To do that one has to understand a little about the formation itself. Essentially, the single wing differs from the T and its variations in that the single wing has no back directly under the center. In a typical single-wing alignment the tailback lines up about five yards behind the center, with the fullback at his side. The quarterback lines up a yard behind a tackle on the strong side, and these three backs crouch with their hands on their knees. The remaining back, the lone wingback, who gives the formation its name, positions himself in a three-point stance just off the tight end's outside foot. In the unbalanced-line version of the formation, which Denison uses and most of its single-wing predecessors employed, the center is flanked on one side by a guard and an end and on the other by two tackles, a guard and the tight end.
In some single wings the center could snap the ball to the tailback, fullback, quarterback or wingback in motion; Denison doesn't use any direct hikes to the quarterback or wingback. Usually, the center in any single wing snaps to the tailback, who runs with, hands off, passes or punts it. Most of the great players one hears about from the old days—Jim Thorpe, George Gipp, Tom Harmon, Doak Walker, et al., the legendary "triple threats"—were tailbacks.
When the fullback gets the ball, he often takes a step forward and then spins 180 degrees, like a man who has just remembered that he left his car keys on the kitchen table. With his back to the line he then either hands off to another back, runs a bootleg or completes his spin and dives forward. Though comic in appearance, fullback spinner plays are as essential to the single wing as halfback dives are to the T.
The quarterback in the single wing wears big pads, seldom touches the ball and spends most of his time leading other backs into the fray. After a beer or two Piper will refer to the quarterback as "the retarded guard." In truth, a single-wing quarterback must be more selfless than dumb. He calls all the plays so that the star of the show, the tailback, won't feel guilty about dominating the offense. In a 9-0 victory over Ohio Wesleyan in 1979, Denison Quarterback John Parsons put on a remarkable display of self-effacement and/or masochism when he called Little All-America Tailback Clay Sampson's number an Ohio Athletic Conference-record 54 times.
At some point, though, all the backs in the single wing will spin, reverse, hand off, block, fake, run, pass and receive. This versatility and the deceptiveness that arises out of it—combined with the devastating double-team and trap blocking set up by the unbalanced line—give the single wing its punch. To defenders, facing a single-wing play often feels like an encounter with a gigantic, rampaging eggbeater. "I think any offensive lineman has to love it," says Dave Haverstick, a 1982 graduate of Denison and a three-year starter at strongside guard. "In the T you're supposed to be disciplined and just protect your area, but in the single wing you get a chance to be more reckless, to turn upfield and clean house. Defensive players aren't used to getting trapped from any direction. They become hesitant. They try to figure out what's going on in the backfield, and then they're easier to block straight on."
Some coaches believe the single wing can be stopped simply by having defenders read keys. Piper loves it when opponents operate that way. "We've got fakes off of fakes off of fakes," he says. "We throw in misdirection plays just to make liars out of coaches. Once we got two linebackers who were reading their keys to collide head on."
Piper chuckles when he says this. A beefy former All-Ohio single-wing center at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, he's clearly as enthralled with the eccentricity of using the single wing in this era as with the formation's effectiveness. In the seven seasons Piper's teams have run the single wing, Denison has been 39-21-4. On Saturday the Big Red tied Hampden-Sydney 0-0 in their 1982 season opener. Piper can coach other formations, too. In 1957 the Big Red went 8-1 and led the nation's small colleges in total offense while running out of the T.
But Piper was unmoved by coaching the T formation. "Part of it is my age," he says. "I remember all the great single-wing teams and names, and I had a good time playing it myself. I remember watching Massillon [Ohio] High play the single wing in 1932. Paul Brown was the coach. They'd run a play and there'd be nobody left standing on the field. The system just turns me on."
So why doesn't it turn other people on? Critics point to the single wing's drawbacks: It has no quick-hitting plays; it isn't a great passing formation; it's too dependent on the accurate snapping of a center who's vulnerable to a tough defensive charge because he must look back through his legs as he initiates play; it isn't a good two-minute or come-from-behind offense. Moreover, it's the victim of its own catch-22 syndrome: Because the formation isn't used at the highest levels, it's rarely used at the lower levels, which makes potential single-wing specialists, notably tailbacks and centers, almost impossible to find and assess. Even when a coach discovers players with aptitude for the single wing, imparting the nuances of the formation to them is a formidable task. "Just teaching a single-wing center how to snap the ball can take forever," says Piper.
When the George Halas-coached Bears won the NFL championship 37-9 over the Giants in 1941 playing the T, the single wing was doomed. "Most coaches copy someone who's successful," says Bear General Manager Jim Finks. "And the fact is, you can do almost anything in football and be successful if you do it right. Single wing, T, whatever—it boils down to execution."