The Texas Longhorns line up in the wishbone formation for the first play in honor of Darrell K Royal during the Big 12 Conference game against the Iowa State Cyclones on November 10, 2012 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Fifty years later, Texas’ wishbone offense has left a huge legacy on the game

Not one, not two, but THREE backs? The offense of Emory Bellard and Darrell Royal baffled teams in the 70s and 80s and continues to resonate today.

Posted August 24th, 2018

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Ted Koy took the phone call and instantly was petrified.

It was customary for Texas football players to receive a mimeographed sheet in the mail from Darrell Royal during the summer with not-so-gentle reminders to stay in shape before they reported for two-a-days.

On the line that August day in 1968, however, was Emory Bellard, Royal’s newly promoted, cerebral, pipe-smoking offensive backfield coach who had previously worked with the linebackers. Bellard was wondering if it was possible for Koy to check in for training camp a few days earlier than the team, which was coming off a third consecutive four-loss season.

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Koy gently prodded Bellard whether he or Steve Worster would be the starting fullback for the upcoming season since the decision wasn’t resolved during spring training.

“He kind of paused,” Koy said of Bellard, “and then he said, ‘We’re going to put all of you in that backfield.’”

Koy hung up, a bit relieved but also totally bewildered.

All of them? In the Wing T?

He knew the slithery Chris Gilbert was starting at halfback after consecutive, 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Koy, from the cotton fields of Bellville and long Longhorns lineage, and the rugged Worster from Bridge City were pushing to start at fullback.

But all three of them?

“Of course, back then, you didn’t question the coach,” Koy said. “If he said, ‘Go out naked,’ you’d go, ‘fine.’ We’d do whatever they said to do.”

And so that summer, the wishbone was born. And college football would never be the same.

Spring Westfield High School coach Emory Bellard poses with some of his prep running backs lined up in the famous wishbone, in 1988. (Zach Ryall/American-Statesman)

Born from necessity

What was initially hatched by a desperate Royal to reverse Texas’ lagging fortunes and capitalize on a wealth of running back talent served as the genesis for an electric offensive formation that revolutionized the game with its array of options. The quarterback could hand off to one of his 205-pound fullbacks on a dive play up the middle, keep it himself around end or pitch it to Gilbert with a lead blocker that Royal coveted, giving defenses way too many things to stop.

Plus, as Arkansas and UCLA would eventually learn, you could even pass out of the wishbone when you had to because at least one thing that happens when you pass can be a good thing.

And Bellard the creator was so detailed, so precise, you didn’t dare disappoint him or risk him calling you his curse word of preference. “You jack donkey,” Koy said.

Texas fullback Steve Worster carryies the ball during a UT vs. Arkansas game in the 1960s. (UT Athletics)

Fifty years later, the wildly explosive offense that was the cornerstone of football in the late 1960s on into the 1980s and beyond has been reduced more to a Smithsonian oddity of the past. Only a service academy like Navy or a lesser Power 5 program like Georgia Tech clings to the repetition-demanding tactic in order to compete with bigger schools and their depth. It’s proven to still be effective for such teams if only because they are wedded to the triple-option concept and preparing for them by defenses can be nightmarish.

But to trace the life of the wishbone on its half-century anniversary, you have to start in Austin 50 years ago, in the fall of 1968, an innovation that grew partly out of Bellard’s fertile, imaginative mind, but mostly out of necessity.

Royal had encouraged Bellard to concoct a more productive offense that could tap the diverse talents. So the former three-time state high school champion at San Angelo Central doodled away on his signature yellow legal pad and came up with the most radical offense of the 20th century, toying around with the formation that borrowed from the concepts of Cincinnati’s Homer Rice and Houston’s Bill Yeoman.

The formation exploded onto the scene, and college football was dramatically changed forever. The strategy with three backs and a multitude of options altered the game’s landscape for decades. But not immediately. In fact, some even wondered if it would stick throughout 1968.

That muggy night in September, I sat in the knothole section of Memorial Stadium’s north end zone with my father, Leon, who once played on the Longhorns B team and was as big a Texas fan as there ever was. It was not without a lot of trepidation that we cringed during a 20-20 season-opening tie with powerful Houston and star running back Paul Gipson, but it felt more like a loss. The Longhorns had stopped Gipson on the 1 late in the game, thanks to Corby Robertson’s and Loyd Wainscott’s touchdown-saving tackle.

But most of us fans were more bewildered by Royal’s decision to settle for the tie at the Texas 38 in the final minute. Gilbert told me for the book “Long Live the Longhorns!” that I co-authored with John Maher, “I’d never seen a Texas team booed, but I can’t say I disagreed with them.”

Many had doubts it would ever take seed. The late quarterback James Street, one of the most charismatic Longhorns ever with a personal 20-0 record, told me, “We really didn’t think it could work.”

But work it did.

Sparking a revolution

The Longhorns followed that tie with a 31-22 loss to Texas Tech but played better in the second half, and Royal switched quarterbacks from Bill Bradley to Street during that time. The next week, the 5-9, 173-pound junior from Longview who said he had come to campus as Texas’ seventh-string quarterback clobbered Oklahoma State 31-3, and the historic run began.

Later that year after a mauling of Arkansas, Houston Post sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz told Royal he had dubbed the formation the wishbone in his article and told him at one of the customary post-game, wind-down sessions with the press in Room 2001 of the Villa Capri where I was lucky enough to take part as a Daily Texan scribe two years later.

Texas coach Darrell Royal instructs quarterback James Street in the 1970 Cotton Bowl game vs. Notre Dame. (Johnny Jenkins/American-Statesman file)

“Mickey said If he had known it’d get that famous,” Longhorns historian Bill Little said, “he would have copyrighted it.”

The wishbone catapulted Texas back into national relevance, leading the Longhorns to back-to-back national championships in 1969 and 1970. It resurrected Royal’s career with a 30-game win streak, culminating with a landmark victory over Arkansas before a sellout crowd, a sitting President Richard Nixon and evangelist Billy Graham that stood as Texas’ biggest win in school history. That was followed by a stirring Cotton Bowl win over a Notre Dame team that was ending its 44-year ban on post-season games.

But its imprint went well beyond that.

While the wishbone clearly saved Royal’s hide, it had a big hand in bringing his career to a premature, bittersweet end as well just seven years later at age 52. Because he was willing to freely share the ins and outs of the pioneering offense with both friend and foe, fierce rivals like Oklahoma and Texas A&M used it to jump-start their own ambitions while Royal’s buddy Bear Bryant employed the wishbone to wreak havoc at Alabama with three national championships.

OU and Alabama used it to cement their status as powerhouses. Bryant wore out Royal with weekly phone calls about the wishbone every Sunday and was so appreciative he even offered to pay for one of the rooms in a new house the Royals were building in Onion Creek.

“I tried to talk Chuck (Fairbanks, head coach) into going to the wishbone in the spring of 1970, but he didn’t want to,” former OU coach Barry Switzer told me this month. “He didn’t want to copy Texas. I told him, ‘Everybody copies everybody.’ Emory and I talked two or three times, and Darrell regretted it. And don’t forget Texas wasn’t recruiting black players. We were getting them all. Then Alabama went to it and turned its whole season around.”

Changing the game

OU beat Texas to the punch by integrating its football team almost a decade-and-a-half earlier. While Bud Wilkinson handpicked star running back Prentice Gautt as OU’s first black player in 1956, Texas was the last all-white national champion in 1970. Not until 1971 did San Antonio’s Julius Whittier become the first black to letter as a Longhorn. Texas didn’t have a true black superstar until tailback Roosevelt Leaks, who also was the first black to be named All-American in 1973.

Switzer calls the birth of option football the third biggest advance in the sport right behind the evolution of the black athlete and the advent of extensive strength and conditioning. It could be argued that OU profited from the wishbone as much or more than Texas because, as Switzer said, it had opened its doors to black players sooner and played at warp speed more than any other school.

“Those were the most dramatic changes in college football in the last 50 years for me,” Switzer said.

Schools in the warmer climates of the South and Southwest that have always favored speed and quickness adopted the formation while those in the power-laden Big Ten valued size and toughness and ball possession over an offense they saw as finesse-based and high-risk and turned up its collective noses.

Oh, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes experimented with the wishbone and trotted it out in a Rose Bowl with just a month’s work of preparation with disastrous results, only to discard the idea before the next season. And when Michigan State’s Duffy Daugherty called to inquire about the wishbone, Royal countered, “Duffy, you don’t want my offense. You want my fullback.”

Switzer won back-to-back national titles with Steve Davis, won big with Thomas Lott and J.C. Watts and even tooled the wishbone around the sophisticated passing of Troy Aikman in 1984, but the quarterback broke his ankle against Miami the next year and left for UCLA when Jamelle Holieway assumed the reins in his absence, became a four-year starter and led the Sooners to the national title in 1985.

Maybe if Royal hadn’t allowed Bellard to be so generous with his tutorials, OU would not have embraced the wishbone as quickly or emphatically, and a worn-down Royal might have stuck around beyond 1976, his lone non-winning season.

Texas coach Darrell Royal, left, shaking the hand of Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer after the 1975 game. “Sure, sure Barry. Le’go the hand Barry.” After the O.U. game. Photo by Ed Malcik

The wishbone at 50

Today in the 50-year anniversary of the wishbone, the formation has largely vanished from the scene. The Power 5 conferences trend toward the flashy spread formation, often with dual-threat quarterbacks that would have been great wishbone play-callers, and recruits flock to those schools to prepare them for the riches of the NFL. One OU insider said if the Sooners still employed the wishbone, Kyler Murray could well become the greatest wishbone quarterback in that school’s history.

Texas coach Tom Herman joked that he’s well-versed in wishbone lore. Some of the classic wishbone games from the ’60s run on a continuous loop on television screens in the football complex. So was it the most revolutionary advance in football?

“I don’t know,” Herman said. “The forward pass was pretty big.”

As an innovation, the wishbone radicalized football like never before. But it had its time, and the advent of 7-on-7 tournaments and the explosion of the spread and the demand for pocket passers in the NFL combined to kill the wishbone.

“You couldn’t run the wishbone today,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, himself springing from the tree of Hal Mumme-Mike Leach that has sprouted so many successful coaches of the spread formation genre. “No players would want to play in it.”

Besides, it’s boring. Or would be with today’s fans and their gnat-like attention span.

The offense so shocked the college football world and was so ruthlessly efficient that Texas won by such lopsided margins even Buck Harvey, the sports editor and later editor of The Daily Texan, was so dulled by the action, he wrote in the 1970s that he was boycotting Longhorns games. Opponents would have loved that luxury as well. Oklahoma and others ran roughshod over teams in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, on into the 1990s with some elements of the wishbone. Arkansas’ Ken Hatfield won a couple of Southwest Conference titles with the flexbone, eschewing passes to the point it would enrage his own fan base in losses.

The initials of legendary coach Darrell K Royal were painted on the team’s logo on the 50-yard line for the Texas-Iowa State game played on Nov. 10, 2012 — three days after Royal’s passing at the age of 88. And on the first play of the game, Texas opened up in Royal’s famed wishbone formation. (Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman)

 

But even today’s coaches say the wishbone lives in principle. Smaller programs rely on the offense for ball control and clock management, maximizing quick, decisive quarterbacks and smaller linemen. Of the top five rushing teams last season, three were at the service academies, led by Army and its 50 touchdowns on the ground and Navy with a whopping 822 rushing attempts.

“Football is very cyclical,” Kansas State’s Bill Snyder said. “There really isn’t anything new.”

Army, Navy, Georgia Tech and Air Force all ranked among the least five most prolific passing games in 2017. Heck, Army took Royal literally about all the bad things that can happen with a pass and put it in the air just 65 times and went 10-3. Just two years ago, Navy upset Notre Dame in a game when the Irish had just six possessions.

“There are some remnants of the wishbone in what we do,” Holgorsen said. “But you’ve got to be 100 percent in it.”

But Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley is already staying up nights worrying about Army’s wishbone for their showdown in Norman in Week 4.

“Yeah, I think we’ll see it a time or two in practice,” the Sooners’ second-year coach said. “Actually we might have to see it a lot. But the wishbone and the spread are two more similar offenses than you’d believe. There are so many of the same concepts. You try to spread the ball around, and you do have a million plays. It’ll be a fun game, but it’s not cool preparing for them. They’re good.”

Holgorsen cracked, “I pity OU’s defensive coordinator.”

Iowa State’s Matt Campbell echoes Riley’s sentiments and sees the wishbone lots of places.

“You’re seeing a little bit of it in the spread formation,” Campbell said. “You’ve got the zone read option, run-pass options. College football is very cyclical. It could come back in one shape or form.

Maybe.

But not likely in this wide-open, pass-heavy, keep-fans-interested era of today.

“The game is more exciting to watch today,” Switzer said. “These guys today, they don’t think about making first downs like we did. They try to get the ball downfield and score on every play.”

And 50 years later, would the world consider the wishbone revolutionary?

“I don’t know,” Koy said. “Hopefully, we did it right and we won some games.”

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