single-wing-formation
Author: Ted Seay
Originally Published: July 12, 2004

There have been some excellent articles posted to Direct Snap on why coaches should consider running the single wing offense, and on how best to do so — but what about the origin of the offense itself? As it turns out, there is at least some controversy about who invented the single wing, but there is no doubt whatsoever about why the two rival claimants did so — to attack off-tackle.

In his 1927 text book Football For Coaches & Players, Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner devotes an entire chapter to what he calls “Formation A” — or what we know as the unbalanced-line single wing. (Note: Coach Steve Owen later developed an “A” formation with the New York Giants, about which I hope to write in a future Direct Snap article. Just to confuse things, though, Owen called the Warner single wing his “B” formation.)

Warner on the single wing:

[The Single Wing] probably has been copied more by other coaches than has any other formation ever developed, and it has come to be the most generally used. I have used this formation or variations of it ever since pushing and pulling the runner was prohibited in 1906…When the rules were changed to prevent pushing the runner, there was no more reason for the backs being massed….so it became advisable to put one of the backs in a position to flank a tackle, thus, by making the back in a way a part of the line, giving the line an eight-man front.

In other words, the single wing was created for the sole purpose of double-teaming the defender sitting in or near the off-tackle hole. See the diagram for a standard defense in Warner’s day and the off-tackle play as he diagrammed it in his book.

ts-off-tackle

Of course, this is Warner’s version of the birth of the single wing — and written 21 years after the fact. A rival contender in the Midwest would also lay claim to the title of Father of the single wing, and not without a good case. He was, however, the single most hated coach in college football (at least until the age of John Jenkins at the University of Houston in the late 1980’s), despite — or partially because of — an unprecedented eleven straight undefeated seasons as head coach. At North Dakota Agricultural College in 1906-07, and at the University of Washington from 1908-16, Gil Dobie never lost a game. Just to drive the point home, he then led Cornell to another three straight undefeated seasons — 1921-23 — at a time when the Ivy League still played real football. (In fact, Dobie’s 1921 and 1922 teams were national champions.)

Beyond having a generally miserable disposition, Dobie specifically resented Warner’s claim to be the sole inventor of the single wing offense. He also claimed to have tinkered with his offense in 1906 following the massive rule changes mandated by President Teddy Roosevelt, and to have come up with the idea of a tightly-flanked back just outside the offensive end, for the exact same purpose that Warner had in mind — attacking the off-tackle hole. As Edwin Pope wrote in his 1955 classic Football’s Greatest Coaches:

Dobie was at once the finest precisionist and the toughest coach in history. Through the first quarter of the twentieth century, power football was god, and Dobie was its prophet. He took pleasure in two things: correct execution of the off-tackle play, and his family.

“In that order,” one is tempted to add.

I tend to believe that both Warner and Dobie are correct; that the single wing was a case of parallel evolution, just as decades later a number of coaches, including Lou Little at Columbia and Davey Nelson at Iowa, would experiment with flanking a T-formation halfback to create what we now know as the Wing-T.

Oddly enough, the earliest material I can find that includes coaching contributions from both Warner and Dobie — an October 1916 article in The American Boy magazine called “Great Football Plays by Great Football Coaches” — features a punt formation play sequence by Warner — and a T formation quarterback sweep from Dobie! The mystery continues…

Ted Seay