SI Vault
December 01, 2008
Never has the game circled around to its beginnings—Pop Warner, meet Ricky Williams; Ricky, Pop—the way it has this fall
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December 01, 2008

Old Is New New Is Old Back To The Future With The Single Wing

Never has the game circled around to its beginnings—Pop Warner, meet Ricky Williams; Ricky, Pop—the way it has this fall

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The single wing relied on slick backfield ball handling (including mind-boggling 360-degree spins and fakes by the backs) and precise pulling and blocking on the offensive line. It would be the dominant formation in football for nearly half a century, employed by such legendary coaches as Knute Rockne of Notre Dame (who tweaked it with his famous box formation, in which the four backs shifted into a square, largely to confuse defenses), Fritz Crisler of Michigan and Carl Snavely of North Carolina. Single wing tailbacks would be the glamour players in the sport. Because of strict substitution rules and a conservative strategy that often involved punting before fourth down, single wing tailbacks were run, pass and kick athletes. Thorpe was a single wing tailback. So were George Gipp of Notre Dame, Ernie Nevers of Stanford, Nile Kinnick of Iowa and Tom Harmon of Michigan. Belichick's father, Steve, was a single wing fullback at Case Western Reserve, and Belichick played in the single wing in junior high and against it in prep school. "You found a guy back then who could do all three things and stay on the field," says Belichick. "And the guys who could do those things became your All-America, Heisman Trophy single wing tailbacks."

The last of them was Princeton's Dick Kazmaier in 1951. On Racely's big screen, Kazmaier comes to life in a 13--7 victory over Penn at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, the Tigers' 16th consecutive victory in a streak that would reach 24 games a year later. Four years earlier Michigan had won the national championship with a single wing backfield so dazzling in its deception that it had been nicknamed the Mad Magicians, and Princeton was similarly remarkable. The cameraman often lost sight of the ball.

The last NFL team to run the single wing was the Pittsburgh Steelers under head coach Jock Sutherland in the late 1940s. In the ensuing years successful college single wing tailbacks were forced to choose a position in the NFL. Paul Hornung arrived in Green Bay from Notre Dame in 1957 and became a running back (albeit one who threw frequent option passes). Billy Kilmer, one of the last single wing tailbacks in major college football, came to the 49ers from UCLA in '61 and eventually became a quarterback with the Saints and Redskins.

When the single wing died, it was the T formation that initially replaced it, followed by the I formation and the various two-back pro-style offenses. The passing game matured. Rules were altered to allow more frequent substitutions. The single wing became a novelty. Princeton continued running it through the '60s. "It was so different, it gave us an edge," says Cosmo Iacavazzi, a fullback on the 1964 Ivy League championship team, stating a theme that would be echoed much later.

The last outpost of the college single wing was Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where Keith Piper ran it until 1992. Journalists would occasionally pass through Piper's domain and chronicle the antique, as if witnessing living history. One of the last was SI's Rick Telander, to whom Piper said in '82, "The thing that people don't understand about the single wing is that it was never caught up with or overrun. 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."


A cold rain falls intermittently from low clouds on an early November Saturday at Windsor Locks--Suffield High in northern Connecticut. On the muddy field the Housatonic-Wamogo Mountaineers line up unmistakably in Pop Warner's Carlisle formation. The snap goes directly to sophomore left halfback Tanner Brissett, who turns his back to the line of scrimmage (a half-spin, in single wing parlance) and fakes to senior right halfback Will Kennedy as Kennedy runs into the middle of the line, just left of the center. Almost simultaneously, senior wingback Sam Schwartz scoots past as if running a reverse around the left edge. Brissett fakes to him also, then turns to the line of scrimmage and runs off tackle, untouched, 70 yards for a touchdown. You can almost imagine what Michigan's Mad Magicians might have looked like and, by God, maybe Keith Piper had a point.

"The defense can't figure out who has the ball," says Kennedy. "There have been times when I've run straight into the line with the ball and the whole defense is running away from me to tackle somebody who doesn't even have the ball."

The coach at Housatonic-Wamogo is Deron Bayer, 43, a former college player at Western Connecticut State. He was hired as an assistant in 1997 to help coach a program that annually dresses fewer than 35 players, and he promptly logged into his school's fledgling Internet system seeking an offense that might work with such a small squad. "The search engine was Hotbot, that's how long ago it was," says Bayer. His search led him to the single wing and eventually to Bross's initial conclave in 2001, which 11 high school coaches attended. At the conclusion they took a group picture in an unbalanced-right single wing formation straight from the pages of Pop Warner's book. Bayer installed his offense two years ago and, like Darlington, showed his players vintage films. "We watched tapes," says Kennedy, "but you could hear a projector running in the sound."

From the time that Kazmaier left Princeton through the late '90s, the single wing was kept on life support by a small cadre of devotees like Ken Hofer of Menominee High in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which won three state championships, the most recent in 2007; George Rykovich of Manitou Springs High in Colorado, who won two state championships; and Mark Bliss, who has won four state titles at Conway Springs High in Kansas. They had their bibles, most notably the late Ken Keuffel's Winning Single Wing Football and John Aldrich's Single Wing Offense with the Spinning Fullback. But in the last decade the single wing seems to have suddenly found a second life, fueled by Internet message boards on which coaches exchange ideas and tales from the trenches, making neophytes like Bayer feel at home. At the last Wilkes-Barre conclave, in the spring of 2008, there were 138 coaches in attendance. A summer symposium organized by the National Single Wing Coaches' Association that started in '96 with four coaches now annually draws more than 100.

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