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Secrets of the Split T, part 1: Football never changes

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Don Faurot is certainly prevalent in the bullet-point version of Missouri's football history. He played and coached for the Tigers. He was, until Gary Pinkel passed him, Mizzou's winningest head coach. He makes appearances in Mizzou's football intro video...

...and most fans have some general knowledge about his formation of the Split-T formation and the impact it had on college football offenses in the 1940s and beyond. But what exactly was the Split-T? What impact did it really have? Lucky for us, Faurot wrote a book on the subject in 1950. It was called, naturally, Secrets of the "Split T" Formation, and I procured a copy of it a while back. Instead of writing an overall book review about it, it's fascinating enough that I thought it deserved a closer examination than that.

Consider this part one of a series. For each chapter in the book, I'll share interesting passages and my own thoughts on them. This is a really fun book that reminds us that football is always changing, and football never actually changes.

Preface

During the 1949 football season, thirteen major colleges used the "Split T" offense either exclusively or in conjunction with other basic systems. In that year Oklahoma, Maryland and Missouri--all "Split T" teams--won bowl invitations. Oklahoma, the nation's number two team and Sugar Bowl winner, brilliantly championed the cause of the "Split T." As a result of this team's fine performance, Coach Bud Wilkinson was named "Coach of the Year"; he was the youngest collegiate mentor ever to be so acclaimed.

As you might recall, Faurot was the head coach of the Iowa Pre-Flight team during World War II. Two of his assistants: Bud Wilkinson and Jim Tatum, who would go on to successful careers at Oklahoma and Maryland (the two teams Faurot references above), respectively. It is a forever-long "what if" for Mizzou lore: if Faurot himself hadn't felt compelled to enlist at age 40 during the war, he would have remained Missouri head coach in 1943 and beyond.

His 1941-42 teams had gone 16-5-1 -- 0-2 on the road against Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin), 0-2 against Fordham (for some reason), 0-1 against Great Lakes Navy, and 16-0-1 against everybody else. They whomped Oklahoma, 28-0, in 1941 and crushed Nebraska, 26-6, in Lincoln in 1942. Sharing film was a rarity in those days, and the deception of the new offense, combined with the speed of Mizzou's halfbacks, were providing a significant advantage.

And then he shared all of his secrets with two men who were better recruiters than he was.

Both in enlisting and sharing his secrets with whoever would listen, Faurot proved that his generosity and the fact that he was a very good person held him back to some degree as a coach. Hard to fault him too much for that, huh?

Since adopting the "Split T" we have won 70.5 per cent of our games over eight seasons. Its running pitch-outs, down-field laterals and running passes have made it a crowd-pleasing type of offense, as well. This fan appeal has meant ever-increasing attendance marks and spiraling gate receipts. Finally, the "Split T," since its inception at Missouri, has enabled our teams to rank consistently among the nation's top ten in rushing and total offense.

That's the first of approximately 475 times that something in this book makes you go, "Hey, that sounds a lot like the spread!"

It all began after we had graduated our ace passer, Paul Christman, who later quarterbacked so ably for the Chicago Cardinals. Christman fit nicely into our single wing and short punt formations, and his passing arm carried us to a conference championship and an Orange Bowl appearance.

His departure meant the loss of a fine tailback, and there was no suitable tailback replacement in sight among returning lettermen. However, our veteran backs had considerable speed, and the squad as a whole was versatile. The time seemed ripe for innovating the basic plays of the "Split T," and this we did tentatively in spring practice, at the same time retaining a few of our single-wing plays.

Necessity, mother of invention, etc. So many of football's greatest innovations stemmed from "Well, we lost [Player A]," or "We have three good players who do these unique things pretty well."

Chapter 1

Two considerations prompted our switch to the "Split T."

For one, no other team within our Big Six conference employed the man-under-center formation. The pioneer team would have a certain element of surprise in its favor.

The second reason was perhaps more compelling. We were in the process of broadening our schedule to include stronger intersectional teams, some of whom admittedly outmanned us. We needed the deception of the "Split T" together with its promise of more offensive punch to offset the superior manpower mustered by our opponents. If we couldn't beat them down to size, then we might bewilder them! It was worth a try.

A pretty fun admission here. With his athletic director hat, Faurot was scheduling quite a few heavyweights in pay-out games that would fund the athletic department.

In 1941, 1943, 1944, 1946, 1947, 1948, and 1949, Mizzou played at national power Ohio State early in the season. In 1945, they hosted the Buckeyes. In 1942, the Tigers played at Wisconsin and also scheduled Great Lakes Navy. In 1943, they played at Minnesota, a recent national champion, and played Faurot's Iowa Pre-Flight team. In 1944 and 1945, they played at Minnesota again. From 1946-60, they played home-and-homes with SMU. In 1946, they played at Texas. In 1948, they played Navy in Baltimore. In 1949, at Illinois. In 1950, Clemson at home. In 1951-52, a home-and-home with Jim Tatum's Maryland. Et cetera.

Faurot's was a suicidal, fiscally responsible method of scheduling, but he wasn't just taking money for those games. He was trying to win them.

Since the author has in a manner of speaking grown up with the "Split T," he has in the process acquired certain convictions about its offensive value. He has four basic reasons for preferring this system.

1. It requires only average personnel.

2. It averages more yards per play.

3. It springs the backs into the open field more often.

4. It puts greater pressure on standard defenses.

He constantly refers to himself as "the author," which is super entertaining, even as he then goes on to say "we" a lot.

But seriously, the four things he listed above are basically the tenets to any underdog offense, and he was establishing them in 1940.

In Missouri's aerial game, any one of three backs does the tossing. It is not essential that the quarterback be a sharp passer, but it is necessary that he be able to connect on some of the shorter pass plays. The pitch-outs or running passes, which will be diagrammed and discussed later, provide a strong auxiliary weapon. Their deceptiveness helps to set up easier blocking for the halfback who may elect to turn downfield with the ball if his receivers do not get clear. These pass plays often develop into end runs that make substantial gains.

My first reaction: POP pass, POP pass, POP pass, POP pass, POP pass.

In the line, too, the essentials of one-on-one blocking can be taught easily. Because of the wider line spacing, the lineman need not overpower his opponent to "make the hole." It already exists; he must merely maintain it.

From his mouth to Mike Leach's ears.

Although the University of Missouri team had no exceptional personnel in 1949, the "Split T" offense enabled it to lead the nation in the number of first downs made during its ten-game season. According to the National Collegiate Bureau of Statistics we gained the "first and ten" 181 times, enough to outrank all college teams in this department. This proves that the "Split T" is a sound possession-of-the-ball offense.

As we'll see, a lot of the things he mentions remind you more of Paul Johnson's spread-option/flexbone offense than anything else. The ability to carve out chunks of yards at a time while waiting for the defense to overcompensate and cause the dam to break is reminiscent of basically every option offense ever.

In our 1949 game against the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Kansas, Missouri ran 105 offensive plays for a total of 667 yards. This set a new national collegiate record for the number of scrimmage plays made by one team in a single game. In addition, the 105 plays averaged 6.3 yards per try.

ONE HUNDRED FIVE PLAYS. IN 1949. WHILE RUNNING THE BALL. Eat that, Art Briles.

The statistics also proved that our backs were scoring many touchdowns from twenty yards or more out in the field. In 1949 all four of our offensive backs ranked well up in the conference rushing table and all had a good average per carry. We believe that this record resulted from the greater deception inherent in the offense. The ability to get our backs into the open made possible the use of smaller, more elusive halfbacks, who were numerous on our squad. They were not compelled to depend so much on their weight and drive in order to break clear.

Yes, his citation of so many statistics -- especially yards per play! -- makes me swoon a bit. I'll get over it; I just need a moment.

Our experience in using and in playing against the "Split T" has convinced us that this offense is much harder to stop with a standard defense when played in a normal fashion. The "Split T" has been very successful against the basic five-, six- or seven-man lines. [...]

A considerable number of our opponents have brought up nine men to within one yard of the line of scrimmage in an effort to stop the running game of the "Split T." Simple arithmetic shows that this weakens their pass defense. In the short time available to coaches preparing for a game, improvised or new defenses have not generally been sufficiently perfected.

If you force the defense to adapt to you instead of playing its own game, and you are adept in your play-calling and knowledge of constraints, you can stay a step ahead of the defense all game long. Like when Georgia Tech or Navy gets rolling, and there's nothing the defense can do about it.

A few critics of the "Split T" formation have contended that its blocking cannot be effective without holding. At Missouri, we know this to be untrue; the offensive blocks we teach are unconditionally within the rules. They are used honestly and legally and are not designed to take unfair advantage of the opponents.

Not the same thing, but this made me want to scream, "CUT BLOCKS!"

This is a really fun book to read, not only because Faurot is smart and engaging in his writing, but also because of how easily we can tie his concepts and observations to those that have been considered innovative and creative in the last couple of decades. College football has long been a sport based on either pushing over the guy in front of you or getting the ball to your best players with space to run. Faurot's post-Christman epiphanies changed college football and helped to create option football as we knew it in the 1960s, 1980s, and today. Hopefully this is a fun series to read.