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The History of Option Football

In 1941, while watching a basketball game, a college football coach had an epiphanous moment. Seeing a two-on-one fast break develop, he realized whatever choice the defender made would be the wrong one. He knew that if he could utilize that concept in football, it would be hard to stop. And hence, the football option play was born nearly seventy years ago. After that game, Missouri coaching legend Don Faurot invented the Split-T, the genesis of option football, very much in use today. Disciples of Faurot such as Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson fine tuned his system, each going on to win national titles in the 1950’s.

During the 1930’s, colleges had run either the Single-Wing, a brutish running game, or the Southwest Conference style of play which had quarterbacks such as Slinging Sammy Baugh throwing the ball all over the field. The Single-Wing was the formation of choice for most colleges, most notably Minnesota, which won five national championships employing it. It afforded little chance of losing the ball through turnovers with its heavy emphasis on tight formations, ball control and infrequent passing.

During the 1940’s, the system of choice was Clark Shaughnessy’s T-Formation, employing a full-house backfield emphasizing deception with the quarterback handing off or pitching out on pre-determined plays. Blanchard and Davis epitomized this style as Army ran roughshod over war depleted and undermanned schools during the first half of the decade. After the war, while Tatum and Wilkinson were perfecting the Split-T Option, Notre Dame was having four consecutive undefeated seasons using the T-Formation.

But football would change for good after 1950.

Faurot, Tatum and Wilkinson knew the simple concept of Option Football was to force the defender to make a choice and for the quarterback to insure it was the wrong one. Whether it was the quarterback sliding down the line and eyeballing the defensive end, or the gun back watching the end to the side of the play and going inside or out depending on the end’s play, or the quarterback meshing the ball in the fullback’s stomach in running the Veer and watching the read defender so he would either give or turn up or pitch, option football has been the way to go for years.

There were other formations that enjoyed some success through the years such as the Power-I, the Winged-T, Student Body Right and the Three-Wide-I, but Option Football has stuck because it is difficult to defend, athletic kids will out-run bigger kids, it makes for lots of scoring, and it eats up the clock.

Option Football really took off during the 70’s and 80’s. From 1969 to 1990, teams that ran a triple option attack,  Wishbone, Veer or Nebraska’s I-Formation would claim at least a share of 11 national championships. Primarily a running formation, it doesn’t necessarily disdain the pass but as Ohio State’s Woody Hayes once said, “When you pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad.”

Most of the prestige programs of the past half-century, notably Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Penn State, LSU and Alabama, as well as thousands of high school programs, use some form of Option Football, attesting to its longevity and productivity.

“When you can eliminate one defender with a read and one with the pitch, if my numbers are right, that puts eleven on nine,” former Auburn coach Pat Dye said of the Triple-Option.

Thirty-four years after he retired at Texas, Darrell Royal, now eighty-five, has been quoted as saying,”I’m sure if I had to go coach now, I’d start with the Wishbone.”

All the service academies use Option Football for the same reason as high schools: it utilizes guile and quickness and there are more fast kids than there are big athletic kids.

Option Football will keep your kids in the game to the final whistle, giving them a better chance of winning. When players get confused on defense, the battle is over and that’s what Option Football does.

“I think with the kind of coaching going on today, it’s the greatest offense to run in the world because there are a lot of undisciplined defenses running around down there,” former University of Houston coach Bill Yeoman and inventor of the Veer, has said .

There is a theory in football that there are no new theories in the game, just the same basic systems that are repackaged.

Yeoman may have invented the veer, just as Texas assistant Emory Bellard may have invented the wishbone but both were riffing off the Split-T offense Bud Wilkinson popularized in the 1950’s which Wilkinson had in turn borrowed from Missouri’s Don Faurot’s Split-T of the 1940’s.

As legendary Yale football coach and rural East Tennessee native Herman Hickman once commented in analogizing football,  “My granddaddy always said, ‘You can’t get your wagon to town if you don’t have the horses.’ “Option Football gives you those horses and keeps you in the driver’s seat.

Roger and Louie

Veteran Minneapolis sportswriter Dick Cullum called it “one of the most glorious victories in the history of Minnesota football.” After the Gophers had returned from Michigan to thousands of jubilant fans greeting their arrival at the airport, there was indeed no doubt as to the significance of that football game played on Oct. 27, 1956.

Who could’ve known that two guys named Roger and Louie would turn the game around in the Gophers’ favor? Unseen in the program and unknown to all but the Minnesota football team, they would write one of the most unlikely chapters in the annals of this magnificent Midwestern rivalry, the Minnesota-Michigan Little Brown Jug game.

That same year, the University of Oklahoma, coached by former Minnesota All-American Bud Wilkinson, won the national championship. And it was from the Oklahoma playbook that Gopher coach Murray Warmath borrowed a page. Wilkinson was known for his Split-T style of play, running play after play with such speed that opponents could never catch their breath and would eventually just give up.

Murray named his version of the Oklahoma offense Roger and Louie and we would practice it incessantly before the big game. Disdaining a huddle, the Gophers ran a play and then hurriedly re-assembled a few yards behind the line of scrimmage just long enough for the quarterback to whisper either Roger (right) or Louie (left) to his team and off they would race to the line to quickly run another play, all from a balanced line and a full-house backfield.

The offense was tailor made for a cunning quarterback, swift and agile linemen and rabbit-fast running backs.  And that’s exactly what Minnesota had. So successful was this tactic that the Wolverines collapsed under the relentless number of plays being run at them and with magnificent Gopher quarterback Bobby Cox choosing the hole he wanted to run through (19 carries for 83 yards) or handing off to a diving halfback or pitching to a trailing runner, the Gophers overcame a seven point first-half deficit to win 20-7.

But it wasn’t the score that was significant as much as it was the way in which it was accomplished.

Playing before a partisan Michigan crowd of over 85,000 fans, the Gophers, with the second quarter one play old, had fallen behind 7-0 as a result of a Michigan 92-yard, sixteen-play scoring drive. The Gophers headed to the locker room down at the half hearing the cheers and jeers of their opponent’s fans. That’s when Murray called us together and said we were going to win by running the ball right down Michigan’s throat with Roger and Louie.

Cox totally put the team on his shoulders and took the game over in the second half, directing clock-killing scoring drives on three of four possessions by consistently running the ball. The three drives of 92, 28, and 55 yards all resulted in touchdowns, using up a total of thirty-four plays, all but one a run.

Michigan players were stunned by the swiftness of the Gopher attack not only from the running game but from punt returns as well, a Warmath trademark. Bob Soltis and Pinky McNamara returned kicks deep into Michigan territory, returns begun by sleight-of-hand reverses from Dick Larson, both leading to scores. Conversely, so good was Gopher ball control and coverage that Minnesota punted only once all game and that return by Michigan was for a meager nine yards. After their half-time lead had disappeared and Cox had taken over, the Wolverines appeared  tired, disgruntled, dispirited and unable to cope with the onslaught of play after play after play being run at them before they even had a chance to line up on defense, so deft was Cox’s play calling and the inspired, no-huddle, time consuming Gopher offense.

Thirty Golden Gophers played for Minnesota that day and to a man, over fifty years later, every living one of us remembers fondly Roger and Louie.

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