Andy Cotton: Farewell to the Power I

Beginning today, Clendon and I are happy to introduce a new writer to our readers who will be contributing an occasional column to<I> Inside Texas</I>. I say "new"; that's not exactly accurate, not to long-time Austin residents, anyway.

For years, Andy "Coach" Cotton wrote a sports column for Austin's entertainment and news weekly, the Austin Chronicle. Cotton covered everything from Horn hoops and football to pro golf to the Chicago Cubs, whatever struck his fancy. Anything related to sports was fair game. But with Cotton, you were as likely to get a comical slice from his love life as you were his take on the DH. His piece in the Chronicle about taking in a Steelers/Cowboys Super Bowl party at the Showplace Lanes in Austin had me crying it was so funny, and remains one of my all-time favorites. Cotton also profiled Inside Texas founder Robert Heard in a cover article for the Chronicle in the early 90's and penned some of the hardest-hitting commentary on the Luke Axtell/Tom Penders affair that appeared anywhere in the media. So Cotton's a veteran of the Austin and UT scenes. Since his stint ended with the Chronicle, Cotton has completed a book about golfers working their way up on the Nike tour, which he is currently shopping to publishers.

All of which is to say Clendon and I are excited to have Andy contributing to IT. His articles, as you will see from this first piece, will focus on college sports, but with an emphasis on the Big 12 and UT. We hope you enjoy! -- Michael Pearle

Farewell to the Power I

By Andy "Coach" Cotton

I went to college at the University of Missouri in the late 60's. The Tigers, if memory serves, were good back then. Bowl visits, when a bowl appearance actually meant something, were commonly expected. Those were, indeed, the halcyon days for Old Mizzou; levels of success, sadly for an old alum, not repeated since. But we never - ever! - beat Nebraska. Ergo, like most of the civilized world, I developed a strong distaste for the Children of the Corn.

Distaste is, perhaps, an understatement. One year some of my obnoxious fraternity brothers and myself decided it would be a swell idea to travel to Lincoln in late November. The plan, as it were, was to sneak into the game. The plan was unsuccessful. We were, however, spat upon by a particularly virulent strain of Husker fan. I suppose, in retrospect, it's possible some odd comment might have provoked the disgusting stream of Husker-sputum. It was long ago.

Those were the glory years of the famed Nebraska Power I formation, itself a direct descendant of the Single Wing. The Power I was the transcendent Midwestern football system: honest and pure. Brute force powered by strong men. A huge, cruel offensive line fueled its churning motor. As primitive as the offense appeared, Nebraska was, in fact, a highly innovative football factory. It was Nebraska that pioneered the weight room, organized weight training, and a nutritionally efficient training table, all elements of modern college athletic life today, commonplace down to the D-III level. Those big farm boys would - and did - kick your teeth in.

But the sex appeal of the Power I was, of course, the backfield. No third-down blocking backs or specialized QBs who could throw but not run. The formation featured the tailback, or "I-back" in Huskerspeak, but it was really a savage ballet of three guys who blocked for each other and could run with the football. Run they all did.

But time, the contemporary argument runs, has passed the offense by. Too easy for modern defensive minds to control. Nebraska didn't care how many guys the other team wanted to put five-yards from the line. Eleven? Twelve? You go boys. But we're still going to stuff the ball down your throat. And you can't stop it. And once or twice a game, just for grins, we're going to toss up an ugly, wobbly, inter-mural league pass, and it's going to go for eighty yards.

At the end of every Saturday for decades, Nebraska would've racked up 400 yards on the ground. From the day when Bob Devaney took over a sad-sack program in '61 until the end when Tom Osborne retired in '97, Nebraska's record was 384-97. And this was in the old Big-8 -- not a creampuff conference.

Obviously, as the years passed, I developed a grudging admiration for Nebraska's stubborn brand of break-your-nose football, flying as it did directly in the face of today's flashy pro-style game. Fans who hated Nebraska because they were Nebraska said it was boring, but that, I suspect, was because Nebraska always won. As contrasted with its contemporary rival in Norman, Switzer's Wishbone, it was, I suppose, monotonous. The Sooner option was the temperamental wild child of its time, a 200 mph but breakdown prone Maserati. A touchdown was a realistic result on every pitch, but so was a fumble. Nebraska was more like a well-oiled NASCAR team -- reliable power for 500 miles.

The Husker offense became the scapegoat for the problems that have been in abundant evidence in Lincoln for a decade. "Well," they say, "you just can't run the ball on every down anymore." Or, "The good kids want to play a more wide open game." To which I say BS and BS. The Air Force Academy, with size and talent no better than Westlake High School, wins ten games a year, in a decent conference, running the option on every play.

If I were the best running back in America, why wouldn't I want to go where I'd be guaranteed, absolutely assured, I'd carry the ball twenty times every Saturday? Mike Rozier, Ahman Green, Johnny Rodgers, Roger Craig, Lawrence Phillips, and the majestically named I.M Hipp all did. If I were the best running quarterback in the country, why wouldn't I want to go where my skills would be showcased on every snap? David Humm, Vince Ferragamo, Jerry Tagge, Scott Frost, Tommie Frazier, Eric Crouch and Turner Gill all did. God lord, can you imagine Vince Young running the Power I? (Come to think of it, he basically did the second half of last season). If I were the best offensive lineman in the country, (Nebraska's list of Outland Trophy winners is extensive), why wouldn't I want to go where I knew I'd be lining up on every play with the sole purpose of knocking the living snot out of the guy across from me? None of that finesse, paddy-cake pass blocking for them.

On the other side of the ball, why wouldn't the best defensive players want to come to a system that was designed to keep them fresh and mean? Where they knew it was the other guys who had to worry about being out on the field all day. The long list of Nebraska All-Americans had the same exotic choices players have today: Southern Cal or Ann Arbor, Auburn or Tuscaloosa, Norman or Austin, Miami or Tallahassee, but for decades all these kids became Cornhuskers.

Well, you say, who wants to spend four years in a place like Lincoln? To which I'd respond, have you ever been to Norman? No, it's not the maligned system or the sullen drudgery of Lincoln that let down the Children of the Corn. It was years and years of criminally indifferent recruiting and mediocre coaching, with the system getting the blame.

With Bill Callahan at the helm tossing dinky, five-yard outs from his West Coast Offense playbook, the polar opposite of the Power I, I don't suspect things will get any better in Lincoln for a long time. It's too bad for the college game and too bad for the Big12.

In our homogenized, copycat world where everybody looks the same, one last stubborn bastion of uniqueness has sadly, and unnecessarily, disappeared.

So I say goodbye to the Nebraska Power I formation, a machine of true savage football beauty. You deserved a kinder fate.

For ten years Andy Cotton wrote the Coach's Corner for the Austin Chronicle, where he was voted Austin's Best Sportswriter three times and was runner up twice. During his tenure at the Chronicle he covered all the major sports including tennis, golf, major league baseball, the NBA and, of course, the University of Texas. He has authored a book on the mini-tours of golf called It's Not Fun… Life Below the Radar of the PGA Tour.

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