Bellard Had Hand In Tide Success
Alabama had just completed a second consecutive disappointing season. With the tie against Oklahoma, Bama was 6-5-1 following the 6-5 1969 season. Coach Paul Bryant had his large, hand-tooled leather brief case. After settling into his seat, he pulled out a long legal pad, his choice of writing tablet, and his pen and began to sketch the wishbone offense.
Oklahoma had switched to the new wishbone offense that season, but Alabama was considered to be firmly in the pro-set camp. The Tide would have to replace three-year starter and record-setting quarterback Scott Hunter in 1971. During spring practice, Billy Sexton, a pro-style quarterback, seemed to have the edge on Terry Davis, better known as a runner.
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 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 Darrell 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."
Bellard is remembered as the man who made the wishbone a popular offense at the college level. As a member of the Texas staff, he was director of a team that won 30 consecutive games and back-to-back national championships with the wishbone. Later he would be head coach at Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
Bellard died Thursday morning in Georgetown, Texas, at age 83. He had been ill with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
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.
"The wishbone took a lot of practice," Moore said. "Counting the defense was critical. You had to run to the side where they had five defenders so you could account for every defender. You had to be careful with your snap counts, alternating fast and slow so the defense couldn't get a rhythm. We were fortunate to have Terry Davis at quarterback. He had great footwork and he was a magician with the football, a guy who could pitch it with either hand."
Alabama was going to get a good test of its new offense. Bama's opening game in 1971, on September 10, a Friday night, was in the Los Angeles Coliseum against Southern Cal. The Trojans of Coach John McKay had beaten Alabama in Birmingham the year before by a score of 42-21, and it was believed the only reason it wasn't worse was because McKay and Bryant were such good friends. The NCAA had allowed teams to add an 11th game beginning in 1970. Many big name teams picked out a cupcake for an automatic win. Alabama and Southern Cal had decided to make it a blockbuster game.
"We went to Los Angeles with a real basic offense," Moore said. "We had only been practicing it a few weeks. But the triple option is a lot of offense, three plays in one."
In pre-game warm-ups, Moore got a bad feeling. "We kept fumbling the snap," he said. "Everyone was nervous. I was afraid we wouldn't make a first down."
Johnny Musso was the Alabama star. He had been a tailback in Bama's offense in 1969 and 1970. In the wishbone he was a left halfback.
"I was pretty confident in the offense," Musso said. "We had John Hannah and Buddy Brown at guards and Jim Krapf at center. That's the heart of the wishbone and we had three guys who could make All-America. And we had a fantastic quarterback to run the wishbone. I don't think Terry Davis ever got the appreciation he deserved. We had some great wishbone quarterbacks after Terry, but I don't think there was ever anyone better.
"You had to have a quarterback who could read it right so you could get the defense out-numbered, and Terry did that. He could run and he could handle the pitches. So between the offensive middle line and Terry, I thought we'd run it well.
"What I didn't know is whether we could run it well enough to overcome Southern Cal's talent. They had great players. I don't know if we could have beaten them if they had known about the wishbone and been able to prepare for it. The surprise element was important."
The wishbone was kept secret. Each August a few dozen reporters boarded an airplane in Birmingham and made the trek to each Southeastern Conference school to watch each team practice and to get comments from coaches and players. The expedition was known as the "SEC Sky-Writers."
"I remember the day the Sky-Writers came in and we wasted a day of practice running the old offense," Musso said. "It was fun to think we were going to pull it off. I told my brother we were going to have a surprise. He wanted to know what it was, but I wouldn't tell him. We practiced on Wednesday night before we left for Los Angeles. The students were having a pep rally on the quad, but we were on the practice field. Somehow the pep rally made its way over to the field and Coach Bryant had the managers open the gates and let them in. They were ringed around the practice field and we were running the wishbone. They picked up on it, so our classmates were in on it. They were energized and we took a lot from that. And they kept the secret."
Maybe not a complete secret. Southern Cal Coach John McKay said, "We thought they might use it, but we didn't practice against it. It's tough to stop if you haven't played against it."
On Alabama's first possession, the Tide ran its basic wishbone play–36. That meant the offense was strong left, the tight end on the left side. The play went right. Davis took the snap and moved to his right. Fullback Ellis Beck was running on a line just outside the right tackle. Davis put the ball in Beck's gut, but pulled it back when USC's defensive end stepped towards Beck. Davis continued down the line. When the outside linebacker came towards Davis, he pitched to Musso, who was following the block of right halfback Joe LaBue.
"Johnny gained about six yards," Moore said. "And we just kept going. The first time we had a third and five or six yards, we ran the triple option, and Johnny made the first down. The second time we had third and five or six, we threw a little pass to our tight end, Jim Simmons, and he made a first down. We were really getting excited on the sidelines. We kept moving the ball. Finally, on our basic triple option, Johnny took it into the end zone from about 13 yards out."
Alabama scored on its first three possessions–two Musso touchdown runs and a Bill Davis field goal. The defense held the Trojans to 10 points for the 17-10 Bama win.
Moore said Alabama threw only six passes on the night. "Five were complete and one was intercepted," he said.
When the game ended, it was after midnight in Eastern and Central time zones, September 11, Bryant's 58th birthday. The win was number 200 in his coaching career.
Bryant's change to the wishbone may well have extended his career. From the first game in 1971 until he finished his amazing career in 1982, the Bryant record with the wishbone offense was 124-19-1 and included nine Southeastern Conference championships and three national titles.
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."
Musso believes Bryant got in touch with his football philosophy late in the 1970 season. Prior to a game against Houston, John David Crow, coach of the running backs, told Musso, "‘Get ready.' We were going to run the ball, get back to doing it the hard way. Block and tackle, lead with the run. We had been a passing offense for years and now we were going to get physical. I thought that was a turn-around game. We won a tough game and started getting more hard-nosed. The wishbone evolved from that philosophy."
Editor's Note: Much of the information for this story came from the book, "Game Changers—the Greatest Plays in Alabama Football History"
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