals of college football—the year Stanford’s new coach, fresh from seven dismal seasons with the University of Chicago, deployed an out-of-favor offense to take a team of talented underdogs to a Rose Bowl victory.
The Wow Boys (the title refers to the nickname the team earned at its very first game) chronicles Stanford’s miraculous 1940 season, from the surprise hiring of coach Clark Shaughnessy and his marshalling of the previously untapped talents of left-handed quarterback Frankie Albert, runners Hugh Gallarneau and Pete Kmetovic, and fullback Norm Standlee, to his reintroduction of the T-formation and its profound and enduring effect on football. James W. Johnson gives a game-by-game rundown of this dramatic season as well as an in-depth account of Shaughnessy’s accomplishment in the face of overwhelming criticism and skepticism. This story is one of tenacity, character, and radical ideas prevailing against formidable odds—a sports revolution engineered one play at a time.
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The Wow BoysA Coach, a Team, and a Turning Point in College Football
By James W. Johnson
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2006 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom Power to Finesse
One evening in 1935 Clark Shaughnessy, the frustrated coach from a mediocre University of Chicago football team, attended a civic dinner in Chicago, where he ran into George Halas, the founder and head coach of the Chicago Bears.
Shaughnessy told Halas that he had attended several of the Bears' games, observing that Halas had been using the T formation without much luck. After a loss to Green Bay, Shaughnessy said, he noticed Halas sitting dejected on the bench. Years later Shaughnessy would say about that incident, "I made up my mind right then that I was going to try and help him."
Would Halas like to hear what he had in mind? Shaughnessy asked. Halas was more than happy to hear him out. Halas, who would go on to become a legend in the National Football League, asked Shaughnessy to join him for dinner. They rearranged place cards so they could sit together. Shaughnessy told Halas he too had been dabbling with the T and he thought he might be able to help Halas improve the Bears' offensive attack. In essence he told Halas that he had worked up a new offense that featured "hidden ball stuff, but with power." But, he said, he had not used the formation at the University of Chicago because he lacked the players to make it work.
During dinner Shaughnessy whipped out apen and began sketching plays with Xs and Os on napkins and tablecloths. Waiters after the dinner must have thought a mad scientist had been drawing plans for a weapon of mass destruction. He was, of course, drawing plays to destroy defenses.
"We passed the evening," Halas said, "talking about the formation. We merely touched basic principles."
Halas was well aware that the NFL had struggled since its inception in 1922 as an industrial and milltown league. It took a backseat in every aspect to college football. The league had attracted little attention from the press and fans except for a brief flurry when the "Galloping Ghost" Red Grange, the Illinois All-American, joined the NFL. But even that illustrious star couldn't draw enough people to the games. The play was just too dull. It lacked the pageantry of the college game as well as the built-in loyalty of alumni, students, and hometown fans.
Halas recognized that the single-wing and double-wing offenses were boring spectators. During the 1932 season neither the Chicago Bears nor their opponents scored a single touchdown through four games-the Bears tied three o-o and lost one 2-o-behind the "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense run by standouts Grange and Bronko Nagurski.
That was not the kind of football that would attract legions of fans to professional football, and Halas knew it. He wanted to liven up the game and began experimenting with the T formation. The T had been used until the turn of the twentieth century but abandoned by teams that preferred the single wing.
Halas had first come across the T formation in 1914 as a freshman at the University of Illinois, where his coach and later mentor Bob Zuppke used it in its most rudimentary form. Zuppke's T became a model that Halas and Shaughnessy would improve with extraordinary success. Zuppke's freshman coach that year was Ralph Jones, who Halas later would hire to put the T into the Bears' offense.
What Jones brought to the Bears in the late 1920s set the stage for the dramatic changes Halas and Shaughnessy would bring to the formation. Jones's T spread the line and backfield a little farther apart to give them more operating room. The quarterback crouched behind the center with two halfbacks and a fullback lined up behind him in a row horizontal to the line of scrimmage. Jones added a man in motion to Zuppke's T.
Jones took advantage of a rule that allowed one backfield man to move before the center snapped the ball. The quarterback would take a direct snap from the center and whirl around to hand off the ball to one of the backs. Or the quarterback had the option of dropping back to pass to a halfback who ran parallel to the line of scrimmage toward the sideline, or the quarterback could hand off the ball to the fullback or the other halfback. It was that formation that Halas and Shaughnessy would further refine.
After dinner Halas invited Shaughnessy to drop by his office and learn more about the Bears' plans for the T. Shaughnessy and Halas often would meet in Halas's office four nights a week from 8 until midnight discussing strategies.
"I did a good bit of the inventing, but George did the selecting and correcting. I'd come along with something and say: 'You know football; you pick this to pieces and take what you like.' That's the way it was done, gradually, experimentally," Shaughnessy said.
In 1937 Shaughnessy joined the Bears in an advisory capacity, helping Halas with terminology and analyzing game-scouting reports. In a collaboration rarely seen today, Shaughnessy continued to coach his team while being paid two thousand dollars a year by the Bears.
That same year Halas began hearing reports of a shifty runner and accurate passer at Columbia University in New York by the name of Sid Luckman. When Shaughnessy watched game films of Luckman, he knew right away that Luckman could be the quarterback the Bears needed to make the T formation go. In 1938 the Bears drafted Luckman, and Shaughnessy went to work drawing up plays especially for him. But Luckman wasn't sold on the formation.
Shaughnessy proposed brush blocking to keep the defense off balance. In brush blocking, linemen would initiate contact with defensive linemen, but instead of holding their blocks, they slid off them to charge ahead for a second block. Quick backfield men without backs to block for them would hit holes created by the brush block and skip through into the secondary before the defensive linemen had an opportunity to react.
When Shaughnessy began instituting the formation for the Bears, Luckman remarked, "You're nuts. How can you send a halfback into the line alone, without a back to block for him? You'll get him killed." Halas told him, "You worry about the signals. We'll worry about our halfbacks."
In a 1942 Esquire article-football coaches in those days picked up extra money on a regular basis by writing magazine articles for a football-crazed readership-Shaughnessy wrote:
"[The T] is simply, clearly, definitely and completely a breakaway from the old power game based on blocking, power blocking. That is the key point that is never, or seldom ever brought up. Concealment of the ball by the quarterback turning around instantly, as in the early days, sets the stage for a finesse, deceptive, speed type of attack. The direct pass to the back of the other systems instantly reveals where the ball is, and that fact forced the spinner and fake spinner to be developed in those attacks.
"Speed or deception football, whether worked from the T formation or any other formation, is a complete breakaway from the old power game; it is based on an entirely different strategy, and an entirely different philosophy. This type of play literally opens up the play, just as the swiftness of the airplane and light tanks has opened up the threat of attack in war, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for a wide front of fixed positions to be held effectively.
"The big heavy ponderous slow-moving men in the power offensive could move only relatively forward along a very limited sector of the field. Our quick, shifty, feinting, speedy men with their fast getaway and quick turns and side thrusts can threaten the defensive line from sideline to sideline constantly, thus opening up a wider territory for attack, and consequently, of course, a wider territory to be defended. Instead of threatening a segment of ground scarcely wider than from end to end, we threaten continually the entire width of the playing field."
Shaughnessy also compared the T to boxing: "The quick opening plays can be compared to the left jab of a boxer, the man-in-motion and the faking of the backs to the feints, and the fullback plays to the real punch. The pass plays should be used as the unexpected sock."
By using the man in motion, Shaughnessy sent a halfback running parallel to the line of scrimmage, thereby forcing a defensive player to follow him and stretch the defense.
Through the T, Shaughnessy introduced the specialist. For example, the quarterback's main duty was to pass and direct the offense. Two backs were the primary ball carriers. The third was mostly a receiver, adding a third pass catcher to the team.
Halas described Shaughnessy as "a man with a decided flair for the technical side of football, [who] played a leading role in working out the numbering system which is still the basis of the Bears' signal system today [in 1953]. Shaughnessy also was a leader in staff planning on the development of the 'counter plan.'"
Shaughnessy persuaded Halas to throw more passes than he had in previous uses of the T. Quarterbacks would fake handoffs to backs, thereby "freezing" the defense, and then step back to throw to one of the three receivers.
"Before we began collaborating," Halas recalled, "our T formation had two major weaknesses which enabled other clubs in the league to get too familiar with our ball carriers. One trouble was, we had only two end runs.... Thanks to Shaughnessy, we have twenty-two maneuvers around the ends-touchdown plays. Second, the majority of our plays went to the side of the line of the man in motion. Shaughnessy designed ground gainers that run to the side opposite the man in motion. Those counter plays were honeys."
During the first game of the 1940 season, the Bears, using the wide-open T formation, walloped the Green Bay Packers, 41-10. The T was here to stay. And Luckman was a believer.
"Football is a science to me," Shaughnessy wrote in 1942, "the maneuvering of men to attain an objective. It is very comparable to military strategy. So when George Halas didn't laugh at me or my theories I naturally warmed up to him. He didn't make fun of me and he was willing to listen. So when I'd make a suggestion he'd listen and we'd discuss it. So as I propounded some of these pet theories of mine, he would take them, try them out. Some results were apparent."
As well as things were going with the Bears, all was not so smooth at the University of Chicago. After the 1939 season the school abandoned football, opting to focus more of its efforts on academics. Shaughnessy no longer had a team to lead, and his future as a football coach was up in the air.
Excerpted from The Wow Boys by James W. Johnson Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
James W. Johnson is a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Arizona. He is also a longtime newsman who worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Oakland Tribune, and the Oregonian, among other newspapers. His most recent book is Arizona Politicians: The Noble and the Notorious.
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