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A Very Singular Way To Play
Rick Telander
September 20, 1982
The single wing may be virtually extinct, but thanks to Keith Piper it's still alive—and running and passing—at Denison
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September 20, 1982

A Very Singular Way To Play

The single wing may be virtually extinct, but thanks to Keith Piper it's still alive—and running and passing—at Denison

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Collect call for Knute Rockne, from a Mr. Warner.... Go ahead, sir.

Hiya Rock, thanks for accepting the call. It's me, Glenn Warner.... Pop, you senile goat, Pop Warner. Been dead since 1954.... What? Well, I'd rather have a kiddie league named after me than get played real somber by Pat O'Brien.

But listen, the reason I called is to tell you that there's this fellow at a college in Ohio who's got his boys running the single wing.... Of course I'm sure. Denison University, 2,200 students, nice wooded place up on a hill in a little town called Granville, 30 miles east of Columbus. If you ever look down, you'll see for yourself. Fullback spinners, buck laterals, unbalanced line, the whole bit. Coach's name is Keith Piper. He's only 60, but he knows stuff from way back—knows, for instance, that I invented the formation around aught-six. He's even got a copy of that book I wrote in 1912 when I was coach at the Carlisle Indian School. Remember that one, Rock? About helmets I said, "I do not encourage their use."

What?...Lord, no, they don't play Notre Dame. They're only NCAA Division III. No scholarships, opponents like Wooster and Otterbein.... No, they don't run your silly damn shift.... Do tell? Give me 11 louts and a piece of chalk and I'll stop your shift and your box in 10 minutes. And what'll you do about my Z, or the shoestring sleeper?...Four Horsemen, my Aunt Tillie....

Calm down! I am not yelling.... I don't want to fight, Rock. I just wanted to tell you about this fellow Piper. I thought, as single-wing immortals maybe we could do something for him. See, just a couple days ago this old hackberry tree fell on his house and...

Keith Piper, who has a record of 139-100-13 after 27 seasons of coaching the Denison Big Red, stands in his front yard on a summer afternoon and stares at his damaged roof. Beside him is the stump of a hackberry tree, 18 feet in circumference, sawed off and flat enough now to serve a picnic lunch on. Piper loved that tree. It was almost as old as his brick house, which was built around 1810, and like other aged things the tree always appeared to be a symbol of pluck and order to him. It was blown down in a thunderstorm. It could have squashed Piper, his wife, Mike, and youngest son, Billy, 21, sending them all to single-wing heaven, but the sturdy house shrugged off the blow. Just goes to show, says Piper, that they built things right in the old days.

Including football formations. "The thing that a lot of people don't understand about the single wing is that it was never caught up with or overrun," says Piper, sitting now in his office at the Denison field house. "It works. But football is like men's fashions. Coaches don't run the single wing because they don't want to be out of style."

Indeed, the last major college to use the single wing was Princeton, which gave it up in 1969. But until the late '40s almost every high school, college and pro team used it. By the '70s, for reasons Piper feels are frivolous at best, the single wing had become as obsolete as the flying wedge and the six-man line. The only college other than Denison that now runs the single wing is Colorado College, another Division III school, and it employs the formation only occasionally.

Except for three seasons in the early '60s when he used the single wing, Piper ran the T formation at Denison from 1954, the year he became coach, through 1977. It took him that long, he says, to realize the advantages of a forgotten system in a follow-the-leader world. "When you're at a school like this, where you don't have great talent, the single wing is ideal," he says. "It's good for utilizing slower, smaller players, and because opponents only see it once a year, you take them by surprise."

Piper indicates a framed photo on the wall of his chum Woody Hayes, who was the Denison coach from 1946 through '48. "He thinks I'm a little crazy to run the single wing," says Piper, "but I guess if you'd been at Ohio State with all those bulls, you could afford to forget about the formation. Sometimes I think about what you could do with the single wing and talent. I talked recently to Forrest Gregg, the Bengals' coach, and he said that Kenny Anderson could've been a great single-wing tailback. With Pete Johnson at fullback and Archie Griffin at wing-back—I mean, think of it."

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