Bill Little commentary: Pipe dreams -- Remembering Emory and the Wishbone
Feb. 11, 2011
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It was the baseball season of 1968, and I had just joined the Texas Longhorn athletics staff as Assistant Sports Information Director. Texas was playing Rice in Houston, and I had agreed to meet my favorite uncle for breakfast at the legendary Shamrock Hilton Hotel. I was there with our baseball team; Uncle Clarence was there because my cousin's husband was in the hospital at the fledgling medical complex which would later become world renown.
"How's Gale?" I asked.
The usually cheerful face darkened as he said somberly, "Gale is a very sick man."
It was then that I learned that my cousin-in-law was battling a disease with a very long name that for practical purposes had been shortened to its initials: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was becoming known as ALS. I would learn in time that one of my heroes, Lou Gehrig, had died of it. And within three years, so would my cousin's husband.
That was 40 years ago. Modern medicine has solved a lot of things in those years, but sadly, curing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is not one of them. That is why we were all devastated to learn that Emory Bellard, an icon of the coaching profession, was fighting the uphill battle that matches modern medicine and the disease. Thursday, the disease won.
Just two years ago, Emory had attended a Sportsman's Club dinner previewing the Longhorns' upcoming season and honoring the 1969 Texas National Championship team. His hair was snowy white, and the ever-present smoking pipe which had been his trademark was gone. Otherwise, he was the usual, ultimate gentleman. A master of the game and a citizen of the people. And in this space, I remember another place, and another time, when the faces of Texas Longhorn football, and the mindset of the college and the high school game, were about to change.
It was the summer of 1968, and Emory Bellard sat in his office, down the narrow, eggshell-white corridor that was part of an annex linking old Gregory Gymnasium with a recreational facility for students. There were two exit doors, one at the glassed-in front of the two-story building, and the other at the end of the hall.
Summer, in those days, was a time for football coaches to relax and to prepare for the upcoming season. Summer camps for young players were years away, and few of the players were even on campus. Most were home, or working to earn extra spending money to last the school year. Most of Bellard's cohorts on Darrell Royal's staff were either on vacation or had finished their work in the morning and were spending the afternoon at the golf course at old Austin Country Club.
Texas football had taken a sabbatical from the elite of the college ranks in the three years before. From the time Tommy Nobis and Royal's 1964 team had beaten Joe Namath and Alabama in the first night bowl game, the Orange Bowl on January 1 of 1965, Longhorn football had leveled to average. Three seasons of 6-4, 7-4 and 6-4 had followed the exceptional run in the early 1960s.
Despite an outstanding running back in future College Football Hall of Famer Chris Gilbert, the popular "I" formation with a single running back hadn't produced as Royal and his staff had hoped. So with the coming of the 1968 season, and the influx of a highly touted freshman class who would be sophomores (this was before freshmen were eligible to play on the varsity), Royal had made a switch in coaching duties.
Bellard, who had joined the staff only a season before, after a successful career in Texas high school coaching at San Angelo and Breckenridge, was the new offensive backfield coach.
He had gone to Royal with the idea of switching to the Veer, an option offense which had been made popular in the southwest at the University of Houston. As the Longhorns had gone through spring training, they had returned to the Winged-T formation which Royal had used so successfully during the early part of the decade.
So, as the summer began, the on-going question was, who was going to play fullback, the veteran Ted Koy, or the sensational sophomore newcomer Steve Worster? With Gilbert a fixture at running back, even in the two-back set of the Veer formation, only one of the other two could play.
And that is how, on that summer afternoon, the conversation began.
"So, who are you going to play, Koy or Worster?" I asked. Bellard took a draw on his ever-present pipe, cocked his chair a little behind the desk that faced the door, and said, "What if we play them both?" He took out a yellow pad and drew four circles in a shape resembling the letter "Y."
"Bradley," he said, referring to heralded quarterback Bill Bradley, as he pointed to the bottom of the picture. "Worster," he said, indicating a position at the juncture behind the quarterback. "Koy", he said as he dotted the right side, "and Gilbert," indicating the left halfback.
Royal had told Bellard he wanted a formation that would be balanced, and that, unlike the Veer which was a two-back set, would employee a "triple" option with a lead blocker. On summer mornings, Bellard would set up the alignments inside the old gymnasium next to the offices, using volunteers from the athletics staff as players. When the team members came back at the end of the summer break, Bellard took Bradley, James Street, Eddie Phillips and a fourth quarterback named Joe Norwood to the Varsity Cafeteria next to the gymnasium. There, as they sat at a table in the back of the room, Bellard arranged some salt and pepper shakers and the sugar jar in the shape of a Y. Then he explained the concept.
When the players tried it on the field for the first time, Street remembers saying with Bradley, "this ain't gonna work...."
Still, Bellard persevered. As fall drills began, the formation was kept under wraps. Ironically, Texas opened the season that year against Houston. It was only the second meeting of the two. The Longhorns had won easily in 1953, but the Cougars had established themselves as an independent power that was demanding respect from the old guard Southwest Conference.
A packed house of more than 66,000 overflowed Texas Memorial Stadium for the game, which ended in a 20-20 tie. The debut of the new formation didn't exactly shock the football world. A week later, Texas headed to Texas Tech for its first conference game, and found itself trailing 21-0 in the first half. It was at that point that Royal made the first of a series of moves that would change the face of his offense and the face of college football, for that matter.
Bill Bradley was the most celebrated athlete in Texas in the mid-1960s. He was a football quarterback, a baseball player, could throw with either hand and could punt with either foot. He was a senior, and when Royal unveiled the new formation, he thought that Bradley's running ability would make him perfect as the quarterback who would pull the trigger.
But trailing in Lubbock, Royal made one of the hardest decisions of his coaching career. He pulled Bradley and inserted a little-known junior named James Street.
A signal caller from Longview, Street had been an all-Southwest Conference pitcher in baseball the spring before, but no one could have expected what was about to happen.
Street brought Texas back to within striking distance of the Raiders, closing the gap to 28-22 before Tech eventually won, 31-22. Bradley would eventually move to defensive back, where he became a star in the NFL.
Back home in Austin, the staff met to adjust where the players lined up in the new formation. In a debate that was won by offensive line coach Willie Zapalac, the fullback position alignment was adjusted. Worster, who had been lined up only a yard behind the quarterback in the original formation, was moved back two full steps so he could better see the holes the line had created as the play developed.
Against Oklahoma State the next week, Texas won, 31-3. Nobody realized it at the time, but that would be the start of something very big. With Street as the signal caller, that win was the first of 30 straight victories, the most in the NCAA since Oklahoma had set a national record in the 1950s, and a string that held as the nation's best for more than thirty years.
Today, James Street is one of the nation's most successful structured settlement money managers, and in countless public speeches, he uses things Bellard taught him--not only about the game, but about life.
"Emory," Royal recalled Thursday, "understood the game of football, and was a great coach. But beyond the X's and O's, he was a great teacher."
A teacher, Street says, of more than just the game.
"Before every game he would tell me `stay steady in the boat,'" Street recalled. "'Play every play like it's a big play. Don't worry about the outcome of the game. Just play every play like it's a big play.'"
The offense Bellard designed became a staple for colleges and high schools in the 1970s and on into the 1980s. Bear Bryant at Alabama and Chuck Fairbanks and Barry Switzer at Oklahoma would use variations of it to compete for national championships. Bellard would run it successfully as a head coach at Texas A&M and Mississippi State. The service academies--most notably Air Force--would use the concept with good results for years.
Bellard, whose highly successful high school career included a record of 136-37-4 and three state championships, left Texas after the 1971 season for his head coaching stints at Texas A&M and Mississippi State. He eventually came out of retirement to return to his roots as a high school coach before retiring for good as he neared his 80s.
Mack Brown remembers him from his time as a coach at Mississippi State, when Mack was coaching at Tulane. Most of all, he remembers his contribution to the history of the game, and to his dedication to help young coaches whenever they asked.
They will hold a memorial service on Saturday, February 19, at the First Baptist Church in Georgetown. There'll likely be a gathering of Longhorns, from his five years as an assistant here, as well as Aggies, for his years as a head coach there. There will be those who remember the Wishbone, and the legacy it left.
More than that, however, they will recall the patience of a pipe smoker, who in his own way was an artist of the game, as well as a teacher. There is a touch of sad irony as well. With Bellard's passing, seven of the eight assistant coaches on that staff which changed the face of Texas football are gone. Tom Ellis, Bill Ellington, Mike Campbell, Leon Manley, Willie Zapalac, and R. M. Patterson preceded Emory in death. Only Fred Akers remains.
And through his legacy - like all of them - Emory, with his pipe and his yellow pad, his schemes and his dreams, will stand the test of time, not only for what he did, but for who he was--and the lives that he touched.