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Is the option a real option in college football today?
By THOMAS STINSON The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday, August 24, 2008

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Barry Switzer had begun to laugh before he heard the whole question. Is the triple option offense still relevant in the contemporary college game?
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“Let me tell you, it’s the greatest rushing offense in college football,” Switzer said. “And if you’ve got a guy who can throw it, it can be one of the best passing offenses in college football. And it’s saved more coaches’ jobs than any other offense in history.” But in this age of the West Coast and the spread and the 50-pass afternoon, is the option a real option? What’s next? A new eight-track for the locker room? “Winning will handle anything,” said Switzer, who heard the same criticism even while his wishbone brought three national titles in his 16 years at Oklahoma. “It handles all criticism, I promise you.” The old criticisms broke out about the same minute Paul Johnson was introduced as Georgia Tech’s new coach last winter: • The triple-option philosophy is antiquated at best and flawed at worst. • Turnover vulnerability.

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TODD R. MCQUEEN/ Paul Johnson is considered a true disciple of the triple option, though he points out his offense is a hybrid that has evolved from those of the past.

• Limited quick-strike capability. • Even worse come-from-behind ability. Johnson has heard it all. Forty years ago, Bill Yeoman heard it all too when he invented the veer and made the triple option a way of life. He introduced it in 1964, and in 1966 through 1968 Houston led the nation in total offense. “I can remember some of our people were a pain in the fanny,” Yeoman said. “But you wait a while and win a game in the last two or three minutes, that really disturbed them.” In the 22 seasons between 1969 and 1990, teams that ran a triple option attack — wishbone, veer or Nebraska’s I-formation — would claim at least a share of 11 national championships. Bear Bryant converted to it at Alabama. Two years before he was hired at Auburn, Pat Dye’s wishbone team at East Carolina had the best ground attack in the nation. “When you can eliminate one [defender] with a read and one with the pitch, if my numbers are right, that puts 11 on nine,” Dye said. Thirty-four years after he retired at Texas, Darrell Royal, now 84, said from his home in Austin, Texas, “I’m sure if I had to go coach now, I’d start with the wishbone.”

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The option’s decline in popularity had several roots. High schools are turning out rocket-armed quarterbacks like never before. The relaxed pass-blocking rules encouraged more passing, which led in turn to gimmickry. Three years after Yeoman retired at Houston, Andre Ware in 1989 became the first black quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy, setting 26 NCAA records with the Cougars’ Run & Shoot offense. “It kind of got away when they couldn’t find the quarterbacks that really fit this and you needed all the [right] running backs,” said Homer Rice, who coached the system and then wrote the definitive 1973 book (“Homer Rice on Triple Option Football”) that sold between 30,000 and 40,000 copies. “I think it just sort of went by the wayside.” Most dramatically, three games helped sway public opinion. Three times in three seasons, Oklahoma ran its wishbone against Miami and lost all three times. The last game, the 1988 Orange Bowl (20-14), cost the Sooners a national championship. A 1986 loss at Miami (28-16) knocked OU out of No. 1. Switzer had once tried to convert to a passing-oriented offense, signing a California slinger named Troy Aikman in 1985 to show the Sooners a new way. But after Aikman broke a leg in the 1985 Miami game (a 27-14 loss), Switzer reverted to the wishbone and Aikman transferred to UCLA. Slowly, the option coaches drifted to retirement or the NFL. The notion grew that bigger and faster defenses could

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Is the option a real option in college football today? |

routinely close down the corners, precisely where the option was designed to exploit. The world was a changed place. “That’s because there are no disciples out there,” Switzer said. “Today, it’s throw the ball and spread offenses, and coaches who get new jobs today take the playbook that they’ve been tutored in. You just can’t say you’re going to run the option offense if you’re not educated in it. It just doesn’t evolve that way.” But Johnson is a true disciple. While he stresses his system is a hybrid that he has adapted along the way, it established his reputation when he introduced Tracy Ham and the Hambone as Georgia Southern’s offensive coordinator in 1985, the same year Aikman broke his leg. Among the option’s old guard, Johnson is viewed as the right man at the right place. “You don’t have to have as good people as everybody else has got,” Dye said. “I’m not saying Georgia Tech can’t get good players, but he’ll have the best players he’s ever had. You don’t have to have a Reggie Bush playing running back for you. … All you have to do is be tough and be able to block. The running will take care of itself.” Moreover, the drop in triple option popularity works to Tech’s advantage. The offense is not easily duplicated by a scout team, especially at top speed, which makes for a difficult week for Tech’s next opponent.


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“I think with the kind of coaching going on today, it’s the greatest offense to run in the world because there are a lot Sports of undisciplined defenses running around down there,” Yeoman said . Entertainment As for public appeal, the option was never an easy sell. Oklahoma once lost a 31-game win streak in a 1975 defeat Living Travel to Kansas, prompting one fan to write to Switzer that the country had caught up to his offense and it was time to Business change it. Switzer was prompted to write back that the fan should pay closer attention to the game, since Kansas had been running the wishbone, too. OU went on to win a national title that year.
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“Listen, [Johnson] knows as much about college football as anyone in the country,” Dye said, “and Georgia Tech is Multimedia dang lucky to get him.” There is a theory in football that there are no new theories in the game, just the same basic systems that are continually repackaged and then recirculated. Yeoman may have invented the veer, just as Texas assistant Emory Bellard may have invented the wishbone in his backyard, using his sons as human blocking dummies to figure the proper spacing. But both were riffing off the split-T offense Bud Wilkinson popularized in the 1960s, which Wilkinson had in turn borrowed from Missouri’s Don Faurot’s Split-T of the 1940s. The old triple option? In the 21st century? “I’m just waiting,” Yeoman said. “It’s going to happen. It’s going to come back.”
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