Originally Published: September 6, 2012
Republished with permission from Harold Bechard, Editor, VYPE Central Kansas. Photos credit: Jeff Tuttle/VYPE Central Kansas
Bliss Sold Cardinals on Offense in 1997
By Bob Lutz
VYPE Central Kansas
CONWAY SPRINGS – Mark Bliss, bless his heart, has become somewhat of a coaching vagabond.
He is, for the moment, the football coach at Ozark (Mo.) High, but that could change at any moment. His 15-year head coaching career has included stops in Los Animas, Calif., Naples, Fla., Odessa, Mo., Edwardsville, Ill., Derby and, for four of the best seasons imaginable, Conway Springs.
It was while at Conway that Bliss, an innovative sort who like many football coaches couldn’t live without a pencil and a load of paper napkins, established himself as a mastermind of the single-wing offense, which you have to see to really understand and then probably will mostly just scratch your head.
Bliss’s teams were 81-4 in seven seasons at Conway Springs (1997-2003) and the Cardinals won four Class 3A state championships, their first four in history.
Bliss hit Conway Springs like a meteor, then was gone to Derby, where he didn’t have close to the same kind of success. But his legacy in Conway is still strong. The Cardinals have used the single wing, a hybrid offense designed to create deception and reliant on speed and precision, ever since.
Matt Biehler, the third head coach at Conway Springs since Bliss’s departure, is as dedicated to the single wing as a coach could be.
“It’s our identity,’’ said Biehler, who was an assistant for the Cardinals before taking over from Leland George as head coach in 2009. “The town has really bought into this and the town loves it.’’
Biehler was a defensive player during his playing days and was always a defensive coach. He still runs the Conway Springs defense, but has a proud eye on the offense, which has churned out one big play after another for 15 seasons now.
In those 15 years, Conway Springs won seven state championships and had a 62-game winning streak from 2001-05. You couldn’t pry the single wing out of the grasp of the Conway Springs coaches and players with a tire iron. And if you tried, you’d have to go through the Pauly brothers – all eight of them – the last of which, Ryan, will be a senior this season.
“I learned about the single-wing offense from my brothers ever since I was little,’’ Ryan Pauly said. “It’s what everyone around here knows.’’
The players love it because there’s never a dull moment. The football is snapped to either the quarterback – who really isn’t a quarterback in a traditional sense – or the fullback. From there, it’s anybody’s guess as to where it goes. Linemen pull and block while the players in the backfield are playing “Keystone Cops,” as often-helpless defenders do everything but throw their hands up and run home to their parents.
“I loved the single wing when I was here and I loved coming back from college to watch these guys do the same thing we did,’’ said Ryan’s brother, Austin Pauly, a 2010 Conway Springs graduate and former Cardinals quarterback who is studying veterinary medicine at Kansas State. “The best thing is knowing the ball could go to four different backs and every once in a while I would even throw the football.’’
Passes are rare in the single wing, but only because there’s no need. When the average rushing play gains eight or nine yards, why throw?
“Last year in the playoffs, we threw it seven times – once to ourselves, twice to our opponents and the rest were incomplete,” Biehler said. “So, we decided just to run the ball.’’
At last year’s Class 3A championship game in Hutchinson, Conway Springs rolled up 510 rushing yards in beating Silver Lake, 49-7. It’s the same Silver Lake team that beat the Cardinals in the 2010 championship game and has won three state titles of its own since 1997.
But three isn’t seven, the number of titles Conway Springs has won in that span. There are just a handful of teams that have been able to compete with the Cardinals over the past decade and a half. One of them is fellow Central Plains League member and rival Garden Plain, which handed Conway its only loss of the 2011 season, but was beaten by the Cardinals in the playoffs.
New Owls head coach Brad McCormick, an assistant the past seven years, knows all too well what it’s like to play Conway Springs and its single wing.
“Early on, when I first got here, there were some sleepless nights,’’ McCormick said. “But now I feel like we pretty much know their offensive playbook, even though they always throw in some twists. We usually play them twice a year, in league and the playoffs, so our kids know their offense. It usually just comes down to who has the better athletes up front and in the backfield.’’
As successful as the single-wing has been for Conway Springs, it’s surprising not many other teams dip their toe into the single-wing pool.
In the 16 years the Cardinals have been running the offense, Biehler said, Conway has never met an opponent who also used the single wing. And that covers 186 games since 1997, only 17 of which have been losses.
Conway Springs offensive coordinator Brent Martens was a traditional quarterback at Haven during the mid- to late-1990s. He lined up under center and took a three-step drop to pass the football.
“I think it was my sophomore year that we played Pratt and they had put in some single wing stuff the week before we played,’’ Martens said. “So, we did our best to prepare, but they ran it all over us. That was my first introduction to the single wing, but then it just kind of left my brain.’’
It wasn’t until Martens started coaching at Conway Springs in 2001 that he was re-introduced to the single wing.
Asked to describe the offense in 25 words or less, Martens’ eyes rolled into the back of his head. But he gave it a shot.
“Direct snap, deceptive,’’ he said. “What I’ve done with it is to introduce some multiple formations. There was always that, but I’ve taken it to more of an extreme.’’
There are games, Martens said, when Conway will run 15 to 20 plays in a row with a different formation. The bottom line of a single wing, though, is its intent to hide the football from opposing defenses long enough for the ball carrier to run into the open field.
This season, those defensive coordinators trying to devise a way to slow down the Cardinals’ offense will have to deal with a beast.
His name is Tanner Wood and he’s 6-foot-5 and close to 240 pounds. Wood, headed to Kansas State to play, he hopes, either middle linebacker or defensive end, is slated to be Conway’s fullback. He has the speed and nimble feet required to be a single-wing back, but he has the bonus of tremendous size.
The Cardinals lost backs Cory Misak and Brian Doffing, who combined to rush for 388 yards on 45 carries in the 3A title game last season, to graduation. Biehler is also concerned about the loss of all but two starting offensive linemen. But having Wood back helps a lot.
“I’m really looking forward to this season and especially to playing offense,” Wood said. “I really like the single-wing because it’s a lot of moving around and no one ever knows where the ball is.’’
Wood said it’s sometimes hard for the Conway Springs players to keep a straight face as they approach the line of scrimmage to run a play because they know how much the deception will confuse the defense.
“We have hundreds of different plays,’’ Wood said. “Really, a lot of them are variations of the same plays but there are so many different tag words we use.’’
There was a time, upon Bliss’s arrival in Conway Springs, when the single-wing made heads spin all over town. Nobody was sure exactly what was going on as Bliss brought with him an old offense whose time, it was presumed, had come and gone.
But Bliss and a few other coaches have kept the single-win alive. And it has become second nature now in Conway Springs, which uses the single-wing as effectively as any high school in the country.
Heads still spin because of the Cardinals’ single wing, all right, but they all belong to the defensive players trying to stop it.