Coaching changes are always a good time to try something better, or at least something that’s different from the past. Many new coaches get hired because they’re a departure from the (generally losing) past.
But change is difficult at Nevada Union High School, particularly when it comes to football. The recently anointed new head coach, Dennis Houlihan, was hired in part for his familiarity with the wing-T formation, continuing a tradition that began 22 years ago when former coach Dave Humphers installed this moss-covered style of play.
The wing-T first surfaced around 1950 and was popular by the time I was playing high school football in the late ’50s, a time when some teams still played the single-wing and wore leather helmets.
But defenses adjusted to the novelty of the system, and coaches moved on to the wishbone, option, I and other run-centric formations until it occurred to some mavericks that Darrell Royal’s dictum–“Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad”–applied equally to running.
West Coast schools, where the players tend to be faster and lighter, were quick to embrace the passing game, and with good results. Pac-8/10 partisans used to delight in seeing the Midwest plowboys come to Pasadena every Jan. 1 and succumb to the trickery and deceit of their West Coast rivals.
Northern California has always been a leader in this regard. Cal and Stanford have been pass-centric since the ’60s, the Raiders flourished with the Mad Bomber and Jim Plunkett, and the 49ers won five Super Bowls with Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense.
You would expect this to trickle down to the high school level, and it has in many areas, where spread formations are the norm and players spend the off season playing seven-on-seven football instead of running into tackling dummies. But football coaches tend to be risk adverse, and many are slow–even refuse–to change.
The wing-T has appeal because it is simple and easy to teach, cuts down on mistakes (you know how coaches hate turnovers), and doesn’t require as much talent at the skill positions. But defenses overload to stop the run, and it’s difficult to score fast when you’re behind. If you play a skill position, you won’t get many opportunities to impress college scouts.
Like all formations, the wing-T’s effectiveness depends on the skill of the players. It’s easier for professional and college coaches to become wedded to a certain style of play because they can always draft or recruit the type of players they need, but a public high school coach has to make due with the players who show up. If a coach insists on running when his linemen are small and his running backs are slow, all the screaming and scheming in the world won’t avoid a disappointing season.
The local situation is made more difficult because all of the feeder programs teach the wing-T, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the next John Elway to shine. The Miners have experimented with the spread formation the last couple of years, apparently because it didn’t have a winning running game, but it hadn’t developed any passers either. Since entering the Sierra Foothill League three years ago, NU has fattened up on cream puffs (11-6 in non-league games) only to get pounded in league play (5-10). That’s a three-year record of 16-16, your basic definition of mediocre.
The feeder programs need to use a more flexible style of play so coaches can get a better handle on the skills of developing players. Will such a change solve the Miners’ problems? No, but it can’t make the current situation any worse.