You have to go a long way to find a college football team that still uses the single-wing offense. You have to find a place with a sense of history and a certain broad-mindedness, and a coach old enough to have been schooled in the single wing who possesses the courage of convictions others consider long outdated. The place is Granville, Ohio.
Founded in 1805 by settlers from Granville, Mass., this New England-style village in the south-central part of the state, nine miles over farmland from I-70 (the World Series is not the only thing happening near I-70) is the home of Denison University, situated on a hill above the main street. The street has a quaint post office and library, no motels but two country inns with thick glass windows and fireplaces, no fast-food franchises but a deli that makes inches-high sandwiches good for taking to the games.
For the kickoff, you go up the hill and down the other side to Deeds Field, a natural bowl with especially green grass, small stands on both sides, tall trees all about and, behind one end zone, a huge grassy hillwhere many undergraduates like to watch the games. Here, the Big Red of Denison keeps the single wing alive, and thriving. Last Saturday, students, alumni and fans from the village and neighboring towns gathered for a meeting of non-scholarship, Division III schools: Denison, unbeaten with its high-powered single wing, twice this season having amassed 63 points, and 49 points in another game, against Case Western Reserve, another big small-college team, having allowed a mere 11 yards rushing a game. Irresistible force, immovable object.
Denison kicked off, but when it got the ball it was quickly obvious this was no average football game. The Denison quarterback called signals but rarely touched the ball, although he did have the ball thrown to him in the second half. He lined up, not directly behind the center, but behind a tackle, and a quarter of the way back to two deep backs, the tailback and fullback. A wingback was lined up to the right of the quarterback. The fullback took some snaps but the tailback received most of them, often running right or left behind walls of blockers. The Green Bay sweep coached by Vince Lombardi in the '60s was a latter-day variation of the single-wing power sweep. But there's more to the single wing than that: the Denison tailback also can pass and quick kick, making him the embodiment of yesteryear's pulp-fiction triple-threat.
But, mostly, the single wing is a formation that functions by deception, and causes opposing teams to change their defenses and practice sessions in an attempt to cope. With backs criss-crossing and taking handoffs and sometimes fakes, the football sometimes is as hard to find as a hockey puck. "Usually the wingback reverse astonishes people the most," said Denison publicist Steve Hiles. Then, too, there's the buck-lateral series, in which at least three backs handle the ball, but Denison Coach Keith Piper prefers to keep it simple and have the tailback do much of the work.
"Hey, it's a very, very good offense," said the 64-year-old Piper, "but I don't want to say it's the best offense. People get uptight if you say that. But it's a good offense. It's a mystery. If you jump into a trench with an opponent and you know what the weaponry is, you have a pretty good chance of defeating the opponent. But if you're unfamiliar with the weaponry . . .
"Of course, you have to have a tailback who loves to run. He might run 40 times a game. We have one now in Chris Spriggs." Spriggs is only a junior, so Piper is set for at least another season, but he says, "I've got to get off my duff and find another tailback." He'll be looking, too, for candidates to fill the other key position in the single wing. That's the center.
Getting the deep snaps just right on every play can be a demanding job, although "not for the superior athletes," Piper said, laughing. In his playing days, growing up in Niles, Ohio, and later at Baldwin-Wallace, Piper was a single wing center. "Seriously, you don't just hand the ball back to the quarterback. And it's not like the short punt formation the pros use, when the center looks back but then is looking up when he snaps. You have to have your head down."
Piper, who traces the origin of the formation to Amos Alonzo Stagg, has been writing a book on the single wing the last five years. "It's almost done -- if we had a title, we'd be rolling," he said.
Once you didn't need a book to know about the single wing. Before World War II, it was the state-of-the-art offense. Later even, powers such as UCLA played the single wing when Billy Kilmer, for one, was the tailback. Princeton was the last Division I school to use it, in 1968. Princeton's Dick Kazmaier was the last of the legendary tailbacks that included Jim Thorpe and Red Grange. What's made the single wing almost as extinct as the dinosaur?
"Generally, defenses caught up with it," said Bob Casciola, who played at Princeton under Charlie Caldwell and served as assistant coach at Princeton under Dick Colman, two masters of the single wing. But by the time Casciola returned to Princeton as head coach in the '70s, the single wing had been abandoned and he had no inclination to bring it back.
"Defenses tended to 'stay at home' (wait for a play to develop, rather than be suckered by fakes in the single wing)," said Casciola. "It didn't seem to be a quick-hitting-enough offense. People thought it was a good passing formation, but it was a good passing formation only in its day. Everyone is so bunched up, no one is spread out. Today, you couldn't throw from it like you can from the T. But it's a great way of getting to the outside."
This hasn't kept many longtime Princeton loyalists from dreaming of the glory days of single wing. Bill Stryker, Princeton director of athletic relations, remembered one of those days: "It was 1951, Kazmaier was a senior, and Cornell came in with a great team. Kazmaier had just a stupendous day and we won, 53-15. From the standpoint of single wing artistry, that day stands out in most people's minds."
But to see the college single wing played now, you have to come to Granville. Piper, who has been here 32 years, grew up admiring the single wing used at Ohio's Massillon High by Paul Brown, first coach of the Cleveland Browns and currently general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals. Piper played it and loved it and in the early '60s installed it at Denison because an extraordinary tailback transferred there from Ohio State. His name was Tony Hall, now a congressman but then, according to Piper, "a tough hombre, built like a fireplug."
"I played freshman football at Ohio State," Hall said. "I was in the same backfield with Matt Snell and Paul Warfield. We used to scrimmage the varsity and beat them. Then Warfield was switched to my position and I decided I wasn't going to play there." In his junior and senior years at Denison, Hall handled the ball on almost every play in Piper's offense and Denison rolled to 7-1-1 and 8-1 seasons.
In 1978, Piper dusted off the single wing again when another outstanding tailback came to campus. Now, the hero is Spriggs, from the nearby town of Newark. He'll run or pass the ball 50 to 55 times a game. "I'm not a ball hog, really," Spriggs will say, but Piper doesn't want to change a good thing. In Division III, Denison ranks No. 1 in scoring with a 38.7 average, No. 3 in rushing with 339 yards a game and No. 4 in total offense, with 409. But that doesn't mean he'll send a player to the National Football League. Spriggs is interested in a business career. "I've had a whole bunch of lawyers and doctors," said Piper, obviously proud.
Still, Piper likes to win -- he's won 162 games, 12th among active coaches. At the end of last Saturday's 17-16 victory over Case, the Denison players carried their coach off the field.
Not for a minute would Piper trade this life. Nor does he hard-sell his favorite formation, although of neighboring football colossus Ohio State he mused, "Can you imagine Keith Byars as the tailback in the single wing?"
Aw shucks-like he said, "If you lose, people blame it on the single wing. If you win, they say look how much better you could have done without it." But, really, there's no such thing as pressure in Granville to change things. After the game, Piper had many of the fans over to his 1810 house just a couple of hundred yards from the field. The gray afternoon could not have been brighter, and nobody for an instant thought they'd have been that happy if it weren't for the single wing.