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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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"There are no longer any distinctive systems in football. They've become standardized. Nobody sees a balanced line anymore except at Notre Dame, and even some Rockne-trained coaches are getting away from it. There is only one formation that's any good and it's the single wing."—Michigan Athletic Director and former Coach Fielding H. (Hurry Up) Yost on the eve of the 1940 college football season.

"That hocus-pocus which is called the T-Formation made 90,000 spectator converts and seemed definitely to signal the arrival of a new era in college football. The day of the tug-of-war is out—Clark Shaughnessy and his Stanford Indians have definitely killed it."—Curley Grieve, writing in the San Francisco Examiner after the Rose Bowl game of Jan. 1, 1941.

"The whole season was like a fairy tale."—Frankie Albert, quarterback of the 1940 Stanford team.

The hiring of Clark Shaughnessy as football coach at Stanford for the 1940 season struck most alumni, fans and critics at large as an act of folly comparable to employing an arsonist as fire chief. In 1939 Stanford had won but one game and had been disparaged as the worst team ever to represent the university, but compared with the University of Chicago team Shaughnessy had coached that same season, Stanford seemed a veritable juggernaut. In 1939 Chicago had been beaten 85-0 by Michigan, 61-0 by both Ohio State and Harvard, 47-0 by Virginia, and 46-0 by Illinois. Chicago had scored just 37 points in eight games while 308 had been scored against it. At the behest of Chicago's president, Dr. Robert Hutchins, who detested the game, the university discontinued football after this mournful season. "I did not de-emphasize football at the University of Chicago," Dr. Hutchins boasted. "I abolished it."

Shaughnessy could have stayed at Chicago as a professor of physical education, but after 25 years as a coach he found the prospect of a fall without football insupportable. He was unquestionably available, but how, outraged Stanford alumni protested, could a man with such impeachable credentials be expected to lead the Indians out of the gridiron wilderness? The fact that Clark Shaughnessy did it so spectacularly is achievement enough, but he accomplished much more by the end of the 1940 season. In coaching Stanford to its only undefeated and untied record, he also contrived to change the game itself as radically as Einstein changed conventional thinking on physics.

Before Shaughnessy at Stanford in 1940, the T formation was a relic from football's antiquity. No one used it. Shaughnessy himself had not used it at Chicago, but he had experimented with the alignment as a member of the Chicago Bears' T brain trust, along with Owner- Coach George Halas and former Bears Coach Ralph Jones. The Bears were the only professional team to run out of that arcane formation. The T had been used by Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago before the turn of the century, but it was soon supplanted by the Pop Warner double wing, the Notre Dame box and the power-oriented single wing. With the success of these formations, the T seemed no more effective than the flying wedge, from which it sprang. Direct passes from center to a running back or passer protected by cordons of blockers represented the standard offense.

No one was prepared for the Shaughnessy T with its lightning thrusts and deception. An entire generation of coaches and players had grown to maturity without seeing the T, and no one had ever seen a T that placed such emphasis on wide-open play, for even under Stagg the formation had been built for power.

After Stanford's milestone performance in 1940, coaches turned to the T as if it were a revealed truth. By the end of the decade, according to a survey by Football Digest, 250 of the top 350 college teams were using it. Everyone, as the newspapers of the time were so fond of reporting, "was going to a T party." Even Frank Leahy flew in the face of all that was sacred and discarded the Notre Dame box for the T within two years of Stanford's epochal season. Now there is scarcely a team at any level of play that does not use the T in one form or other. Be it pro set, power I, wishbone or veer, it is essentially the same formation Shaughnessy introduced 37 years ago to an extraordinary group of young men who would become known as the Stanford "Wow Boys."

Shaughnessy's meeting with these players stands as one of those rare instances in life when time, place and personalities join in perfect union, when disparate and formerly malfunctioning parts mesh into a precision instrument. American football has never had a moment quite like it.

Clark Shaughnessy was 48 years old when he moved from Chicago to Palo Alto with vague hopes and volumes of unused play diagrams. From what he had seen on film of Stanford's calamitous 1939 season, he suspected that the material for the new kind of football team he envisioned was at hand.

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