RANCHO MIRAGE — The silver-haired coach stood at the big chalkboard on the practice field at Stanford University with his new football team facing him. It was the spring of 1940.
"Now on this play," Clark Shaughnessy said, drawing some quick circles in a strange new formation and plotting lines in red, green and blue chalk, "you boys will score at least a dozen touchdowns this fall." The play was called 43R.
Frankie Albert, destined that day to become the first modern T-formation quarterback in college football, recalls the Stanford players poking each other and exclaiming, "What's he talking about? We didn't make 12 touchdowns with our whole offense under Tiny Thornhill."
In 1939, Stanford had won only one game, a season-ending 14-3 upset of Dartmouth on a sleet-covered field in New York; tied one, 14-14, with UCLA; and scored a total of seven touchdowns in nine games. Claude (Tiny) Thornhill was fired as coach immediately thereafter.
Norm Standlee, who would play fullback in the new offense, had trouble deciphering the multicolored routes Shaughnessy had drawn on the chalkboard and kept interrupting the coach.
"What's wrong, Big Guy?" asked Shaughnessy, who couldn't remember names.
"I'm color-blind, Coach," Standlee replied.
Stanford in 1940 was the first college team to use the T-formation as its basic offense. In the most dramatic turnaround in football, the Indians--as they were known then--swept through nine regular-season games undefeated, and on Jan. 1, 1941, put an exclamation mark on their achievement with a 21-13 victory over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.
Next Tuesday's 50th anniversary of that Stanford victory in Pasadena is a reminder of its impact on college football.
By the spring of 1941, Frank Leahy had introduced the T-formation at Notre Dame and went on to win four national championships before the decade ended. Earl Blaik followed the trend at Army and won two national titles in 1944-45. There is not a major team, college or pro or even high school, that doesn't operate out of a derivative of the T-formation today.
The spirit and soul of Stanford was Frank Albert, whose exploits quickly established the T-quarterback as the most important man on the field, a notion that persists to the present time of Ty Detmer and Joe Montana.
The quarterback supplanted the tailback of the single-wing formation, which had produced such legendary heroes as Red Grange of Illinois and Tom Harmon of Michigan. They were triple-threat players who stood four or five yards behind the center and took a direct snap, the ball in full view of the other team and the entire stadium, before running, passing or kicking.
The T-formation quarterback practices legerdemain. The essence of his trade is deception, masking the intentions of the offense with tricky spins and deft ballhandling. Albert was a little left-hander from Glendale who played only one year on the high school varsity because he weighed 130 pounds. As a sophomore at Stanford, he was a 160-pound single-wing tailback on that miserable 1939 team, although he had a hand in all seven touchdowns scored that season.
The bonding of Shaughnessy and Albert revolutionized football. Frankie was the Artful Dodger to the dour and taciturn Shaughnessy's Fagan. In a story for Esquire in 1943, Shaughnessy wrote: "First of all, there was Albert, a superb ballhandler, a magician with the ball and a gifted field general; wonderfully observing, a great left-handed passer and a great kicker. . . . 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."
The system that Shaughnessy installed at Stanford was remarkably complex for its time. "The T-formation they run now," Albert says, "looks an awful lot like the one we ran 50 years ago, although it's tough to get the blocking assignments watching television."
Not that the T-formation itself was revolutionary. In fact, it goes back almost to the origin of college football. Amos Alonzo Stagg devised the T-formation--a quarterback directly behind the center, three backs abreast several steps behind to form the crossbar of the T--in 1888 at the University of Chicago. Knute Rockne lined up his teams in the T-formation but had them shift to the "Notre Dame box" before the snap.
When a reporter complimented Shaughnessy on his invention of the T-formation in 1940, he grinned and said, "Young man, I appreciate the compliment but must admit I played the T under Doc Williams at Minnesota in 1911. I've just added a few little extras."
Some extras. While coaching at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, Shaughnessy also assisted George Halas with the Chicago Bears, the reigning power in professional football. Working with Ralph Jones, another coach on the Bears' staff, Shaughnessy put a running back in motion before the snap of the ball. Based on the faking of the quarterback, he tinkered with counter plays and quick openers.