Emory Bellard: Wishbone Attack Is His Legacy
The two primary forms of the potent triple option offense issued forth from deep in the heart of Texas to revolutionize college football nearly half a century ago.
A once lightly regarded University of Houston team coached by a former West Point football center and team captain and the Texas Longhorns, who suffered three mediocre seasons in the mid 1960s, suddenly found gridiron glory with the Houston veer and the Texas wishbone.
Other schools and coaches were quick to imitate, and half a dozen national championships plus some conference titles were the result. Notable among the teams that copied the wishbone with great success were Oklahoma and Alabama.
But as is the case with all significant changes in offenses, opposing defenses eventually caught up to the early triple options so that coach Bill Yeoman’s Houston veer and the Longhorns’ wishbone were discarded or revamped by the end of the 20th century.
Still, the wishbone remains one of the most famous and memorable offenses ever employed by small, fast, smart teams. The three major United States military academies — Army, Navy and Air Force — still use variations of the wishbone because their athletes are usually smaller but faster than most of their opponents.
Emory Bellard, a Texan who was the father of the wishbone, dreamed up the very successful offense in 1968 during his second season as an assistant coach under Darrell Royal at the University of Texas. Bellard died 10 days ago at age 83, when he succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Bill Yeoman, who snapped the ball to an Army backfield that included Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis in 1946, took the Houston head coaching job in 1962. He devised the veer offense or triple option slant attack two years later. This put two fast backs behind the T quarterback in either an I or split set so the quarterback could keep and run, pitch to one of the halfbacks or pass. The idea was to have all three backs hitting the line at angles instead of going straight ahead at huge defensive linemen.
It worked quite well for some time as Houston led the nation in total offense for three straight seasons in the 1960s when the Cougars averaged more than 400 yards per game each of those years. Houston beat Tulsa 100-6 in 1968, the last time a team scored 100 or more points in a Division I or major college game.
Texas, meanwhile, was in the doldrums, losing four games in each of three straight seasons, 1965–1967. That did not sit well with all of those Longhorn fans, students and alumni. Darrell Royal, in his 10th of 20 years as the Texas coach, knew what that meant for a head coach in Austin.
Royal asked his offensive coordinator, Emory Bellard, to come up with something akin to what was proving so successful at the University of Houston. After all, Royal and his staff knew they had a quartet of medium-size but speedy running backs who needed to be freed of the old straight-up dives between tackles. That had gotten Texas nowhere in recent seasons.
So it was that during the summer of 1968 Bellard created the formation that looks like the letter “Y” with the fullback directly behind the quarterback while the halfbacks are split behind the fullback with each one set directly behind an offensive guard.
The idea is that the quarterback has three options: He can give to the fullback running straight up the middle; or he can fake to the fullback and run along the line right or left and cut up-field if there is an opening; or he can run along the line and pitch back to one of those halfbacks while the other halfback moves ahead as a blocker. From any of these moves, the quarterback can also pass if the secondary gets sucked in too closely while four offensive backs move as if each is carrying the ball.
The wishbone allowed the offense to fake out tacklers with no need to block those big monsters head on. The offense could get away with brush or angle blocking to just interrupt the defensive charge. A small, fast team had a chance.
Darrell Royal bought into it. The Longhorns had only a few days to practice Bellard’s offense during the August and September preseason workouts prior to the opening game of 1968.
Those four Texas backs needed a couple of games under their belt before mastering Bellard’s theory. But master it they did with James Street at quarterback, Steve Worster the fullback and Ted Koy and Chris Gilbert at the halfback spots.
Ironically, that 1968 opener was against Bill Yeoman’s Houston Cougars. This pitted the 4-year-old Houston veer against the never-before-seen wishbone.
The game ended in a 20-20 tie, proving nothing. The only memorable thing that came out of that contest was a name for Bellard’s attack. Darrell Royal was willing to call it the “Y” offense. The coach obviously didn’t care about a name as much as he cared about winning games.
Mickey Herskowitz, an outstanding sports columnist with the Houston Chronicle, told Royal, “Y is not very original. Why don’t you call it a wishbone? It’s in the shape of a wishbone.”
Royal replied, “Mickey, you got it. It’s the wishbone.”
The following week, Texas lost to Texas Tech, 31-22, giving most folks the impression that this newfangled thing would not last very long.
But the Longhorns quickly silenced the critics as they won the next week for the first victory of a 30-game winning streak that included a national championship in 1969. Texas had an undefeated regular season in 1969 that ended with a thrilling 15-14 victory over previously unbeaten Arkansas. President Richard Nixon was in Fayetteville, Ark., to anoint the winner as 1969 National Champion.
Texas then beat Notre Dame, 21-17, in the Cotton Bowl.
Emory Bellard was a very successful Texas high school head coach for 17 seasons prior to taking the job at the University of Texas in 1967. His teams won three Texas state high school championships.
Then, after five years under Royal at Texas, Bellard took the head coaching job at Texas A & M, where he held forth, 1972–1978, using the wishbone, of course. In 1979 he moved on to Mississippi State as head coach for seven years before going back to high school coaching in Spring Westfield, Texas, 1988–1993.
Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant adopted the wishbone, and his Alabama Crimson Tide won the National Championship by consensus in 1973, 1978 and 1979. Coach Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners, also using the wishbone, took that major college national title in 1974, 1975 and 1985.
Mack Brown, the current Texas head coach, said, “From a historical standpoint, few men have ever done what Emory Bellard and Coach Royal did with the wishbone. They created a formation that brought an entirely new concept to the game of football.”
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story