Ara Parseghian: Notre Dame Football In 1973

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Ara Parseghian, Head Coach, University of Notre Dame

My topic is Notre Dame Football in 1973, and I will discuss some of the trends and some of the things that we did during the past Fall. The changes we made were initiated as a result of what had happened the previous year. I have lectured at a number of other clinics and on many occasions have expressed the philosophy that we believe in. This card contains the four basics that we have in coaching that we believe in. They are very simple, very understandable, and what percentage you assign each one of course varies.

Ara Parseghian’s Four Basics In Coaching

1. PERSONNEL – (Who) You Teach Physical Abilities

A. This is a fixed factor.

B. Recognize their abilities.

C. Place them properly – personnel alignment.

D. Techniques to improve.

2. COACHING – (How) You Teach

A. The art of inspiring learning.

B. Transfer of information.

C. Imparting of knowledge.

3. STRATEGY – (What) You Teach Based on Your Squad’s Physical Abilities and Your Philosophy of the Game

A. Offense.

B. Defense.

C. Kicking Game.

4. MORALE – This Is the Basic Factor That Controls (Who) (How) (What)


1. Rate potential over performance.

2. Develop personality conflicts – distorts and clouds evaluation.

3. Be awed by size – or speed.

4. Allow one mistake to influence your judgment.

We talk about personnel, we talk about coaching, we talk about strategy, we talk about morale. I think each of these categories is very important as you approach the coaching profession and assemble a philosophy.

Normally speaking, I have felt that over the years that strategy has been to a certain degree overrated. I shouldn’t say overrated, but more emphasis is placed on the strategical aspects of the game than we really should. Yet as I look back in retrospect at our 1973 season, I find the areas where we made the biggest changes were in the strategical areas. This came as a surprise to me as I started to review our ’73 season and evaluate some of the trends that we adopted that were successful for us.

Obviously that first basic, personnel, is important and the coaching method and morale are just as important; but I am going to talk to you about some offensive and defensive strategy that we employed during the year that we think was helpful to us. I heard a story that sort of helped us during the year relative to the morale and how to handle your squad. We spent endless hours during the course of our pre-spring meetings as well as spring practice and the discussion was reinitiated during the Fall as we started our fall meetings.

I heard a story that sort of gave us the opportunity to handle and have both ends of the world in the sense of handling the circumstances. We spent these discussions on what line we should take with our squad. As you know, we’ve had this campus revolution over the last four or five years which I think is gradually dying out – the rebellious type of individual and problems in handling people because the coaching profession is handling personnel. In any event, the question was, what position should we take as coaches? Should we take the militaristic view, should we take the Marine view, the hard-nose, tough approach, or should we take the soft, easy kid glove type of approach? We discussed this endlessly because of the challenge and importance. We have all types of things today as coaches that we didn’t have ten years ago. We moved through our society with the drug problem, the rebellious attitude, the “tell me why” attitude – all these things took place in the past two or three years.

In any event, I heard a story that gave me an opportunity to handle the situation both ways. It deals with a blind man with a seeing eye dog trying to lead him across this very busy inter section. The dog starts across this very busy intersection against the light, and the cars are squealing, putting on their brakes, blowing their horns – and a guy on the opposite side of the street is watching all of this activity and he is holding his breath. He thinks this blind man is not going to get across this street because he’s going against the light. And by some miracle this dog and this blind man get across to the other side of the street. And this guy breathes a sigh of relief and says, “Good Lord, I don’t know how the hell he got across there, but he did.” About that time this blind man reaches in his coat pocket, takes out a cookie, and gives the cookie to the dog. And this man who observed this crossing says, “What are you doing? That dog almost got you killed!” The blind man says, “Yes, yes, I know.” The observer says, “What the hell are you giving him a cookie for?” The blind man said to him, “Well I am giving him a cookie so I can find out where his head is so I can kick him in the ass!” So we ordered a truckload of cookies and that was the method we used to handle our 1973 squad.

Adversity Provides Spur

Seriously, I want to talk to you about some of the things that happened to us a year ago. At the conclusion of the 1972 year, we were about as depressed as we could be; we had just come off two very disappointing losses uncharacteristic of our normal defensive and offensive success. We had had a great deal of difficulty defensively and had yielded many points. Our offense had moved the ball fairly effectively up until the Orange Bowl game and of course the result was a very difficult Winter, Spring, and Summer, waiting for the next season. But it reminded me of an old adage that I think is very appropriate at this time. “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents that under prosperous circumstances would have remained dormant.” I say that again for you because it is so true. “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents that under prosperous circumstances would have remained dormant.” Or you might say in our case,  “Talents will be elicited as a result of adversity.” And we had faced adversity. And I think that when you face that, if you’re any kind of competitor you become very self examining of what you have done previously and what needs to be done to meet the coming challenges.

It isn’t that we had not continued with the current trends – in a sense we thought we had – but we had finished the season rather poorly. And again I go through four basics – personnel, strategy, coaching, and morale and in the personnel end of it, I want to say to you there is nobody – there are no miracle men in this world of ours. You have to have people and if you don’t have people, you’re going to have a great deal of difficulty.

You can be the greatest football coach in the world, you can be abreast of all trends, you can have a great strategical mind, you can be a great motivator, but you have to have somebody to work with. We were most fortunate this year in hitting the areas that we needed the most help in, particularly defensively. We played a freshman defensive end, we played a freshman strong safety and the guy who ran the kickoff return for us in the Alabama game is a freshman so you can see the contributions that the freshmen made to our program during the season.

We have no hesitation to play a good football player and we had two or three freshmen – we had more than that who actually helped us. But in any event, I get back to the strategical end of it. We had people. We didn’t change necessarily our coaching philosophy per se, but strategically we made some changes that I think were very helpful to us.

Changing Cycles

I have been coaching now for about 23 years and over this period of time I have observed that a continuous cycle occurs in the strategical approach to the game. I go back to the early ’50s when I first became a head football coach at Miami University and during those days it was Bud Wilkinson executing the split-T offense about as efficiently as you could ever want to see. As you well know, Don Farout had developed that system, had utilized it with great success, and Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma perfected it. I was a kid coach coming up and I admired the films that we would write for and watch the execution of the Oklahoma football teams.

Then from there we moved into the belly series of which Bobby Dodd and Frank Broyles, who was coaching at Georgia Tech at that time, developed very effectively with a ride series. These were full-flow series where the defensive philosophy necessitated great pursuit to the ball because once the action started, the option continued in one direction. The philosophy of the split-T and the belly-T were inside fakes and then on down the line with the outside option. The principle was to execute it better and run it faster than you could defend it, so all the defensive philosophies became pursue – run, go – go to the area because it was a full flow offense.

Then the wing-T came into popularity. Forest Evasveski at Iowa and Dave Nelson, who was coaching at Delaware at the time, utilized the wing-T very effectively and this was contrary to the full flow. You couldn’t go chasing off with this fast pursuit that you could in the split-T, or the belly-T, because there was criss-cross action. There were freezing actions. There was a wing to elongate the front and it was a beautiful misdirection counteraction type of alignment, and the pulling guards, which are not used in the split or belly game, gave a different look to the opponents.

From there we moved into the next area which was the pro-set, which necessitated a different philosophy – the drop back pass, the expansion of the defense, the deployment of wide people to reduce the defensive secondary, the ability to learn how to read defenses, to hit seams, to screen, to draw, and it was an effective offense. We went through that era and cycle. The next thing that came was the John McKay I formation which utilized the I backs with more power to the attack – the blast series, the tailback off tackle, and the good run action passes and still employing the wide flanker and the split end to deploy the defense. The defenses met these challenges as they moved into more sophisticated pass coverages. Those of you who heard Jerry Claiborne this morning heard him talk about all the variations and coverages.

Today the game of football has progressed immensely; it’s like anything else that we have. We’re driving better cars, have better homes, the facilities that we have are a lot better, and I go back to this energy crisis to draw the parallel between adversity. We take things for granted during a period of prosperous times. You know, we just jump in the car and go where we want to go – we need gas, we just pull into the gas station. All of a sudden, we have an energy crisis and everybody has to tighten up their belts; it’s not quite as easy; there’s no gas in the gas station. We’re looking down the road three or four months, and it may be a hell of a problem. And it’s the same way with the adversity that we faced in our coaching coming off of two disappointing losses. Maybe we had taken some things for granted, and I think sometimes to get your tail knocked off can be helpful to you – not too often, let me tell you that. But you can learn quite a bit from a loss. The energy crisis will stimulate new ideas and energy sources.

Then from the I formation came the advent of the wishbone, and I shouldn’t say the wishbone because that’s a formation. Darrell Royal at Texas ran up a 30-game win streak. The triple option which can be utilized from the Houston veer as Bill Yeoman or as Royal popularizing the triple option from the wishbone look. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most revolutionary things that I have seen since I’ve been coaching because the philosophy is tremendous. When you look at it, there is virtually no way to stop the attack because you’re playing defensively with 10 men against 11. You’re really outnumbered. You have to sell yourself that it’s the only offense that you’re going to run and execute it properly.

But philosophically and strategically, to me that particular option, because of the nature of it – the triple option is one of the best things that you can do. I think it’s a very exciting offensive theory and it’s very challenging to the defensive coaches of America. But again it goes back to full flow, pursue, take off because the misdirections off of the wishbone formation are not nearly as effective or deceptive as when you have people deployed in the wing position. We went through this sequence of cycles and as I looked at the damn thing – I observed everybody teaching the old basic philosophies of defense – run like hell, pursue, react, go to the ball because that ball’s going in one direction. Defensive coaches were not concerned with misdirections. They knew the ball was going in one direction.

Jumping a Cycle

After watching the changing cycles in offense I decided two years ago – because everybody was adopting the wishbone and the Houston veer – that we would jump a cycle. Let me explain one thing – the triple option certainly hasn’t gone down the drain. For that matter, great offensive teams last year, as you look at the NCAA stats, are Alabama, UCLA, Texas, and Houston. The people who are running this formation are the leading rushing yardage getters offensively. And there’s a reason for it – the reason, I believe, is because we are still being taxed defensively; but the nature of defenses being used are full flow and vulnerable to misdirection. I decided if I could, to jump a cycle, or, better said, get a jump on a cycle. So we decided that the best misdirection offense is the wing-T and people hadn’t seen it for a while. We decided to go the wing, and the team that continued to run it was the University of Delaware with immense success, and Tubby Raymond, in my mind, has done a great job with it.

We spent considerable time with Tubby in discussing the wing-T because when you want to learn something, you go to a specialist in the field. Tubby was very helpful; I think he’s done a great job of continuing to update the wing-T with all the modern trends that we’ve had in the cycles I’ve described, so that two years ago we adopted this offensive philosophy. We decided to go to the wing-T and we went to the people who were running the wing-T, the people who had continued to run it for the last 18 years, so they knew more about it than anybody else.

The first year that we were involved with it we made a lot of yardage, but made some mistakes. We moved the ball effectively, but our defense was not up to the standards we would like to have, and I’ll talk to you about our defensive philosophy and the changes that we made in a minute or two when I get through the offensive changes. In any event, we decided to jump that cycle and go to the wing-T. I’m glad that we did because it was very helpful to us. And I want to again say that Tubby Raymond at the University of Delaware was very helpful. The more we worked with it, the more we learned about it, the more effective we became with it, and I think that it’s an attack that can put immense pressure on you defensively.

Now, one of the advantages in running this type of attack and being able to execute it with some degree of efficiency is that you as a defensive coach are going to have difficulty in preparing for this attack in just one week. You really have, in reality, about three days to get ready for it. In watching college football this past fall, I saw mirrored teams. I’d watch a game on television and both teams would be running the I formation, both teams running the same damn offense, and it looks like a mirrored game and almost like a scrimmage. These same teams have seen these attacks the whole spring; they’ve seen these attacks the whole damn fall, and when they go against it, there’s nothing new for them to look at. It’s a matter of lining up – I’ve seen this before, I know how to handle it. I see when the blast is coming. I see all the things because that’s all we’ve done al I spring – we’ve worked on it. So that, in our situation with the wing-T, you haven’t seen it and haven’t worked on it. Therefore, in a period of a week it’s very difficult for you to get ready.

The flexibility of the wing allows you to incorporate anything that is being used as a current trend, in my opinion. If you want to run the triple option from it, there’s no problem. If you want to run any kind of option, if you want to run any kind of power, I think that you can do it. And as I say the disadvantage in the mirrored game is that you are better able to defend something that you’re more familiar with. Now, we think in this wing-T there is confusion caused by short quick motion. If you haven’t seen motion, then I can change the structure of the strength of my attack by making it with quick, short motion or making it by moving my backs and stemming my backs.

The other thing that we think is an advantage is the four-back aspect. We don’t have a two-back attack. We have a four-back attack as evidenced by the statistics at the conclusion of the year after 11 ball games – we don’t have a 1,000-yard getter, but we’ve got four guys with 600 to 700 yards, so you don’t know who the hell of the four backs is going to have that ball. Any one of those four backs may have the ball, and as a result, the nature of our attack is based on the abilities of our quarterback – like the wishbone, we want a running quarterback if we can get him. He doesn’t have to be a super passer, just good enough to keep you honest.

We think there is confusion caused by movement of the backs, changing the characteristic and strength of the formation, and there is also a change when a short motion occurs. We are also able to retain the basic philosophy that we had adopted in previous years, that of being a multiple offensive football team. The wing or the double wing, which we feature at the tail end of the year, also allows always – and I know of no case where we were not able to outflank a defensive man and expand the defensive front.

When you look at this you really wind up in virtually any formation you can diagram. You’ve got seven offensive men on the line to begin with. Your fullback is in the middle and we kept him there all the time. If you put a wing here, you’ve expanded the front. If you put a double wing, you’ve expanded the front, so in reality I have nine men here. There is no play that I can’t run or keep you honest with because I can run the fullback on either side. I can run him with the wishbone look – I can run him off tackle and I can run him to the outside if I so desire – so that keeps you honest. I’ve got this situation where I can run this fullback in any area.

Diagram From Ara Parseghian

When we create these defensive adjustments, I’m doing what I want done defensively. I’m making you think defensively. I’m taking the positiveness of your defensive team coming up and lining up in one defense and saying okay, try to beat me, then you must be better man for man. In this way I continually create defensive thinking. I continually make your defense adjust to the changing strengths. The nature of this, in which Delaware does a great job, is to give you one look which looks like the Slot I, and by merely moving one man create a formation change. I’ve changed the complete structure of this formation strength going to a strong side here and yet I was a slot in this direction.

Diagram From Ara Parseghian Diagram From Ara Parseghian Diagram From Ara Parseghian

Now I can reverse the procedure by moving him up and moving him back and I’ve changed it again. And so, with short motion and with the moving of the backs by stemming and also moving the ends back and forth, I think we can put pressure on the defense. With a running quarterback that adds the dimension to the attack, we personally feel this alignment puts an awful lot of taxation on the defense. If nothing more, I have made you as a defensive coach tell your kids, when he goes in short motion or when he moves from here to there and when he moves from here to there, you have to do some defensive thinking and you have to coach your team to make adjustments. While those kids are trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing, you’re on the move. It doesn’t confuse us, but I do think that it creates some defensive thinking on the part of your opponent.

So we feel that we jumped a cycle. If teams move to this trend, then I believe that we will jump again like we did previously. I would recommend basically to strive for uniqueness if you possibly can, individuality, go against the popular trend if you can, make it difficult for your opponents to prepare for you in a week. Everybody falls into a trend and in the process of falling into a trend I honestly believe you can become easier to defend, and I would strive for an individual look if I possibly could – to jump a cycle ahead or do something that’s different.

I think that Ben Schwartzwalder, even though this past year is an exception, has been very successful over the years as a result of staying with his unbalanced line – making it difficult because teams didn’t look at it that often. He stayed with what he thought would be difficult for you to defend, and it is difficult because you haven’t looked at it. I think the same is true of the wing-T if you haven’t looked at it. If you have not looked at it, worked on it, and know all the strengths and weaknesses of it, and have been going up against straight up blocking or power blocking and all of a sudden a team is pulling a lot of guards or getting a lot of misdirection looks, it’s damn tough to get ready in a week. So, I would suggest even though we come to clinics and listen to people talk about current trends, strive to be different.

I’m not trying to sell you this particular offense because I think we jumped a cycle. But what I think Tubby Raymond was able to do with his wing-T is continue to update it, include the popular trends that were being used, and nobody else was using it – that was an advantage. As a result, he profited I think from being one of the few people who continued to stay with this particular attack so when you go against it, you’re not nearly as well prepared as you might be.

This was the offensive approach that we took and it was the one strategical change that we made offensively. We did this two years ago and I’d like to think that it paid some handsome dividends during the course of the 1973 season. Two reasons – we got an awful lot of help from Tubby Raymond, and our second year of involvement with this particular set made us much more knowledgeable and much better in approaching a game plan simple enough to take advantage of our opponents’ defenses.

Changes in Defense

The next thing that I’m going to talk about strategically is the nature of what we did defensively which was a change from what we normally do. Historically for the last, I would say, fifteen years we were involved with even defenses. We stayed with the even spacing because I felt comfortable with it when I was at Northwestern. At Notre Dame we used the even look. We included the split six, which was very successful for us in the early years and then as a result of open formations putting additional pressure on the split look, without that fourth defensive secondary back, the alignment was vulnerable to the pass.

It’s very difficult to stay in the four down linemen and four linebackers and three deep against a good passing team. It forces one of the linebackers to be pitted against a hell of a fast halfback and you can be at a disadvantage from that standpoint. So as a result of our disappointing losses the last two ball games against the University of Southern California and the University of Nebraska – again this adversity necessitated a review of our total defensive philosophy. We went back and said what the hell are we doing wrong – why were we in such a bad position to have so many points scored against us?

In reviewing it, we found we had played some damn good football teams – Southern California was the national champion undefeated a year ago and had a great football team. Nebraska, in my opinion, was a great football team and the combination of us being in a rebuilding process from the standpoint of our defensive unit also added to it; but again we became very self examining. Why and what could we do about it?

Contrary to what our normal philosophy had been – an even defensive team – we reviewed all aspects of it. We studied film, we had clinic discussions, and we also took into consideration the nature of our opponents’ offensive sets and plays and we determined that we needed more flexibility. It had to be more flexible because of the attacks we would be meeting, so we decided to adopt the multiple defensive theory and with no reason to believe that we would be playing any wishbone teams. Strange as it may seem, the previous year we had four consecutive games against wishbone teams. From the middle of the 1972 season we didn’t see another wishbone team. The entire 1973 schedule did not carry a wishbone team or a triple-option team per se. Teams employed or incorporated within their slot I – some option football, but total dedication to that philosophy on our entire schedule was not there, so there was no reason to believe, as we started the 1973 season, that we could anticipate that we were going to face a wishbone team in a bowl game.

During the Spring and pre-season we really concentrated on the things we thought that we would be meeting. So we adopted beyond the even defense, which we had used for years, the variations. We took on the odd defense – we renewed our split look, and we also took on the Eagle alignment with the coverages that went with them. We went from basically an even defensive team to the multiple theory and it was very successful for us. And yet, as I got to thinking about it, the decision, the adoption of the multiple system of defenses contributed, without question, to our Sugar Bowl success because, you see, we had not anticipated playing a wishbone team because we had looked at our schedule and we knew who the coaches were – we knew what offenses we would be playing against.

Adapting for Bowl Game

I don’t want to bore you with all the details preparing for a bowl game. We had enough of our problems from the standpoint of working in our own environment, the housing, the transportation problems, the eating problem. There’s just a multitude of things that go with preparing a team for a bowl game. But the fact that we had adopted this multiple philosophy really helped us because we were able to make adjustments.

I’ll tell you this, I called all the coaches that had either played wishbone teams or that I felt were knowledgeable about the wishbone because we had not faced it. I called Darrell Royal and talked with him about his wishbone. I talked with Joe Paterno, who had played Oklahoma the year before. I talked with John McKay, who had just finished playing UCLA. I talked to Charlie McClendon, who had played the Alabama team. Just to get an insight and an idea from all of these various coaches that have faced the wishbone – just to see what their thoughts were because after I had reviewed films of the Alabama game, I was convinced that this was one of the finest executing teams that I had seen and one of the best blocking teams, particularly their backs.

I had a great respect for Alabama and I knew that we were going to have a problem because we were going to have to depart from the basic defenses and coverages we had used during the regular season – the alignments would be there, but the coverages would have to change because of the nature of that triple-option philosophy. You’re going with eleven men  – eleven men offensively against ten men defensively anyway you want to add it up. And by God, if you want to get up and “X” and “O” it, there’s no damn way to stop it with paper and pencil.

There are realistic ways because you’re working with time and area and reactions and quickness and people. A couple of things that I feel about the triple option defensively because we’re just coming off preparing for the Alabama team and you can’t help but be impressed with the way they do things. First of all, I believe as a defensive coach that a wishbone team is going to tear you to shreds if you stay in one basic defense and coverage the entire time. If you think that you can get into one coverage and one alignment, and say this is what we’re going to do, I think their execution is going to destroy you if it is an equal match in personnel because they’re playing with eleven against your ten.

I think, too, that you must change your defensive alignments and responsibilities during the course of the game. I also think that you must have a defense that creates a bad play in their three-down series. You’ve got to create a bad play in one of those three downs. You must force them to throw the football more than they want to because you’ve got to destroy the continuity of that attack. They’ll take that ball and they’ll run that damn thing.

I watched some of Darrell Royal’s films and if you don’t stop [Roosevelt] Leaks on the inside, he will give Leaks that ball 18 times and run the ball into the end zone. If you don’t stop that, he will continue to do that until you take that away from him. Then he will go on to the next thing, and they’re able to read it as they go down the line. You’ve got to give them a bad play and you’ve got to somehow destroy the continuity of that attack. In the process you’ve got to take some risks, obviously.

Now also in the process of these defensive philosophies you must not confuse your own players – and that is not easily done because you are going to find your kids jumping on the wrong guys as they come down the line. So you can’t give them multiple assignments, but we did use multiple alignments. I reviewed our defensive game plan and I suppose we went in with a much broader plan against Alabama because we had not played a wishbone team. We felt that we would have to go into the game and probe to find the things which create the most problems for them. We went in with seven different alignments. And when I say seven different alignments, maybe the interior look would be a little bit different, the exterior look would be a little bit different, or the total defense would look a little different. We also went into it with multiple coverages; we weren’t sure exactly what would be most effective against them and so we continued to probe.

Now the very nature of that attack, the wishbone, is that they look at you, and the more they look at you the better they are going to execute, the more they know how you’re covering their quarterback – how you’re covering the passes – how you’re covering the fullback, which defender is on the fullback or the trailing halfback, and the more they look at that the more they’re going to tear you to shreds. That is why I think you have to continue to change. I don’t think that you can go into the ball game with one damn defense and expect it to hold up, so we went in with seven different alignments.

Now, as I say, the fact that we employed the multiple philosophy going into the ball game enabled us to make these adjustments much easier than we would have had we said, “Hey, we gotta change our defense in this ball game” – something totally strange to us. There was nothing that we put in that they hadn’t been exposed to at one time or another from these multiple sets with the exception of one defense, and really, it only included the three interior men so it wasn’t anything that significant. We allowed our football team to have one stunt. We only had one stunt because we wanted to keep them as effective in handling their alignment as we could without making mistakes. We allowed one stunt and it was this.

Diagram From Ara Parseghian

If the backer happened to be in this position we never allowed the tackle to use this stunt, only the end. When we wanted this end to jump on that quarterback and this guy to cushion off for the two man, in our terminology, this is the one man, the fullback.

Diagram From Ara Parseghian

The quarterback is known as the two man and the trailing halfback is the three man so that when we wanted him to jump on that quarterback, jump on him hard, or close to the fullback that was the only game we permitted and only to the split-end side. That was the only stunt that we worked on because we felt that there were times when we would want him to jump in there and put the heat on the quarterback.

The rest of the defenses were totally coordinated without change – without change of assignment regardless of what the alignment was. It was totally coordinated so that when the defensive team heard that one word that ignited the defense they knew immediately who had one, two, and three – there was no change. There was no formation that would change it, there was no action that would change it. They knew exactly what their coverage was. We drilled that, and, as a result, we got a minimum amount of errors. We also went into the game with three risk defenses, or blitzes. Two from an even look and one from an odd look so that if we felt that we got to the stage where there was nothing that was going to work because they were executing so well as they did in the second period – and they just did a hell of a job. I’ve looked at the films of it; they just blocked our tails off in the second quarter and they did a great job to the tight end side.

We had three risk defenses, or blitzes, where we were willing to go ahead and sacrifice some pass coverage to jump on them and shut down or try to break down the continuity of the attack which I think you have to do. And we would hope to force them to the air if we could.

Alabama threw the ball 15 times in the ball game, which is about double what their normal average had been. They may have wanted to pass more, but I think it breaks the continuity of the total possession attack, which the triple option gives you. All of our defenses were pre-determined; there was no exchange of responsibilities. Whoever had the fullback, whoever had the quarterback, whoever had the tailback. Now we had enough variation to create confusion for the quarterback who is responsible for split second decisions. In the alignments, we tried to set it up in such a way that the quarterback, who incidentally is well trained, was confronted with a number of things.

Diagram From Ara Parseghian

If there was an end here – there might have been a rover here and a halfback there and possibly another man here. We had the situation where this man might take two or he might take three. This man might take three or he might take two. This man might take two or he might take three. So that the angles that they approached on whether they blocked loaded or regular, they had to guess right because the man taking the one, two, or three man varied. And we tried to make the looks at these points as similar as we possibly could, but once they heard the igniting word of the defense they knew immediately and there would be no change in that regardless of what Alabama did.

The only latitude that they had is the one game that I discussed earlier to the split end side. Other than that, when the defense was called that’s the way they’re going to play it. I found that we had a minimum of error as a result of that and, incidentally, we also had the false key for the defender responsible for the fullback.

Diagram From Ara Parseghian

Diagram From Ara Parseghian

When I talk about false key – if they’re reading coming down the line and we had a backer assigned to your fullback, if the offensive tackle was doubling down or going through to wall off any backer in pursuit, which incidentally I think Alabama does as good a job as anybody I’ve seen. The backer would false key – he knows that he is assigned to their fullback, but we would make a move to fake the reading quarterback. If we wanted to encourage the quarterback to give the ball to the fullback, we worked on a drill. If the offensive tackle doubled inside or walled off – the linebacker on the left side steps upfield with his outside foot, like he’s going for the quarterback, and keeps all the weight on the outside foot. He wanted to give the appearance that he was assigned to the quarterback, thus encouraging the quarterback to give the ball to the fullback. As the fullback received the ball the linebacker pushed off his left foot back inside and tackled the fullback. And when the linebacker had the quarterback he would reverse the false key principle; he’d sit right in there and if the tackle walled off and raked through to pick off somebody, he would step inside encouraging the quarterback to keep the ball. He’d step inside like he was taking the fullback, keep the weight on his inside foot, sit right in here and then push off the inside tackling the quarterback.

We tried to create some distraction to false key the quarterback as he came down the line. And those two moves can add just enough confusion because as you well know when you finesse one man and you option the next, if you sit him in there and say this is the only way you’re going to play it, there’s no damn way you can defense it because you’re playing with 10 men. So we’re trying to false key to pick up that eleventh man for ourselves and those two things sitting in here with that linebacker encouraging the quarterback to think that he was coming up the field and then wheeling back. Believe it or not, you can keep the fullback from getting that three and one-half yards – and that’s what we were trying to do – by coming in from this angle to make the tackle. The same way you can encourage him to take the ball away from the fullback and then you come running down the line and play for time, hoping for your pursuit to come on and help you out when you’ve got the two man, which is the quarterback. So this was another thing that we did in the Sugar Bowl game that was a help to us.

Continuity Must Be Broken

As I mentioned earlier, I think it is mandatory that you break the continuity of the wishbone. I’m impressed with the basic strategical aspects of the triple option. In my opinion there is just no damn way to truly stop the attack unless you come up with all these different devices and I think it’s probably one of the greatest things that we have been challenged with as coaches from a taxation standpoint in trying to stop that attack. It’s a very difficult thing to do because as I said you’re working at a disadvantage.

Our ability to adjust after a season of play to the wishbone and option teams as a result of our spring and fall installation of the multiple defensive ideas and coverages was relatively simple. At no time did our players feel, and I think that this is important, that we were departing from our basic principle and panicking to include all these new things to stop our opponent because all of these things were done from the alignments that we had already incorporated during the course of the spring and fall. So the two strategical changes that we feel were significant that helped us were trying to jump a cycle, which I think we did, which was helpful to us strategically, and the incorporation of the multiple aspect of defense as opposed to the one defense theory that hopes that we’re going to be able to play one defense better than you can execute your offense. We found that flexibility was very helpful to us.

One Change in Coaching

From the coaching standpoint we made just one change. Basically, we coached the same damn way, we drilled the same way, we incorporated one thing and in all these years of coaching I don’t know why the hell I didn’t do it before, but I suppose I was fighting against time – we all fight time. We like to be organized, we’d like to be very efficient on the football field – we incorporated what we call a halftime in our practice sessions.

I got to thinking to myself, why the hell do you play well in some second halves and in others you don’t play well at all? I came to the conclusion after I was reviewing in my own mind my experiences when I was a player. I remember we used to have halftime – you’d go into the locker room, you’d sit on your tail for 20 minutes, you’d cool down, then you’d get up, and the coach says, “Okay, it’s time to go again, fellas,” and you got to regenerate all over again. Well, our practice sessions are not built that way. You go out there – you’re doing this for three minutes, five minutes, twenty minutes for this; twenty-five for that – and you’re moving the entire time. Our practices are well organized; there are no delays in the practice sessions, we keep moving – horn blows, practice is over, go on in, take your shower.

So I got to thinking, why the hell don’t we incorporate a halftime in our practice sessions – and that’s exactly what we did do this year, and I honestly believe we were a better second-half team as a result of it. We have a period right in our practice schedule – we took five minutes. I blow the horn and yell out “halftime.” Everybody would go their separate ways, lay down on the field, lean against the truck or the tower. When it was cold we’d have bouillon for them – they’d go over and sip a little bouillon, get a little water, go over and shoot the breeze with the coaches – they’d go over and talk with them and they’d just lay around – and that’s what I wanted them to do. Lay down on the damn practice field and the astro turf – if it happened to be astro turf. Everybody did this! And we’d sit there for five minutes – the very thing that happens at the halftime of a football game. And then the five minutes would be up and I’d say “Play Ball!” Everybody would get up, we’d go into our next drill and play. And I think this happens, this actually, literally happens in a football game and I’m glad that we did it and I think we became a better second-half team as a result of it. I don’t know why the hell I didn’t do it before.

This was about the only thing that we did that was a little bit different and it was very helpful to us. So, you go back to these very basics in coaching – the personnel that we had fitted in beautifully – we had great help from our freshmen; we had good football players. Our coaching, the nature of coaching techniques did not change . The only thing that we included is what I just mentioned to you (a halftime) – strategically we changed two things – we think we jumped a cycle (I’d like to think that) and from a morale standpoint I told you we got dozens of cookies to help out our ball club and there were times that we patted them on the back and times when we had to kick them in the tail.

Other Thoughts

I think you’ve got to know yourself – I think you’ve got to know your strong suits and your weaknesses, and you’ve got to sit down and objectively evaluate who you are, what you are, and what you’re capable of doing, and you’ve got to be honest with yourself. You’ve got to be totally honest with yourself and say, “Damn it, I’m offensive oriented or defensive oriented, or I don’t motivate well, or I don’t recruit well, or I don’t organize well,” or whatever facet of the game that you may not be as strong in and then recognize this. Then evaluate your own staff – their strong suits – and place them in the positions that they can help you become the best possible football staff and make the best possible football team.

I’ve got a staff, and I’ve got all types of people and nationalities, but I can go right down and tell you what their strong suits are and what their weaknesses are, and I try to place them in areas where they can be the most functional and the most helpful to our ball club. If you want to turn your head and say, “I do everything well,” then by God, you’re a hell of a man. Frankly, I think there are certain things that you don’t do well, and there are certain things that you can hurt your own ball club with because maybe you’re not quite as strong in a particular phase of football.

Go back and re-evaluate yourself before you start your spring practice and find out where you’re the weakest. Do you motivate well? Do you really get ’em up for a damn football game, or do you rely on a staff member? And if you refuse to accept the fact that kids can’t be motivated, or this is not an emotional game, you’re wrong, and if you don’t do that well, get somebody on your staff who does do it well. Get your players, if you have to, to do it.

Some other points I would like to make that I think are significant – Don’t rate potential over performance. How often do we see that great looking kid who fills out a uniform beautifully and then compare him with some little dinky guy. He doesn’t look very good in a uniform, but he’s always around the ball, always tackling somebody defensively. He’s a hustler, but he just doesn’t look good in a uniform – but he’s the guy who’s performing. But, damn it, this other guy over here – this 6’ 4”, 230 lb. can run like hell – he’s never around the action. So, he’s got a lot of potential, but he never performs.

Another “don’t” is – Don’t develop personality conflicts, because it distorts and clouds your evaluation, and your job is to evaluate that personnel – and it’s damn important, because that’s a fixed factor. You’ve got just so many players when you start the season. And don’t be awed by size or speed. Go for that performance aspect of it, and don’t allow one mistake to influence your judgment. Too often I have seen people that say, “When one guy fumbles one time, that’s it. He’s a fumbler. He’ll never play again for me.” One mistake kills the kid. Then, I think you’re not doing your job as a coach.

I think a classic example is a young man we had on our squad. Last year Eric Penick dropped the ball to the opponents as a sophomore 14 times in one season of play. It got to be a psychological block with him. In 1973, he lost the ball on fumbles one time. Now we worked on hand-to-hand drills the entire spring, and it was not only a physical thing, but it was also a mental thing, and you know you can walk over and you can either instill confidence, or you sure as hell can take confidence away in one hell of a hurry by one word by the head football coach or the assistant coach. You can destroy the confidence of an individual – and we worked on it and Eric Penick, in 1973, lost the ball one time during the entire season – and this success after he had been the leading fumbler in 1972. But we worked on it, and I didn’t allow 14 mistakes in the previous year to influence my judgment. I went about trying to solve the problem, and we solved the problem , and I’m really pleased because we didn’t give up on a kid.

Some other things here that I think are important factors in winning and you see how they fit into your job responsibility, because there are a lot of reasons for winning, and there are a lot of reasons for losing. I think it’s your job, your responsibility as a football coach to figure out why you are losing. I said adversity a year ago made us better football coaches, made us more self-examining of what we were doing, and also made us work harder to solve the problems. Well, there are many reasons why you may win or lose, and here are some of them for you. Evaluate the job that you’re in. For example, is your organization as adequate as it should be? Are you really efficient on the field? Do you really get to the kids what they should have? I think Jerry Claiborne made a very fine statement here this morning – “You can’t teach all the football you know.” The real test is whether or not the kids that you’re coaching know what you’re teaching and whether you’ve imparted that to them so that they can execute it on the field.

Physical condition – Is your team as well physically conditioned as your opponent? Do you have them honed just right? Have you over-worked them, or have you underworked them? Believe me, that’s a factor that you, yourself, should take into serious consideration. Do you overwork your team, or do you underwork them? Do they tail off at the end of the year? Do you have more injuries than you should have because you work them too hard or scrimmage them too hard? Do they go nose to nose with your opponents? Are they tough enough? There are times when you can underwork them, and they are not tough enough to meet the competition that you have.

Another factor – are you getting true loyalty from everyone connected with you? Lord knows, I have made this statement I don’t know how many times – and it was the recent political scandal that took place in the last year, the Watergate Scandal, that made me take a second look at my opinion. I said that above everything I wanted loyalty from my squad, from my staff, because all the great empires in the world have crumbled because of inter-conflict; inter-conflict destroys great nations, great organizations and football teams. I said what I want is great dedication and great loyalty. And yet, I saw an astounding thing as I watched the Watergate testimony. I watched all the hearings – time after time, these young eager, energetic, knowledgeable, well-educated people who had associated themselves with that Party sat in the witness chair and said that in the interest of the re-election of the President that they were willing to compromise their ideals, their ethics, and principles. It was hard for me to understand as I listened. So I should make one amendment – loyalty should not go to the extent of circumventing laws, and the breaking of rules and regulations, and yet that’s exactly what took place. In the interest of re-electing the President, which these men were totally committed to, they were willing to go ahead and perform illegal acts. I never thought I would see the stage where I said that you could have too much loyalty, but I witnessed it on the political scene. You need loyalty, but certainly not to the degree where you want your coaching staff going out and illegally recruiting, illegally teaching dirty tricks – things of this nature. Loyalty to the school, loyalty to the squad. But no compromise of your principles.

Leadership – Are you getting the leadership that you need from your team? The team needs a leader beyond the head football coach – within the squad it needs a leader. Someone they can identify with.

The tradition of your school – is it adequate, or are you saddled with a situation that has no tradition and you have to build it yourself? This can influence the winning, the success of a program. The nature of the environment you coach in. It’s conducive to having successful teams because we have people that are interested in what we’re doing and that makes it a hell of a lot easier – a lot easier. So you may be saddled with a situation with your environment.

The next point is the schedule. Are you overscheduled? Take Pete Elliott at Miami. The schedule that he played this year – a .500 season for him – is like a 10-0 or an 11-0 season. He played more great football teams than virtually anybody in the country. He played a hell of a tough schedule. On the high school or on the college level, you may be overscheduled. You may not have a fair opportunity to win and it’s your job to evaluate that and see what your circumstances are. You know, a situation where you are 8-2 at Notre Dame a year ago for the season was disaster. Hell, that was a terrible year, but 8-2 at Northwestern would have been a hell of a good year when I was there. So everything is relative, you see, and you may be saddled with a schedule that is very difficult.

Success or failure can be measured by the number of injuries that you might have had during the year. Good football players – you don’t have that many. You lose two or three key players – two or three key players can be the difference in a successful year. You lose your good ones and you are not nearly as good a football team as you were. You’re no better than the weakest link that you have on the field.

Officials – It makes me nervous even talking about them. They are something, I’ll tell you. I’ve tried it all with them – I have honeyed it up, I’ve done everything that I know.

They are really good guys, but do you realize that one official’s call in a critical ball game can change the nature of, the outcome of the contest? I honestly believe that there are a lot of good officials, and most of them are trying to do a solid, conscientious job. But you realize that an official’s call, as you look back and review your own schedule and what took place, that one call could have changed the entire nature of the game, could have changed field position so drastically that it would be unbelievable.

Incidentally, talking about field position, I couldn’t believe what I heard after the Alabama game. I went to the hotel – we were staying at the Marriott – and of course it’s a joyous occasion when you win a ball game like that, because we think we beat a great football team. Alabama is a hell of a team – they’re well coached, they’re well disciplined; they are a fine ball club. I went in and met some of the people who had seen the game on television, and I couldn’t believe for the life of me that they were second guessing a decision that was made by Paul Bryant in the fourth period. With about three minutes to go, with fourth down and twenty, they kicked the ball, we roughed the kicker, and they got the option of accepting or declining the fifteen-yard penalty. The decision was second guessed. I couldn’t believe it. Who the hell wants the ball fourth down and five with three minutes to go and at your own 45-yard line? Because if he takes it there and he doesn’t make the first down he surrenders the ball to us, in his own territory, with the clock running, and even if we don’t make a first down we punt the ball down inside the 10-yard line with the clock running against him. The ball that he punted landed and rolled dead on the 1-yard line. Hell, he was on offense; I was on defense. And I couldn’t believe that when I came back that people would be so unknowledgeable about the game. There isn’t a guy in this room that wouldn’t give the ball to your opponent at the 1-yard line with your face in the wind (I gotta kick that damn ball out of there into the wind).

I’m lucky as hell to get it out of there, to be honest with you. We came up with a third-down pass that bailed us out of jail and they never got the ball back, but I can’t believe anybody that would make a decision anything other than that. I will guarantee you this: there was no question in my mind as to what Bryant was going to do, because I would have done exactly the same thing, for cripe’s sake we had our backs to the wall. We gotta punch that ball out of there and we punched it out far enough to get kicking room and we were most fortunate to hit the pass that bailed us out.

A couple of other things I would like to point out if I may. Major coaching philosophies – you have heard them a thousand times but I still believe this. Avoid losing if you possibly can. I am convinced more games are lost than won. Work to eliminate the errors if you can, don’t take any high-risk plays.

We had a hell of an option play as we drove the ball down to the Alabama 3- or 4-yard line in the closing quarter. At that time we were behind, 21-23, and we took the ball and we drove it up the field and it was first down on the 3½-yard line. We had a hell of a good option play that we had worked on, that we thought was a good one, but we refused to call that down there because of the risk factor. I looked at the board and I knew that a field goal would put us in the lead although we would have loved to have the touchdown so that a field goal couldn’t beat us. Yet, by executing this option play down on the goal line we took the risk of fumbling the ball on a pitchout, now the margin of error was increased. So we decided to run positive football and if we didn’t score, we would kick the field goal and you know I was reviewing the immense strategy that could have changed as a result of Alabama not missing the extra point – then we would have been forced to go for the touchdown. By the same token, if we had gotten the touchdown, then when we had the ball backed up in our own territory, we would have taken a safety and kicked the ball out at the 20.

So, in just the last three minutes of that football game immense strategy could have been used because of the closeness of the ball game, but we refused to run a high-risk play because of the fumble potential when we knew that we could go ahead with the field goal. So we ran positive football and then kicked the field goal and went ahead. So we eliminated the potential of an error at that point.

Now this may be negative in your mind, but at that point of the game when you can go ahead with a kick, we didn’t want to take any chances. You must be fundamentally sound and I think you must stress the kicking game and you must stress field position, which is so vital and important, and you should remember that you can’t teach all the football that you know.

I know that I’ve run past the time that was allotted. I just thought I would throw out a couple of trends that we pursued. I have said nothing startling to you or anything different. If there is one thing that I would like to point out that I did say up here it is strive if you possibly can, particularly offensively, to stay away from the stereotype offenses and the trend that is being used at that time.

In conclusion, I want to be sure to tell you that we had a great team because we had an excellent staff, tremendous team leadership from our captains and most important outstanding personnel. Great football players make for successful coaches. Good luck to all of you in 1974.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *