Author: Adam Wesoloski & Ted Seay
Originally Published: October 11, 2004

20-30-great-college-coachesInteresting coaching characters were found throughout the college gridiron landscape during college football’s Golden Era of the 1920s and 1930s. There were as many “flavors” of direct snap offenses as there were coaches. Today’s article will touch on five of those men. For the first four coaches I pulled excerpts from the book, Great College Football Coaches of the Twenties and Thirties by Tim Cohane, New Rochelle, N.Y., Arlington House [1973]. The article focusing on Gil Dobie is written by Ted Seay. Enjoy.

Adam Wesoloski

Dick Harlow

“Do It My Way, Dear Boy”


Harlow’s offense at Harvard and before that at Western Maryland was a form of single wing constructed to compensate through timing and deception for the lack of power. He and Carl Snavely, at Cornell and North Carolina, led the way in developing a series of single wing plays with fullback spins, reverses, double reverses, traps, and angle blocking. It was really double wing football from single wing. It got results by keeping the defense unsure an extra split second as to who had the ball and was heading where.

Howard Harding Jones

The Thunder Maker

howard-jonesOffensively, Jones used an unbalanced line with the two guards lining up shoulder to shoulder on the strong side. The guard nearest the center pulled out to run interference. The objective of Jones on his end sweeps and off-tackle thrusts was to get three blockers ahead of the runner at the point of play impact, and nobody ever succeeded any better, if as well.

The tailback or the fullback did all the ball carrying except on reverses. There was a single reverse in which the left end, shifting back into a wingback position, took the ball. On the double reverse, he faked to take the ball and it was handed to the blocking back moving in the opposite direction…

…”More than 60 percent of our total practice time,” said Joe Shell, 1939 captain, “was involved with purely fundamental blocking and tackling.”

Robert Neyland

The Gridiron Brigadier

major-neylandOffensively, Neyland used a single wing balanced line that fused part of the Notre Dame box and some of Gil Dobie’s off-tackle mechanics. On old No. 10, Tennessee’s off-tackle play, the end and the tackle teamed on the tackle, the fullback and the quarterback teamed on the end, and the two guards pulled to lead the play. Tennessee’s toughest-to-defend-against play, as with other formations was the option run or pass by the tailback, depending on the commitment made by the defensive left halfback…

…”I was not wedded to the single wing as closely as some thought,” he mused. “I used it because we could get quicker power at tackle.”

Jock Sutherland

Overland Man

jock-sutherland…In a era when the punt on third down or earlier deep in one’s own territory was dominant, Pitt kicked only on fourth down, regardless of field position, because Jock wanted to keep the ball as long as possible. Naturally, with that running game. He was unorthodox also in having his center not snap the ball in spiral but flip it end over end. “I don’t have the time to teach the spiral,” he claimed. Actually, he felt the spiral snap was more likely to be fumbled, and that it put needless pressure on his center.

Gil Dobie

gil-dobieThis is one of the two men (along with Warner, of course) who has a plausible claim to inventing the single wing.

In his nine seasons at Washington, Gil Dobie never lost a game! He compiled a ridiculous record of 58-0-3, which transpired into a streak of 63 consecutive games without a defeat. This is an NCAA record which still stands.

He was also a character of legendary proportions. He was the most gruff and terse human being you’d ever meet. He was despised by those on the upper campus, often pelted by peanuts thrown by Washington’s own fans, and once had to be separated from a near fist fight with the mayor of Seattle.

His first practice was remembered by a player: “No smile, no handshakes, no slap on the back –- nothing but a pair of eyes peering coldly out of a dark face that was hidden partially by a slouch hat drawn loosely over a head of mussed black hair. He began to unfold himself from a lounging position. He seemed to mount into sections until his six feet and more of black overcoat had assumed an upright position. Those eyes were still working on us…”

In Dobie’s nine years with the Purple and Gold, his teams outscored opponents 1,930 to 118, and recorded 26 shutouts. They threw the ball only a half-dozen times a game, but would instead focus on smash runs. Dobie demanded precision, and would often spend an entire practice devoted to running the same play over and over again, until choreographed into perfection.

Among his noted players was quarterback Willie Coyle, a four-year starter. Coyle never lost a game, and yet in 1974 as an old man recalled the words Dobie had for him his senior year. The “encouragement” came at the end of a Friday night strategy meeting, in a tiny room filled with smoke and his gruff coach peering across at him with his trademark tombstone glare. “Coyle, you’re a rotten quarterback and if I didn’t have so many cripples you’d be sitting on the bench. You’ve played your last two games like a man devoid of brains.”

Coyle’s career record as a starter was 26-0-1.

My personal favorite Dobie story concerns a tackle who broke training in public — eating fudge at a sorority shindig. Word got back to Dobie, who preceded to run this kid into the ground the next day at practice, until he was heaving chocolate chunks. Dobie roared at him, “You WILL break training, you fudge-eating %##$!!!”

Style — you’re either born with it, or you aren’t…

Ted Seay