February 10, 2011
Former Texas A&M and Mississippi State coach Emory Bellard died early this morning of complications from ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. He was 83 years old, and hadn't coached in nearly 20 years. But if his name doesn't quite ring out among the greatest sideline heroes of the twentieth century, his impact as the key innovator and proselytizer of the wishbone offense – and of the triple-option, in general – most certainly does.
Ballard had already picked up on the option as a successful Texas high school coach when he was hired by Darrell Royal to coach the University of Texas' linebackers in 1967. The next year, with Royal beginning to feel a little heat after three straight finishes outside of the final polls, Bellard took over the Longhorn offense, introduced his version of the wishbone – so named, reportedly, because a Houston Chronicle reporter thought the formation looked like the "pulley bone" from a turkey – and rode the scheme to 30 straight wins from 1968-70, including the 1969 national championship. (Much to Joe Paterno's lasting chagrin.)
Bellard assumed the top job at rival Texas A&M in 1972 and eventually took the ailing Aggies to two wins over Texas and four top-20 finishes in seven years before moving on to finish up his head coaching career at Mississippi State in the early eighties. In Starkville, he oversaw the only win over a No. 1 team in MSU history, a 6-3 upset over defending national champion Alabama in 1980 – a full decade after Bear Bryant had installed the wishbone on a visit to Texas in 1970 – that still ranks as the Bulldogs' single greatest victory.
Bellard is notable mainly, though, for the concentric circles that his central innovation inspired over the subsequent three decades. Midwestern and Southern football was dominated by the wishbone and triple-option concepts well into the nineties, by which time Alabama (1973, 1978-79), Nebraska (1970-71, 1994-95, 1997), Oklahoma (1974-75, 1985), Texas (1969), Notre Dame (1988) and Colorado (1990) had deployed them for a combined 14 national championships and five Heisman Trophy winners in the 30 years following their introduction in the college ranks. Auburn running back Bo Jackson also won the Heisman out of a wishbone attack in 1985, and that only scratches the surface.
Eric Crouch's 2001 Heisman win as the point man in Nebraska's vaunted triple-option scheme effectively drew the curtain on the option as a dominant force as offenses began to migrate toward the spread. In its day, though, the wishbone was to the sixties and seventies what the spread is to the turn of the century: Fresh, bizarre, occasionally scorned and lethally effective. When it worked, the combination of design, deception, timing and teamwork coming to precise fruition on the field has never been more fun to watch.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.