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Thursday, January 24, 2008

History of the Wing-T

The History of The Wing-T
By Dennis CreehanUS Military Academy, West Point, NY

It is an honor to have the opportunity to write this article and especially since the article deals with a topic as dear to my heart as the wing-t. In my 33 years of coaching I have seen many different cycles of football but the wing-t has remained a fixture since the time before I played and throughout my time as a player and a coach. I am sure that it will continue to be a very popular system long after I am gone from football. The wing-t has managed to stay current long after other fads in offensive football have disappeared.

In the late-60s most of the college teams in the country were throwing the football until the University of Texas won about 30 games in a row with the Wishbone offense. This started an explosion of teams across the country that went to triple option football including the University of Oklahoma and the University of Alabama who won quite a few national championships between them. Many other teams used the “Split Back Veer” offense, which enabled them to use the triple option play from pro-style formations. These teams were able to integrate option football into their attack with the same pro type personnel that they were using when they were throwing the football. I witnessed my own college team being transformed from an also-ran to a champion using the Split Back Veer offense.

During all of this time there was a team, which continued to have great offensive success without going to the Wishbone or the Split Back Veer. That team was the University of Delaware. Delaware was running a four back offense like the Wishbone teams but they were able to align the backs in a position where they could be pass receivers as well as running backs. This gave them the opportunity to have run-pass balance in their attack as well as a powerful running game.

Diagram 1
Delaware had been running the wing-t offense since the late Dave Nelson came to the University of Delaware from the University of Michigan in 1951. (This may help to explain why the helmets at the University of Delaware have the same design at the helmets at the University of Michigan.) Coach Nelson is considered by many to be the “father of the wing-t offense.” Coach Nelson experienced great success with the wing-t offense and other coaches at other universities also copied his style. Coach Forest Evashevski was quite successful at the University of Iowa running the wing-t. Coach Evashevski published a book on the wing-t in the 1950s that is found on many coaches’ bookshelves even today.

Dave Nelson retired from the head football coaching position at the University of Delaware after the 1966 season and passed the torch to one of his top assistant coaches Mr. Harold “Tubby” Raymond. Coach Raymond continued to run the wing-t and in fact made many updates and improvements to the offense. The popularity of the wing-t exploded when Coach Raymond took over the reigns. Coach Raymond’s clinics and camps spread the word of the wing-t to high school and college coaches all across the country.

The success of the offense at the University of Delaware was so profound that many larger major universities copied the offense. Two such notable universities were Penn State and Notre Dame. As a young graduate assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh in 1974, it was my responsibility to run the scout offense in preparation for the Penn State game. It was almost impossible for me to get those scout team players to simulate those plays the way Penn State would be running them in the game. Notre Dame had so much success running the wing-t that they were able to win a national championship running the wing-t. In a most memorable national championship game against Alabama, Notre Dame won a thrilling last minute victory over a Bear Bryant-coached Alabama team. This game, more so than any other, put the wing-t offense in the national spotlight.

The University of Delaware continued to run the wing-t for more than 50 years until the retirement of Raymond after the 2001 season. Coach Raymond won 300 games as a college head coach. This was a feat accomplished by only a few college coaches in the history of the game of football. While many other fads and styles of offense came and went, the University of Delaware kept right on winning football games with the wing-t. The success was astounding! Coach Raymond won countless conference titles, went to the national playoffs almost every year, and even won the national championship. The ability of Coach Raymond and his staff to keep updating the wing-t and the inherent flexibility of the offensive system enabled the University of Delaware to integrate modern trends in offensive football without destroying the basics of the wing-t.

Many other styles of offense have been incorporated into the wing-t over the years including some of the most dynamic offensive philosophies in the history of the game. There have been many teams that have combined the wishbone and the wing-t, the run-and-shoot and the wing-t and the west coast offense and the wing-t. Bill Walsh who won three Super Bowl titles with the San Francisco 49ers has made the statement that his brand of the west coast offense had its roots in wing-t football. When you watch a Bill Walsh-coached offense you will see flankers motion into wingback positions, you will see the same counter and counter bootleg plays as the wing-t, and you will see misdirection just as if you were watching a good wing-t team.

Another tribute to Coach Raymond and the University of Delaware was the number of assistant coaches from the Delaware staff who went on to become head coaches themselves. My first exposure to the wing-t came from the late Ron Rodgerson who was the line coach at Delaware for many years before moving on to the head coaching position at the University of Maine. Rodgerson then moved on to become the head coach at Princeton University where he coached the wing-t offense until his untimely death. Rodgerson was my first tutor when I set out to learn the wing-t.

One of the great things about Raymond, Rodgerson and all the coaches at the University of Delaware was their willingness to share information with other coaches. Their enthusiasm for the offense and their love of the system has provided a great example for coaches from all over the country.

Another of the fine wing-t coaches, and maybe one of the top offensive minds to ever coach the wing-t was coach Ted Kempski. Kempski was the offensive coordinator for Raymond at the University of Delaware for many years and most people believed that he would someday succeed Raymond as head coach. Kempski was the most in-demand clinic speaker in the country for years. He was a fountain of knowledge and was very much responsible for constantly updating the wing-t offense with new ideas. Kempski was the second coach to tutor me in the wing-t offense. He was so willing to talk football and share ideas that he once flew to Edinboro University in a snowstorm to clinic our staff. The Delaware offensive line coaches were always great teachers and were equally great sources of learning for coaches trying to implement the wing-t system. Gregg Perry succeeded Rodgerson as the line coach at Delaware and was another great teacher and clinician. Perry was a fixture at coaching clinics across the country and taught many coaches the fundamentals of wing-t offensive line play.

Another coach who deserves mentioning when discussing the great teachers of the wing-t is a little known coach who taught me most of what I know about the offense. His name is John D’Ottavio. I first met Coach D’Ottavio when he was the offensive coordinator for Coach Barry Streeter at Gettysburg College. At that time Gettysburg College was one of the finest offensive football teams in the country at any level. I had the opportunity to meet him because Kempski was too busy to spend time with me during one of Delaware’s summer camps. During that summer camp Kempski had intended to meet with me to teach me the offense. When he got too busy he said for me to meet with D’Ottavio and his exact words were that “John knows more about the offense than anyone including me.” Those were powerful words coming from the man that most people felt was the leading expert on the wing-t offense in the country. D’Ottavio had spent ten years as a player and all 10 years were in the wing-t system. At that time D’Ottavio was in his 15th year as a coach and all 15 were also in the wing-t. That added up to 25 straight years in the wing-t. Besides the years of experience, D’Ottavio was a dynamic speaker, motivator and salesman for the wing-t offense.

During the many years that the University of Delaware was enjoying success with the wing-t there were countless numbers of college programs that also used the wing-t as their offense. There are many more than I can name in this article but I am able to list the following: Middlebury College, Tufts University, Gettysburg College, Clarion University, Edinboro University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of South Dakota, Morningside College, Grove City College, Gannon University, Defiance College, Cumberland College, North Central College, James Madison University, Delaware State University, San Francisco State University, Southern Connecticut University, Augustana College, Salisbury State University, Salve Regina University and William Paterson University. These are only the schools that I can remember and who had coaches that I have come in contact with over the course of my time in coaching. I am quite sure that there have been many more colleges who have used the wing-t that I don’t know about. The most glowing tribute to the wing-t besides its success on the field is the number of schools who thought so much of the offense that they adopted it as their own system of offensive football. In my 33 years as a coach and ten years as a player, I can think of no other system that has been copied at so many other schools.
In my own coaching career, I began to run the wing-t when I became the head coach at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 1979. I originally had intended to incorporate wing-t blocking schemes into an I formation offense. To learn those blocking schemes I took my staff on a trip to the University of Delaware. During that visit to Delaware we became so enamored with the offense that we scrapped the original idea of using just the blocking schemes and went to the entire system lock, stock, and barrel! We were believers after seeing what the system could do. Oddly enough, it was a graduate assistant coach named Steve Nolan who first talked me and my staff into visiting Delaware. Nolan had played in the wing-t at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and had experienced much success with the offense.

What we learned in those early days was that you could move the ball and score points without having dominating talent. Since we were taking over a program that had been losing, we did not have dominant talent. We had a stable full of 5-foot-10, 175-pound running backs and an offensive line that was not big enough to knock people off the ball. By using the wing-t system we were able to play .500 football for my first three years. However, the following three years were dynamic. We won 25 football games and lost only five while averaging over 400 yards and 36 points per game for that three year time period. As a head coach, I took this offense to three different universities: Edinboro University, San Francisco State University and the University of South Dakota. At all three universities we were able to take losing programs and turn them into successful programs. Twelve of my former assistant coaches went on to become college head coaches and many of them continued to run the wing-t offense. Tom Herman at Gannon University, Malen Luke at Clarion University, Gerry Gallagher at William Paterson University, Ron Rankin at the University of South Dakota, Phil Willenbrock at the University of Puget Sound, and Blair Hrovat at Allegheny College were all very successful head coaches using the wing-t offense.

Diagram 2.
In today’s football, the passing game has re-emerged as the offensive style of choice returning the profession to where we were in the mid-60s. Much of this is media driven and the trend is to throw the ball so that the media will not brand the coach as old fashioned or even archaic. A coach is pressured to throw the football to keep the media, and consequently, the alumni off his back. The trend towards passing should not hurt the future of the wing-t offense. In fact the best wing-t teams over the years were always the teams who could complete the keep pass and the waggle pass on a consistent basis. The 1990s featured wing-t teams opening up their formations and spreading the defenses while still utilizing four backs. The following formation is a “loose formation” and is a modern adaptation of the basic wing-t formation:

Diagram 3. Diagram 4.

Another variation of the basic wing-t formation is the double wing formation, which gives an offense the threat of four quick receivers while keeping the integrity of the four back attack alive.

Diagram 5.
A modern adaptation of the double wing formation is a loose double wing formation which gives the offense the ability to utilize many of the passing concepts that would be used in a run and shoot offense.

The latest evolution in the wing-t offense was to create formations that gave the offense the threat of trips (three) receivers to one side while still maintaining the integrity of the four back attack. Using the loose double wing formation with both ends on the same side accomplished this objective. In some of these formations one of the receivers might be ineligible but by stepping the wingbacks and the ends on and off the line of scrimmage we can create four back offenses with trips receivers and make everybody eligible. Here are two examples of these kinds of formations. In the first example one of the ends is ineligible but in the second example everyone is eligible. We arrive at these formation variables by stepping the wingbacks and ends on and off the line of scrimmage.

Diagram 6.

The second formation can put either the widest or second widest receiver off the line of scrimmage and the backside wingback on the line of scrimmage making everybody eligible.

Even with the modernization of the offense one must wonder what is the future of the wing-t? With the retirement of Coach Raymond and the change in philosophies at the University of Delaware the wing-t has lost its leader in the Division I arena. The offense has continued at the small college level but with fewer teams. Why has this happened and will the wing-t go the way of the single wing? These are great questions and the answer is simple in my mind. If just one Division I school would start using the offense again they would attract a national audience and national support. The wing-t offense continues to flourish at the high school level and all of those high school coaches would love to send their players to a major school to play in that system which is so much fun for the players. In fact, a school could have a national recruiting base without spending any additional money simply by running the wing-t offense. The basic structure of the offense is outstanding and has the adaptability to make the changes needed for modern football philosophies.

There are some unscrupulous college recruiters who negatively recruit against the wing-t by making statements like “you can’t get to the pros in the wing-t.” This hurts the reputation of the offense but is not true. Rich Gannon was a wing-t quarterback and was this year’s MVP in the National Football League. The truth of the matter is that it is much easier for wing-t coaches and players to adapt to other systems than the reverse because the wing-t is taught with such precise detail. Any college athletic director looking for a way to turn a struggling program into a successful program would be wise to bring this system to his school. The national interest that he would create by using this system would give him a guaranteed recruiting base as well as unlimited numbers of potential summer camp participants. The wing-t has survived for over 50 years and has never been better. The offense will continue to flourish in the future because it has such great flexibility and adaptability. Best of luck with your wing-t offense!