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The Elways And The Spread Formation: Part II

Join Doc Bear as he continues the epic tale of how the spread formation revolutionized football and changed John Elway's career path.

Some coaches have argued, with some validity, that the development of the spread offense was inevitable. If the trend in football is to stack your big guys together defensively, some offensive coordinator or head coach is going to spread out their guys to force you to respond, and they’re going to use those open spaces to fling the ball right down your throat. Even so, it took both a tiger and a mouse to really bring the spread into the modern lexicon.

The specific form that it took may not have survived in its earliest form — none ever do — but it’s influence on the game hasn’t slowed. While there is nothing truly new under the football sun, Glenn Ellison challenged that axiom, and the way he went about it changed the face of football for all time. 

It was 1958 and Glenn ‘Tiger’ Ellison wasn’t happy. Nothing made Ellison, one of the best of his era of high school coaches, happy except winning. His overall record was enviable, sticking to the smash-mouth approach to football that he’d been winning with for years.

A former roommate of football legend Woody Hayes at Denison University, he had taken a job as a line coach for his friend Elmo Lingrel when Lingrel took the head coaching job at Middleton, Ohio High School. He and Lingrel would stay there for 12 years, and when Elmo left, Ellison took over the program and would be there for another 18 years. 

Ellison's halftime speeches were things of oratorical beauty, displaying his roots as an English teacher with a love of language as well as his passion as a football coach, and earning him the sobriquet ‘Tiger’. His players were known to train and lift all winter; they ran for endurance all spring and dug with picks and shovels all summer, in preparation for the pounding that they would endure in the fall.


Ellison was a believer in hitting the opposition over and over again until they couldn’t stand up any longer. But like all approaches eventually do, this one caught up with him. Other teams knew what he would do, and went to great lengths to counter it. 

So it was, in the 14th year of his tenure as head coach and his 26th with the program, that disaster struck. Ellison suddenly found his title-winning team in a 0-4-1 hole. The school hadn’t had a losing season since they started playing the sport back in 1911, but he only had five games left and he was perilously close to the first losing season in the school’s history. Something had to be done. 

Ellison stayed up nights until he developed one of the strangest formations in football history. He called it the ‘Lonesome Polecat’, with the center in front of the quarterback, who was alone in a shotgun formation (Hence the ‘Lonesome’ part. Polecat still eludes me).

The rest of the OL was strung out to what is usually the weakside — the left, as you face the defense — while the two receivers were bunched up on the far right weakside. The Lonesome Polecat only had one passing play, in which the QB would scramble until someone was open and then shoot them the ball. For that reason, the play was called the run and shoot.  Ellison chose The Run and Shoot as the name of his new system. 

The QB was encouraged to scramble and to find an open receiver. No one had ever seen it that they recalled — but his team reeled off five consecutive victories. That was in 1958. 

The following year, when the boys came to camp, Ellison had changed the system again and made it into a more balanced attack. The new system had 20 passes and 20 runs, 

He kept many of the offensive line movements, pulls and traps that he had slipped into the old LP system. The formations began with two split ends, each moved out a standard 17 yards from the ball.

This was done so that run and pass plays looked identical at the start, providing confusion for the defense to chew on. The blocking schemes for run and pass were also identical in the new scheme. 

It confused the heck out of the rest of the league — and the state — and in the next four and a half years, Ellison’s Run and Shoot won 38 of 45 games.

Several years later, Ellison, still famous for his halftime rants, which fired up his team until they were incensed, furious and ready to fight in the trenches for another victory, wrote a book which he called, The Run and Shoot - Offense of the Future. Ellison didn’t think small, but he did think a great deal. In his introduction (the prologue was written by Woody Hayes) he said,

“This is the story of a revolution. A revolt started in the mind of a football coach and ended in a new order of things on the football field. The revolution awakened a sleepy community into wide-eyed enthusiasm and caused a veteran coach, squirming with frustration on the threshold of this first losing season, to wake up and enjoy life to its fullest.”

It wasn’t that long after that someone in similar straits to those that he had experienced grabbed onto the same lifeline. 

Mouse Davis ended up influencing both the spread and its ‘Run and Shoot’ format for decades. He’ll be up next in Part III.

If you missed Part I, check it out HERE.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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