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A Melding of Men All Suited to a T
Ron Fimrite
September 05, 1977
Clark Shaughnessy was a dour theoretician, Frankie Albert an unrestrained quarterback and Stanford a team of losers, but combined they forever changed the game of football
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September 05, 1977

A Melding Of Men All Suited To A T

Clark Shaughnessy was a dour theoretician, Frankie Albert an unrestrained quarterback and Stanford a team of losers, but combined they forever changed the game of football

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"Long before I went to Stanford I had heard of him," Shaughnessy wrote in Football in War and Peace, a book published in 1943. "I knew he fitted exactly the requirements of the T-Formation. Frankie, for example, was not used in [my] system as a blocker or a ball-carrier, assignments in which he would have been at a great disadvantage because he was neither strong nor fast. His talents were primarily those of a faker; he could fool people, and by temperament he ate up that sort of assignment. His talents were more intellectual and psychological than physical. He was a poker player if ever there was one, and the T-Formation gave him exactly the best opportunities to exploit those strengths of his to the utmost, at the same time covering up the shortcomings he had that would have put him at a great disadvantage in other styles of play."

Shaughnessy and Albert were opposites, the former solemn and pious, the latter puckish and irreverent, but opposites attracted to each other. Albert was the only Stanford player who dared trifle with the coach. For the amusement of his teammates, he would feign injury in practice, only to spring to life as Shaughnessy, gray-faced, approached on the run. Shaughnessy broke with many associates in his later life, but praised Albert, both as a player and a person, to his final days. Though he would later coach Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield, Albert remained, for him, "the greatest quarterback I've ever seen." And Albert, to the present, speaks reverently of Shaughnessy's "genius."

During the 30 days of spring practice and the intense preparations of September, Shaughnessy worked himself, his assistants and his players as few college teams have ever been worked. If the T were to fail, it would not be through lack of preparation. One evening, Stanford Athletic Director Al Masters complained angrily to the maintenance department that some idiot had left the lights on at the football practice field. The "idiot," he was advised, was Shaughnessy, and the lights were on because the team was still practicing.

Shaughnessy was never happier. "I've had 60 big kids, tough, rugged fellows who love football, coming out every day for a month, coming from classes and laboratories on the run just to practice, then running back after practice to wait on tables and the like. There's tremendous football spirit at Stanford."

But there were setbacks. In a scrimmage against the freshmen in the fall, the varsity was able to score only a single touchdown. Shaughnessy subsequently designed a single wing offense to be installed if the T should not work, although he did not tell the players, fearful of further eroding their confidence.

Newspaper accounts of the unusual goings-on at Palo Alto only occasionally referred to the new system as the T formation, reporters preferring to call it "The Shaughnessy System" or "Shaughnessy's new razzle-dazzle attacks." One who did call it by its correct name was Bill Leiser of the San Francisco Chronicle. "No one knows for sure what kind of football the Indians will play from this new T-Formation," he wrote. "They start from the Notre Dame T and then stop looking like Notre Dame because they don't shift at all and never do get into the famous box formation. The man-in-motion may stop anywhere on the field. He changes the formation. Albert parks himself right behind the center and takes the ball directly from his hands on nearly all plays. It's football unlike any previously played on the Coast."

Stanford's opening game, with the University of San Francisco on Sept. 28, 1940, was to be the second in an unprecedented major-college doubleheader at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium. The first game matched Santa Clara with Utah. Across the Bay that day, the California Golden Bears had a date with Michigan and its All-America tailback. Tommy Harmon, in a game considered much more significant than either of those at Kezar.

On the eve of the game, Shaughnessy delighted reporters covering his practice by dressing his team in their brilliant new game uniforms—bright cardinal jerseys and stockings, white helmets and pants—instead of in the sweat clothes ordinarily worn on the last practice of the week. It was a pity, the newsmen commented, that such fashionable raiment would be ripped to tatters by the street kids from San Francisco.

Santa Clara defeated Utah 34-13 in the opening game before a crowd of 34,000. Stanford and USF took the field shortly before 3:30 for the second game. Mac Speedie of Utah, later an All-Pro receiver with the Cleveland Browns, was showering in the Kezar locker room when the second game started. Disappointed in his team's defeat, he had no interest in watching another football game that day, so he lingered in the solitude of the dressing chamber. As he toweled off, a teammate burst through the door. "Hey," he shouted, "you got to see this to believe it. They've got the damnedest formation out there I've ever seen. You can't even follow the ball."

This historic game began rather sloppily. Because of penalties and fumbles, Stanford did not move the ball in its first two possessions, further evidence, skeptics agreed, that Shaughnessy's system was more baffling to those using it than to those it was being used against. The third time the Indians had the ball, however, the pieces began to fit. Albert passed 17 yards to Gallarneau, a pass made easier because the USF secondary, transfixed by an Albert fake, failed to cover the receiver as he drifted in motion. Then Standlee burst through an immense hole for 20 more yards. Albert could not contain himself as he rushed into the huddle this time. "Hey," he shouted, "this stuff really works." Kmetovic scored the first touchdown of the game on a quick opener up the middle. He was not touched. It is entirely possible he was not even seen.

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