Mal Moore (below right) coaches wishbone
It is the nature of college football that legends are born as the old legends pass away. When news came this morning of the death of University of Texas football legend Darryl Royal, one thought was of his immense influence on Alabama football success.
In 1968, Texas under Darryl Royal unveiled the wishbone offense, generally credited as an innovation of Emory Bellard, one of the assistants on Royal’s Longhorns staff. In 1969 Texas won the national championship. During the 1970 season, the primary rival of the Longhorns, the Oklahoma Sooners of Coach Chuck Fairbanks, switched to the triple option offense.
Alabama had ended 1970 with the Crimson Tide’s second consecutive five-loss season. To finish the year, Bama had been in a mid-level bowl game, the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl, played in the then-extraordinary Astrodome. Oklahoma and Alabama tied the game, 17-17, as Bama missed a short field goal on the last play of the game.
Alabama’s team airplane left Houston for the return to Tuscaloosa on January 1. Crimson Tide Coach Paul Bryant often rode in the rear of the aircraft, but this day was sitting near the midpoint in an aisle seat. He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a yellow legal pad and unclipped a fountain pen from his shirt pocket. Bryant spent the hour in the air sketching out the wishbone ground attack.
Bryant was familiar with the formation because he had just prepared his team to play against it. No one will ever know exactly when he made the decision to switch Alabama to the wishbone.
Alabama went through spring practice working the same offensive plan it had used since early in the 1960s–the offense of Joe Namath and Steve Sloan and Kenny Stabler and Scott Hunter. Alabama had a record of 90-16-4 in the 1960s, better than any other college football team. But in 1969 and 1970 the record had been 12-10-1.
“We don’t awe anyone now,” Bryant said before the 1971 season. “We are back among the ordinary folk, and I don’t like it.”
“He told us in late August,” said Mal Moore, an assistant coach who was going to be coaching quarterbacks for the first time at Bama. A former quarterback himself, Moore had been coaching defensive backs. Steve Sloan, who had been coaching quarterbacks, had moved on to Florida State.
Moore said Bryant and Texas Coach Darryl Royal spent time together during the summer and that Bryant no doubt quizzed Royal on the offense. “Coach Royal was going to speak at the coaching clinic we had every August during all-star week,” Moore said. “Usually the assistant coaches spent a lot of time during the clinic with high school coaches, but this year was different.”
Emory Bellard was a member of the Texas coaching staff and the man credited with developing the wishbone. Bellard accompanied Royal to Tuscaloosa for the coaching clinic. Bellard’s clinic took place in a hotel suite for members of the Alabama offensive coaching staff. Moore said that he, offensive line coach Jimmy Sharpe, and running backs coach John David Crow spent the better part of three days learning the wishbone
“We had a chalkboard and a projector,” Moore said. “We looked at cut-ups (wishbone plays) over and over and over. He coached us like we were students and it was a cram course. It was complicated. We went over footwork and blocking and counting the defense, everything that goes into it.”
In the wishbone, Alabama went from two wide receivers to one. The fullback was right behind the quarterback. Slightly behind the fullback and to either side were the halfbacks.
The offensive change also meant some moves among linemen. John Hannah had been the left tackle in Alabama’s passing game offense in 1970. In 1971 he moved to right guard, a key position for the wishbone. He would become one of the finest offensive linemen in the history of the game.
Alabama had used a version of the formation for years. It was a power formation, used by the Tide when Bama was close to a goal line, either the opponent goal going in or the Alabama goal coming out. That Bama version of the full house backfield was grind-it-out power football. The triple option wishbone was a combination of power, deception and ball handling.
Alabama unveiled the wishbone by opening the 1971 season against No. 1 ranked Southern Cal in the Coliseum in Los Angeles and upset the Trojans, 17-10 and never looked back.
Alabama went 11-0 in regular season play before losing in the national championship game against Nebraska.
The star of the first Alabama wishbone team was Johnny Musso. Musso said, “I think the wishbone energized Coach Bryant. I think the two previous seasons took a lot out of him. But he said, ‘Enough is enough.’ He got energized, got a new focus, and quickly turned the program around.”
The win over USC was Bryant’s 200th head coaching victory. He would coach 12 more years and add 123 more wins before retiring following the 1982 season. Included in that total were three national championships and nine Southeastern Conference championships – added to the three national titles and four SEC crowns he had won pre-wishbone.
Late in his career, Bryant agreed that “all the rules changes have benefited the offense.” Once they made “offensive holding legal” (his view of offensive men being able to use their hands in blocking) he thought it was time to change to a pro-set. But, he said, he would let the next guy do that.
Royal’s influence didn’t extend to just Oklahoma and Texas. Numerous schools went to the offense, including Pat Dye taking the attack from Bama to East Carolina to Wyoming and finally to Auburn, where the Tigers had some of their greatest seasons. It is still employed, notably by the service academies, who are not recruiting NFL wannabes.
When Adolph Rupp died, Bryant said, “The term ‘legend’ is thrown around pretty loosely, but Adolph Rupp was truly a legend.”
So was Darryl Royal. RIP.
(NOTE: Some of the information for this article came from the book "Game-Changers -- The Greatest Plays In Alabama Football History)