Emory Bellard’s innovative lesson for college football...and life
|Image courtesy of LATimes.com
Before today's powerful Spread Offense became popular, and even before the West Coast Offense took football by storm in the 1980s, the Wishbone ruled the college gridiron. Introduced in the late 1960s at the University of Texas, the Wishbone is still considered one of college football’s most innovative offensive schemes. It was so successful, in fact, that during the period from 1969 through 1979, seven national championships were won or shared by wishbone teams.
The man credited with introducing the Wishbone to college football was Emory Bellard; a second year assistant at Texas who spent seventeen years previous as a high school coach. Bellard passed away this past Thursday at the age of 83. The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis--Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The impact of the Wishbone can not be understated. Besides the many national championships won by wishbone teams, the offense became so popular that it was used successfully by everyone from athletic powerhouses to the undersized but disciplined service academy teams.
According to Bellard’s obituary in today’s New York Times:
Bellard (pronounced bell-ARD) spent 14 seasons as a head coach, first at Texas A&M and then at Mississippi State, but his signature contribution to football came in 1968 as an assistant at the University of Texas.
The Texas team had suffered through three subpar seasons, and the coach, Darrell Royal, seeking a change, asked Bellard to devise an offensive backfield scheme that would include a lead blocker and maximize the effectiveness of the team’s three strong running backs. Bellard came up with a variant of a two-back formation called the veer: the quarterback and the three runners lined up in the shape of a Y, or a wishbone, the fullback right behind the quarterback and two tailbacks split behind them.
From this formation, the quarterback had three options: he could hand the ball to the fullback charging up the middle, or he could fake to the fullback and sprint out to one side or the other, then turn upfield with the ball himself or, if the defense closed in on him, pitch the ball wide to a tailback. The other tailback would cut inside as a blocker.
Texas tied its first game using the wishbone and lost its second, but it then won 30 games in a row, capturing the national championship in 1969 and sharing it with Nebraska in 1970.
Soon, other teams, including powerhouses like Alabama and Oklahoma, began using the wishbone offense, also known as the triple-option. Many colleges began to tailor their high school recruiting to find shifty, shrewd quarterbacks who could run the triple-option offense and speedy runners who could thrive in it. It was many years before defenses caught up with the wishbone.
While Bellard is best known for being the father of the Wishbone, perhaps his greatest contribution to college football was his openness to recruiting black athletes during his tenure as head coach at Texas A&M in the 1970s. He pushed tirelessly for racial integration of the entire Southwest Conference; which before his effort had been previously reluctant to do so.
Here’s the takeaway: If innovation success is measured by wins and losses, then Emory Bellard’s Wishbone offense was a clear winner. With seven national championships won by wishbone teams during an eleven-year period, no other offense came close.