CLEMSON -- A struggling Texas high school football coach bought a plane ticket in 2003 and flew from Dallas to Arkansas to watch a prep playoff game. Chad Morris was in search of a new offense.
Through the friend of a friend, Morris was told an Arkansas coach named Gus Malzahn was a true innovator. But what Morris found at Springdale (Ark.) High wasn't original in the true sense, as it had obvious origins. What was creative was how Malzahn borrowed pieces of other offenses to form an effective football mosaic. Morris continued to buy plane tickets until he earned the trust of Malzahn and eventually became privy to his secrets.
Today, Malzahn is the offensive coordinator at Auburn, and Morris holds the same title at Clemson.
When the teams meet at noon Saturday in Memorial Stadium, fans will see two offensive teams on the cutting edge of college football.
The Delaware Wing-T
In the summer of 1950, Maine coach Dave Nelson knew he didn't have a running back talented enough to make the single-wing offense effective, evident after a 2-4-1 record the previous season. Nelson and his staff decided to blend the single wing with the Army Trap Series, according to the book "The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football." Maine improved to 5-1-1 in 1950. In 1951 Nelson took his new offense to Delaware and the Blue Hens became a powerhouse.
Malzahn said he became the head coach at Hughes High (Ark.) in 1992 because "no one else applied."
Malzahn was the defensive coordinator at the school in 1991 and had never coached an offensive unit, though he was a receiver at Arkansas and Henderson State in the late 1980s.
The then 27-year-old needed an offensive philosophy. He had not attended any coaching clinics and didn't know any college coaches.
"I didn't have a clue what I was doing," Malzahn said.
His offensive philosophy began with a book order: "The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football." The book still rests in his office at Auburn. And in the beginning, he coached off the book verbatim.
Much of the misdirection fans see in the Auburn and Clemson offenses is traced directly back 60 years to Maine.
"There's so much Wing-T look in it, so much misdirection," Morris said. "That's where it would start at and work from there."
The Bills' hurry-up
The Cincinnati Bengals occasionally used a no-huddle offense in the mid-1980s, including in their 1988 AFC title game victory over the Buffalo Bills. In that game, Buffalo struggled to substitute defenders and adjust to the Bengals' rapid-fire offense. In the following seasons, Buffalo became the first team to employ the philosophy of a no-huddle, hurry-up offense for an entire game. To make it faster, Bills quarterback Jim Kelly called plays himself, something rarely seen in the NFL's modern era. The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls (1991-94).
The Wing-T offense had given Malzahn success and a new job as head coach at Shiloh Christian (Ark.) High in 1996.
"In 1996 at Shiloh Christian, we would start out games with three or four scripted plays and we would go really fast and build momentum, then we would go back to huddling and lose it," Malzahn said. "So we just made the decision in the offseason we were going to try to do it the whole game. We changed all of our terminology. We cut out a lot of the verbiage and just went on it."
The hurry-up element of the Malzahn-Morris offense was born.
Shiloh ran a lot of plays and Shiloh produced a lot of yardage and points.
Malzahn led Shiloh to back-to-back state titles in 1998 and 1999. Coaches began seeking out Malzahn in the coming years, including those from big-time colleges. He was hired as the Arkansas offensive coordinator in 2006. His offense has been dubbed as college football's version of Google, something akin to a garage start-up innovation.
In 1937, Sid Gillman became a graduate assistant at Ohio State under Francis Schmidt, who was known for trick plays and what the press called a "razzle-dazzle" style. "(Schmidt) was the biggest influence on my coaching career. He played a wide-open game." Gillman said in 1989.
Like Schmidt, Gillman was inventive. In "Games that Changed the Game," former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski wrote Gillman had a San Diego State geometry professor decipher where receivers should be on routes and how long it would take for a pass to reach them. The timing and rhythm of the modern passing game was born.
Nearly every offense today borrows from Gillman, credited with popularizing the deep passing game.
In 1998, Shiloh Christian's receivers were running deep and often. The school set a national high school season record with 66 passing touchdowns under Malzahn.
Beside a preference for deep passes, perhaps what Malzahn and Morris shared most with Gillman is the spirit of risk taking.
"I just think it's willing to try new things that you feel like will work," Malzahn said.
Morris has his own twist on the offense and might call even more vertical routes than Malzahn, vowing to take 12 deep shots per game at Clemson.
But what Morris and Malzahn share is more than an offense, they share an entrepreneurial nature. It's what led Morris to buy a plane ticket, what led Malzahn to try a no-huddle offense. It's the spirit at the heart of invention.
Who: Auburn (2-0) at Clemson (2-0)When: Saturday, noonWhere: Memorial StadiumTV: WCIV (ABC) Line: Clemson by 3½