Three days before practice began for the 1971 season, Alabama Coach Bear Bryant called his players together and scared the cleats off them.

"Gentlemen," he said, "we're going to the wishbone."

After the groans, moans and snickering had died down, Bryant added, "And we aren't going to only run it sometimes. From now on Alabama will sink or swim with the wishbone."

Not even the wise old Bear could envision that the wishbone would be as good to Alabama as it has.

Going into the national championship showdown New Year's Day with No. 1-ranked Penn State in the Sugar Bowl, No. 2-ranked Alabama has won 84 of 95 games since moving from the pro set to the wishbone.

Tinkering, modifying and adjusting it over the years, Bryant has made the Bama Bone one of the most intricate, hard to read and effective offenses.

"When you think of wishbone offenses across the country, you tend to think of teams like Oklahoma that run, run, run," said Penn State's defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. "But Alabama has really been the leader in diversifying the wishbone.They are totally flexible.

"If you try to gang up on the line and stop the run, they'll pass you to death. You just have to come prepared to guess right and hope for the best."

Penn State's head coach, Joe Paterno, is concerned about the wishbone, but added that, "It's not really a straight wishbone. It's a multiple offense. You can't just sit and defense three running backs all close together in the backfield. They send guys in motion all over the place."

Bryant, trying to be ever so coy, said that Alabama gets into trouble when it tries to get too cute with its wishbone.

"We can't just line up and knock people down like we did in the past," said Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge "For our attack to be successful, we have to throw some different wrinkles at them. We're going to have to throw the ball to win and we're going to have to be able to run inside. We can't expect to just go wide all day."

The basic wishbone play, and the one Alamaba runs most often, starts with Rutledge reading the block on the nose guard and the movement of the defensive tackle on the side to which he is running the play. From that, he gives the ball to the fullback or fakes the handoff.

Then, depending on the defensive lineman's reactions as the play develops, the quarterback will give the ball to the near halfback, keep it or pitch to the trailing halfback.

"The wishbone itself doesn't change our responsibilities," said Penn State's All-America tackle, Matt Millen. "The formation doesn't scare you. It's the people they have making it work."

The wishbone really works on the defense because it freezes the defenders while they are trying to figure out where the ball is.

"You have to take a second or two to react and then move twice as fast to regain the time you've lost," said All-America safety Pete Harris.

What has helped make Alabama's wishbone so successful this season is that the Tide can pass from the formation. Rutledge is an adequate runner, and an even better passer.

Alabama averaged 403 yards a game this season, 287 running and 116 passing. Rutledge completed 73 of 140 passes for 1,078 yards and 13 touchdowns.

By comparison, Penn State's Chuck Fusina became an All-America and completed 137 of 242 for 1,859 yards and 11 touchdowns.

"We're a lot alike and we do a lot of similar things," Rutledge said. "But I have the wishbone to fall back on and he doesn't. That could be the difference."