For the last twenty-five years, the most dominant offensive strategy in college football has been the spread offense, which relies on empty backfields, lots of receivers and passing, and no huddles between plays. Where the spread offense started, why it took so long to take hold, and the evolution of its many variations are the much-debated mysteries that Bart Wright sets about solving in this book.
Football Revolution recovers a key, overlooked, part of the story. The book reveals how Jack Neumeier, a high school football coach in California in the 1970s, built an offensive strategy around a young player named John Elway, whose father was a coach at nearby California State University, Northridge. One of the elder Elway’s assistant coaches, Dennis Erickson, then borrowed Neumeier’s innovations and built on them, bringing what we now know as the spread offense onto the national stage at the University of Miami in the 1980s. With Erickson’s career as a lens, this book shows how the inspiration of a high school coach became the dominant offense in college football, prepping a whole generation of quarterbacks for the NFL and forever changing the way the game is played.
|Publisher:||UNP - Nebraska Paperback|
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Football Revolution: The Rise of the Spread Offense and How it Transformed College Football
By Bart Wright
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2013 Bart Wright
All rights reserved.
Home of the Chokers (Late 1940s)
Following his military service Jack Swarthout could not have landed in a place more in need of what he had to offer than the community around the public high school in Hoquiam on the east end of Grays Harbor, Washington.
He was book smart and military tough, a believer in rules, punctuality, all in a place that had a historic dearth of intellectual pursuits and more than it needed of booze, broads, and quick money, usually in that approximate order. This wasn't postwar middle America from a Chamber of Commerce campaign. It was part timber boom town after everything went quiet and part poor man's Reno, all of it still living off blue-collar jobs in the mills or at the docks. Nobody would have confused Hoquiam with Mayberry. Here the deputies needed more than one bullet and had better know how to use a gun.
Swarthout was something of an odd bird, a mix of an egg-headed, voracious reader and a by-the-rules-boys war-hardened veteran and eccentric fitness freak. He was a reader of science fiction and history as a kid, firing his imagination with dreamy possibilities through books and periodicals that lifted his thoughts beyond the difficult realities of daily rural life in 1930s America. He was told, and believed with every fiber of his being, that he could be whatever he wanted to be and that a good education was the passport to get him there.
What they had in common, Swarthout the individual and Hoquiam the community, was a lack of pretense. In towns like Hoquiam and nearby Aberdeen, your smarts, sweat, and reliability took you a long way. It was a little more involved than that for Swarthout, who was enough to let his imposing presence work for him while his mental agility kept him a few steps ahead of the football players he coached and his staff. Swarthout may have asked for a little more than the community in which he got his start as an unconventional high school coach with an ability to motivate his players, but he was never a bully. It never got personal with him.
As a coach Swarthout used a compelling mix of the tangible techniques of precision blocking and tackling, packaged with concepts that were abstract for his time. He was one of the early postwar pioneers who wanted to exploit defenses with a surgical passing game instead of relying on a few simply executed pass plays designed to make an overly aggressive defense pay for stacking up to stop the run. Swarthout wanted more than a generic passing game. How much of a difference can you make when you try to do everything better than your opponent?
His military background and football experience taught him to give vigorous attention to physical discipline while his vivid imagination filled his head with abstract concepts. To Swarthout, anything was possible if you worked hard enough. The real question was, what exactly is it that you want to do?
All coaches need a key player at the right time to make their ideas relevant, and the relationship Swarthout had with his high school quarterback in Hoquiam turned out to be determinative in the development of the spread offense years later. Swarthout had no way of knowing how the passing game concepts he installed at his first coaching job would eventually evolve, but his spirit of adventure and sound technique were the seeds from which it all sprouted.
Swarthout had attended the University of Montana on athletic scholarship and played football for the Grizzlies until graduation in 1942, when the Reserve Officer Training Corps sent him off to Officer Training School and deployment around the world. By then football played a starring role in the character development and morale of the American military, which was, effectively, the greenhouse for generations of football coaching ideology.
Having emerged from elite schools in the Northeast, football spread quickly across the United States in the twentieth century and was considered to be compatible on several levels with the goals and aspirations of the armed services. Football's focus on physical fitness, attention to detail, knowing your role as part of the team—all of it reinforced and enhanced military life. Navy preflight schools established at the universities of North Carolina, Iowa, and Georgia and at Saint Mary's College in Northern California assembled football teams to compete against the top college squads in the country. The navy teams more than held their own.
How much has the world changed? In the twenty-first century troops come home from overseas in anonymity, looking for jobs, struggling to keep their families afloat. During World War II they came home to local acclaim and took positions of respect and authority, often in football.
The list of preflight football coaching veterans includes Alabama legend Paul "Bear" Bryant, Missouri's Don Faurot, and Maryland's Jim Tatum, all football coaches before, during, and after their service. Bud Wilkinson came out of an assistant coaching position at Iowa preflight and later led Oklahoma to a still-standing record of forty-seven consecutive victories.
The Army team at West Point was a national power during the war years, with talent backed up by more talent, all of it led by running backs Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. They dominated Heisman Trophy voting for three years, winning the prize in 1945 and '46, respectively.
Football sold the military and the military sold football to Americans, each invigorating feelings of patriotism, effort, and honor. When victorious men came back from World War II and the Korean War and got involved in college football, they married two institutions that still worked toward mutual benefit.
Many of the returning vets were former players—like Swarthout—who became coaches at small colleges or high schools after their tours of duty. They weren't just looking for jobs; many of these war veterans believed football was an instrument, maybe the best one at the time, to move young men, and the country, in a new direction. It offered the kind of pull-together teamwork talk that still occurs today, but the rewards seemed so much closer after World War II to that particular group of coaches.
Seldom have post-military opportunities had as much influence as they did at the time those enlisted men returned to classrooms and football fields after the war. They left Desolation Row and returned to the Avenue of the Americas, believing they could do anything and football was the carriage that would take them where they wanted to go.
People around the bay of Grays Harbor, Washington, ringed by the workingman's town of Hoquiam and just to the east the more "upscale" Aberdeen, were more than ready for what Swarthout had to sell. The two towns relied on a burgeoning timber industry that had frantically deconstructed the surrounding forests for profit and turned the region, in less than a century, from a pristine emerald dreamland into a smoldering pile of careless economics and witless personal vices. It was as though the region had gone on a long drunk and was finally realizing it needed to sober up and make something of itself.
If it were possible to view a time-lapse motion picture of Grays Harbor from the 1790s through the arrival of the first white settlers in the mid-1800s, the appearance of the railroad in 1895, and Swarthout's arrival roughly fifty years later, it would be a chilling piece of film to behold. The area had been inhabited by the Chehalis, Quinault, Wynoochee, and Humptulips tribes for hundreds of years prior to May 7, 1792, when Boston fur trader Robert Gray, the first white man to explore the area, crossed the bar into the dewy quiet of the pristine bay that would eventually bear his name. The Chehalis tribe named the area Ho'kweeum. Loosely translated, Hoquiam, as it was later spelled, meant "hungry for wood."
Five rivers empty into that shallow, wide bay in what became southwestern Washington State. Before long, "hungry for wood" was converted from a description of the land to a depiction of what happened when white men came in with their screaming, gas-powered saws, ripped through the tall firs, dragged them to market, and forever changed the face of the region. The railroad came right into the harbor to facilitate the retailing of the forest, and a population of hardworking, hard-drinking loggers transformed the area into something the natives never could have imagined.
In the timber business, workers could get a cash payout for each day of work in the forest and then squander it away by night in the area's bars and crowded houses of prostitution. Location was central to and almost codified the rampant debauchery. Grays Harbor became a gray area for politicians and lobbyists to the powerful. Just an hour's drive west of the state's center of political power in Olympia, it was close enough for politicians to sneak away for an afternoon or evening, yet it was far enough removed from the big-city newspapers in Seattle and Tacoma, a couple of hours' drive to the northeast, to escape their attention.
They clear-cut the land by day and partied by night, each endeavor leaving societal scars. Grays Harbor's skyline featured more than three dozen pulp, saw, shingle, and timber mills. After the community college opened in 1930, they nicknamed teams "Chokers" after the choke-setter—commonly referred to as "choker"—who was responsible for securing a cable around felled trees to be dragged out of the forest.
Smokestacks firing clouds of hot ash into the sky framed the profile of the port of Grays Harbor, so littered with years' accumulation of junk logs and unwanted wood chips that it appeared possible to walk from one end of the bay to the other across the timber debris. From mid-October through May, when morning fog, overcast skies, and drizzle were the norm rather than the exception, the place projected a foreboding panorama that provided literal heft to the color that embodied the harbor's name.
It was in this environment that someone like Jack Swarthout was both ready and welcome to any challenges.
Swarthout learned what the world looked like from a bleak adolescence on a farm in southern Washington State during the Great Depression and then came home from World War II to a culture of burgeoning prosperity and possibility. Never before and never since has a generation of Americans grown up like Swarthout's did, seeing firsthand as teenagers the economic desperations of life, then coming back from war to experience their country growing into unparalleled prosperity. All things seemed possible, especially on the football field, just like Swarthout had always believed.
Swarthout saw football's lessons as valuable to the individual player, his school, the community, and as he said many times, "to the U.S. itself." The thing that made him stand out was how he thought about winning.
Swarthout must have had an abundance of tactical genes. He was fascinated by uncommon approaches that could catch an opponent off guard and force him to scramble to make changes in the heat of the game. He became an unofficial and often unrecognized father figure of sorts to an innovative collection of northwestern football coaches who presented their own rebuttal to the coaching orthodoxy of the times. From his navy experience, Swarthout knew all about toughness, sacrifice, and determination, but he also understood that everyone else knew all about that, too. He was interested in more, namely, the great benefit of tactical thinking.
Swarthout didn't just want to beat the opposing team in a physical contest with stamina and fitness, he wanted all the advantages on his side, starting with tactics. He knew it all gets set in motion with a thought and if your concept can flummox the other guy, it was that much easier to win.
Offensive football has always been polymorphic at the strategic level, the capacity to score points being an objective that can be achieved in numerous ways by those willing to explore. Innovators are found at the edges, stressing the perfection of fundamental techniques but doing so through differing architectural designs. Swarthout was emblematic of an almost tribal band of northwestern football coaches who leaned more heavily on the thinking part of the game than most. They wanted to outthink you from the very start so you had to question every decision you made and then they wanted to beat you with execution.
To Swarthout, football was a game that improved and sharpened competitive instincts. It stressed discipline and emphasized the importance of teamwork. He felt there was an edge to be gained in the attention span of his players when he introduced a different approach or a new wrinkle to what they were already doing. In the end, he believed a kid could hop into his football vessel and, through repetition and attention to detail, learn how to become a better teammate. What he really wanted, after all of that, was to show his players how to grow up and be responsible adults.
The job teaching history and coaching at Hoquiam was, in itself, something that evidenced a kind of synchronicity. Everything Swarthout knew and believed in was emboldened by the sense of cultural chaos that blanketed Grays Harbor like a morning fog that lifts in the afternoon and returns by dawn. The oddity was that Hoquiam's mascot was the Grizzlies, the same as Swarthout's alma mater, and the bitter rival down the street in Aberdeen was the Bobcats, just as his old in-state collegiate rival, Montana State, had also been the Bobcats.
No other high schools in the state had those two nicknames. Swarthout later admitted he was looking for a high school head coaching position, preferably matched with a classroom role as a history teacher, but the clincher was coaching the Grizzlies against the hated Bobcats. It was a little football kismet at work and it just felt right.
The two schools in Hoquiam and Aberdeen still maintain the longest continuing high school rivalry west of the Mississippi River. The longer it goes, the more attention it receives, but it was an even-bigger deal back in the 1940s. There wasn't an athletic event in Grays Harbor more important than the annual Thanksgiving Day game between Hoquiam and Aberdeen.
The Aberdeen-Hoquiam game always drew capacity crowds of ten thousand to Olympic Stadium, built with local timber as a Works Progress Administration project and completed in 1938. It had the feel of a big-time facility because, when filled for games, the covered grandstand produced a booming sound out of those wooden bleachers that would make you think you were in the Rose Bowl.
Swarthout looked the part of a postwar football coach straight out of central casting. A picture of him, hands on hips in a T-shirt, sweat pants, and high-top sneakers with a tightly cropped GI flattop haircut, big shoulders, and that steely, no-nonsense, tight grin that glared out of his rugged build would have made an excellent poster for the Greatest Generation.
His approach in the classroom was somewhat didactic, strictly by the book, but his coaching, while emphasizing sound fundamentals, was forward leaning for his time in terms of its design. Swarthout believed in the three Rs, which were repetition, repetition, and repetition, principles he used to implement his version of the T formation. One of his coaching mantras was, "We're going to do it over until we get it right and then we're going to keep doing it right until we get it perfect."
He was smart enough to understand that the over-the-top drill sergeant approach was best left in the military, where it belonged, and was not suitable for the environment in which a public school educator and coach went to work each day. He wasn't an in-your-face screamer, but he surely was insistent and aggressive. He believed that in all areas of life thinking prompts action—that belief was at the core of his fascination with football tactics—so when a young man's thinking is confused, his behavior will tend to be erratic.
Excerpted from Football Revolution: The Rise of the Spread Offense and How it Transformed College Football by Bart Wright. Copyright © 2013 Bart Wright. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 Home of the Chokers (Late 1940s) 1
2 Team Starts with T (Late 1940s, Early 1950s) 17
3 High School Football (Early 1950s) 25
4 Big-Time College Football (Mid to Late 1950s) 35
5 Bear Bryant and the Coming of the Wishbone (Late 1960s) 49
6 Basketball on Grass (1970s) 61
7 Picking on Mike Singletary (Mid to Late 1970s) 75
8 Breaking Out (Early 1980s) 94
9 Turning Point (Late 1980s) 109
10 Settling In and Getting Out (Late 1980s, Early 1990s) 122
11 Changes, Even in the South (1990s) 139
12 Here It Comes, Hidden in Plain Sight (Mid-1990s) 159
13 Here, There, Everywhere (Late 1990s, Early 2000s) 179
14 Spirit of a New Millennium (2000s) 199
15 Full Circle (2012) 219