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The Offense That Refuses to Die
John Walters
October 05, 1998
Disciples of the single wing loudly sing its praises and ardently seek converts
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October 05, 1998

The Offense That Refuses To Die

Disciples of the single wing loudly sing its praises and ardently seek converts

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The single wing was invented by Pop Warner, who wrote a book on the formation in 1912 when he was the coach at the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School, and was the dominant offense used in high schools, colleges and the pros until just before World War II. Knute Rockne and Amos Alonzo Stagg coached it. Jim Thorpe and George Gipp are two of the better tailbacks who executed it. All of them winners. All of them legends. All of them dead.

So too, for the most part, is the single wing. It was last spotted in the NFL in 1951, with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The last major college team to use it was Princeton, in 1969. When Denison University coach Keith Piper died in February at age 78, the single wing expired with him on the college level. Only a handful of high school and youth level coaches employ it today. Almost all of them are attending the conference in Colorado.

Carl Rice, coach of Cedaredge ( Colo.) High, is the symposium's first speaker. Cedaredge has lost two games in the 1990s. "We don't have a Wide Jet 36X Back Cross," Rice says with disdain. "You know how we call our plays? 'One,' that's a play. We run 'two.' 'Three,' that's another play. We go all the way up to 'nine,' but to tell you the truth we seldom get past 'four.' "

Dan Johnson, the coach at Wichita ( Kans.) Southeast High, raises his hand. "Coach, for blocking assignments do you number your holes," asks Johnson, "or do you number your offensive linemen?"

Rice smiles. "No."

In the back of the gym, a few members of the Sterling Seven scratch their heads.

Carle installed the single wing at Colorado College 26 years ago. From 1957 to '71, Carle's record with multiple formations had been 51-66-3. From '72 to '77 he was 46-7-1 with the single wing. Carle, now retired, was an improviser. When chalk was not available, he used Maalox tablets for halftime blackboard sessions. He was a whiz with a budget. "For road games he used to strike a deal with the hotel," says former Colorado College wingback Steve Sabol, now the president of NFL Films. "We got our rooms for half price as long as we slept on top of the bedspread."

As Carle was being thanked by maids across the Great Plains, Lloyd Gaskill, the coach at Limon ( Colo.) High, was terrorizing rivals with the single wing. Gaskill, who died in February at age 85, won 10 state championships in 29 nonconsecutive seasons at Limon, between 1935 and 1976.

"My biggest regret," says George Rykovich, the coach at Manitou Springs High since 1971 and a single wing man since '79, "is that I had Jerry Carle and Lloyd Gaskill in my backyard, and I waited eight years to copy them." Rykovich's record with the single wing: 143-60.

Rykovich's success has bred a subsequent generation of copycats. Mark Bliss, 35, broke into the coaching ranks in Colorado as a Rykovich foe. "I had to prepare against George for two seasons," says Bliss, "and it was a bugaboo."

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