Texas' iconic Wishbone offense, at 50, still influential in college football

Texas coach Darrell Royal diagrams the Wishbone formation, which used a fullback and two halfbacks behind the quarterback, with the play determined by the movement of the defense. Bettmann via Getty Images

AUSTIN, Texas -- One of the most revered terms in the college football lexicon owes its existence to a hotel that no longer exists.

The Villa Capri once adjoined the University of Texas campus and boasted one of Austin's in-demand restaurants. The dining room, with brass-rodded chandeliers above, featured a broiling pit at the center, where a chef charcoaled choice steaks. Outside, burnt orange umbrella tables and lush grass surrounded the hotel's pool.

But the place to be at the Capri on autumn Saturday nights was Room 2001, where legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal would hold court and drink booze with reporters and luminaries -- including actor John Wayne once -- in town to watch the Longhorns.

And 50 years ago this season, it was in Room 2001 that the "Wishbone" was officially christened -- forever changing college football.

Earlier that summer, Royal had tasked assistant Emory Bellard with devising an offensive scheme that would revive the moribund Longhorns and remove Royal off a seat that was heating up after a third consecutive mediocre season.

The pipe-smoking, yellow-pad-doodling Bellard, who just two years before had been coaching high school, returned to Royal with a rather unorthodox proposal: What if, to capitalize on its wealth of running backs, Texas placed three rushers in the backfield?

Bellard's three-back, triple-option attack didn't have its name yet. But the "Wishbone" would go on to catapult Texas to back-to-back national titles, relaunch dynasties at Oklahoma and Alabama and, eventually, transform offensive football at every level of the game.

"Emory Bellard's Wishbone is still having an impact today. Emory Bellard totally impacted what I do," said Washington State coach Mike Leach, who credits the Wishbone as a bedrock for his Air Raid spread passing offense, which, like the Wishbone once did, has proliferated across college football this century. "[It's] one of the greatest offenses of all time ... and odds are extremely high that if I didn't run the Air Raid, I would run the Wishbone."

After corralling Navy and Heisman winner Roger Staubach in the Cotton Bowl for the 1963 national title, Royal's Longhorns rapidly tumbled off their perch. Texas went 6-4 in 1965, then 7-4 the following year. The Longhorns still opened the 1967 season with promise and were ranked in the top five in the polls. But Texas spiraled again late, which culminated with a deflating 10-7 loss to rival Texas A&M.

Royal -- who fashioned the phrase "three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad" -- loathed passing. But in running into wall after wall out of the I formation, Texas averaged just under 19 points a game in 1967 despite having 1,000-yard running back Chris Gilbert as its centerpiece.

"We just tried to outmuscle everybody," Gilbert said. "That grew old and was about as conservative an offense as you could possibly have."

Royal might have delivered Texas its first national title five years before. But now he was under immense pressure from the boosters and students to win again -- which would be underscored by the effigy of his likeness left hanging at the practice field after Texas failed to win either of its first two games in 1968. Such budding pressure would prompt the otherwise conservative Royal to rubber-stamp a drastic change, though not before putting his team through a spring practice so brutal his former players still quiver at the thought of it.

"That spring, he called us together and said, 'Boys, we're not going to be 6-4 this next year. We may be 0-10, we may be 10-0, but we're not going to be 6-4,'" remembered running back Ted Koy. "It was the most hellacious spring training. I mean, it was a bloodletting."

Quite literally, in fact. During one unforgettable drill, fullback Steve Worster slammed headfirst into future All-American defensive end Bill Atessis, triggering a hit so vicious it cracked Worster's face mask in half while also breaking his nose. With blood gushing down his face, Worster was handed a towel -- then another helmet so he wouldn't miss his turn.

"It was unbelievable," offensive lineman Bob McKay said. "There wasn't anything we did that spring that wasn't live."

Yet for all the consternation around the program, the Longhorns actually entered that offseason stacked in the backfield.

Gilbert was coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons thanks to "an uncanny balance," Koy said. "He'd be hit, knocked off balance, and he'd put his hand down and get an extra 3 or 4 yards."

Worster, who had produced 28 consecutive 100-yard rushing games in high school for Bridge City -- still third all time in Texas history -- was among the highest-profile recruits Royal had ever snagged.

"Tougher than nails," Koy said. "Steve did not have the blazing speed but could be full speed in a few steps."

Koy did possess that speed and was pushing for a spot as well.

"The big question was: What were they going to do with Worster?" said Bill Little, who was in his first of 50 years in Texas' sports communications department that season. "And whether or not Koy or Worster was going to play."

Having three talented backs was a good problem for Royal to have. And out of this problem came Bellard's solution, which would soon alter Texas' fate.

Emory Bellard grew up in a small town east of San Antonio and began coaching high school football in 1949. He won three state titles, and the last of them, for San Angelo Central in 1966, convinced Royal to hire him, initially to man linebackers.

"There's no one who loved coaching more than Emory," said former Texas A&M head coach R.C. Slocum, who was hired in College Station as an assistant by Bellard. "He was just an amazing guy. Loved the game of football, loved coaching, loved kids."

Slocum swears that Bellard never cursed once during his entire coaching career. But he did keep one vice: a tobacco pipe, whose smoke would signal through the halls of the football building when he was working away in his office.

"In coaching circles, Emory Bellard was respected by everybody," Leach said. "They knew that Emory Bellard knew more than they did and was a better coach than they were."

After the disappointing 1967 season, Royal shook up his staff and flipped Fred Akers to defense and charged the impressive Bellard with the monumental assignment of fixing the offense.

Bellard initially championed the Veer that coach Bill Yeoman had perfected at Houston. But Royal vetoed that suggestion because the Veer, which had split backs, didn't have a lead blocker. So as his colleagues went golfing that summer, Bellard went back to the yellow pad.

"He was a grinder when it came to working," Slocum said. "But he was perfectly happy doing that."

Little remembers walking the football halls one summer day when he detected Bellard's pipe smoke cascading through the doorway of his office. Little inquired if Bellard had decided on Worster or Koy. Bellard replied, "What if we played them both?"

Bellard pointed to his pad, which had three circles in the backfield in the shape of a Y. Worster would be the fullback, lined up behind the quarterback; Koy and Gilbert, the halfbacks, split behind.

By utilizing option principles of the Veer, Bellard explained that quarterback Bill Bradley would have three choices: hand the ball off to the fullback on the dive; keep the ball around the end; or pitch it to a halfback streaking from the backside, with the other halfback blocking for him -- all quarterback reads determined by how the defensive linemen reacted. The formation was balanced, capable of running equally as effectively to either direction. And it met Royal's request of incorporating a lead blocker.

With Royal's ratification, Bellard brought his yellow-pad concoction to life, perfecting the spacing and running lanes in the basketball gym, using whatever athletic department staffers he could borrow as dummies. When the players returned for camp, he summoned the quarterbacks to the cafeteria.

"He had salt and pepper shakers out, showing how it was going to work," said Eddie Phillips, who would eventually become Texas' starting quarterback in 1970. "The visuals were actually pretty good, but it was a little bit unusual."

That preseason, the Longhorns exhaustively practiced essentially only two running plays: the triple-option and the counter, which would punish any defense that over-pursued. Nobody, not even Bellard, could know whether this new offense would work. And through much of the first two games, it didn't work one bit.

The Longhorns were fortunate to tie Houston in the opener. Then, things went from bad to worse in Game 2 at Texas Tech, as the Longhorns trailed 21-0 at halftime.

Texas, however, would make two key adjustments moving forward. And it would be 30 games before the Longhorns would lose again.

Bill Bradley was one of the most celebrated all-around athletes from the Lone Star State in the mid-1960s. He could throw with either arm and punt with either foot. Despite being drafted in the seventh round by the Detroit Tigers, Bradley went to Texas and summarily became its starting quarterback.

"He was so good at everything, he could punt, he could do whatever," said Little, who dubbed him "Super Bill" while writing for the Austin American-Statesman. "Bradley was a total superstar."

Bradley, however, had suffered a knee injury in 1966 and hadn't quite regained that superstar first step two years later. He also had trouble with the reads and pitches paramount to the triple-option and tried too often to make the big play instead of the correct one.

"It just wasn't honed up," Bradley said. "I wasn't making the right decisions at the very beginning of the play."

Bradley's best friend on the team was backup quarterback James Street, who carried a similar swagger. During the summers, the two worked together on a ranch in East Texas. Like Bradley, Street was a baseball player and pitched both a perfect game and a no-hitter for the Texas baseball team.

"James was very charismatic, had a spirit about him that was contagious," Koy said. "If you were going to shoot marbles, you'd want James on your team. You just had confidence in him."

With the game slipping away at Texas Tech and the Wishbone still scuffling, Royal grew frustrated with Bradley. Finally, in the second half, he turned to Street and said, "Get in there. Hell, you can't do any worse."

As gifted as Street was on the diamond, he was born to run the Wishbone, which magically began to hum with him as the conductor. Remarkably, Street nearly led the Longhorns all the way back, until a late fumble ended the rally.

"James was built for it," Bradley said. "So deceptive with the ball. It was a perfect match."

The following morning back in Austin, Bradley got a knock on his dormitory door. A manager was on the other side saying Royal wanted to see him. Bradley knew what that meant. Street was now the starting quarterback. After leaving Royal's office crying, Bradley called his dad collect, wanting to quit.

"My dad was a hard, railroad man and a baseball coach," Bradley said. "He told me, 'You're not welcome in this house if you do.'"

Bradley would eventually find a new home at defensive back, where he would become a three-time Pro Bowler for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Texas, however, still had one more revision to make.

As he studied film of the Texas Tech game, offensive line coach Willie Zapalac noticed Worster was getting to the point of attack before his linemen could deliver their blocks. Worster was also getting there without a full head of steam. Bellard and Royal agreed that by taking a step back, Worster could morph into the human-battering ram the Wishbone pined for him to be.

"When we moved Worster back and James took over," Bradley said, "we just caught fire."

Two weeks later in Dallas, trailing by a point to Oklahoma with just a couple of minutes remaining, Street took the Longhorns right down the field with a series of completions. Worster then did the rest. He slammed past the right guard on the dive, plowed over an Oklahoma defender, then dragged two more Sooners into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

"We started tearing people up," Worster said. "They didn't know how to defend the Wishbone. They didn't know what to do, and we loved it."

The following Saturday, Texas put up 39 points in another win against another rival, this time ninth-ranked Arkansas. Back in Room 2001 of the Capri, Royal had a Budweiser in hand, when somebody asked, "Darrell, what are you going to call this offense?" Houston Post writer Mickey Herskowitz chimed in that the formation looked like "a wishbone." From then on, that's what Royal called it.

"I had already used it my story that night, so I wanted to get credit for it," Herskowitz said. "I told Darrell later, if I realized you were going to give me the credit, I would've been charging you a royalty -- no pun intended."

The offense that would engulf college football like a wildfire had its name.

Propelled by its Wishbone, Texas captured back-to-back national championships in 1969 and 1970. Paying attention across the Red River was Oklahoma offensive coordinator Barry Switzer.

"They'd always outnumber you when they executed," Switzer said. "Didn't matter what you did."

The Sooners had fallen on hard times under Chuck Fairbanks and had just lost at home to lowly Oregon State in Week 3 of the 1970 season. As "chuck Chuck" bumper stickers surfaced all around the state, Switzer, as he had that spring, begged Fairbanks to switch to the Wishbone with the Longhorns up next.

"Chuck said, 'No, we don't wanna do that. We don't want to be a copycat to Texas,'" Switzer recalled. "S---, everybody copies everybody. We shouldn't let that keep us from doing it."

Desperate, Fairbanks relented. And to Bellard's dismay, Royal agreed to help his alma mater -- even with the Red River Showdown on deck.

"This still amazes me about Darrell, that he allowed Emory Bellard to talk to me," Switzer said. "Emory was very, very helpful with me in discussing the finer points of the offense, blocking schemes and the corner and all that.

"I don't know why Darrell did it. I can't answer that. Maybe he felt sorry for our ass. I guarantee, he wouldn't have done it if he knew what we were fixin' to become."

What Oklahoma became was a juggernaut.

Utilizing Switzer's supersonic version of the Wishbone, the Sooners, beginning in 1971, rolled to five straight wins over Royal on the way to national championships in 1974 and 1975. Switzer, who took over for Fairbanks in 1973, would win another title with the Wishbone in 1985, with Oklahoma's big touchdown in the Orange Bowl victory over Penn State actually coming on a pass to tight end Keith Jackson.

"The difficult thing about the Wishbone was, in order to stop the option game, you had to involve your secondary," said former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who later would incorporate the option into his I formation, igniting the Cornhuskers to national championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997. "You couldn't play the fullback, the quarterback keep and the pitch just by defensive linemen and linebackers alone. You ran out of people. And so it involved somewhat of a desertion of your secondary. And that really left you very vulnerable to the play-action pass because the secondary had to commit itself very quickly. And so one of the scariest things about playing Oklahoma was the play-action pass."

Behind the Wishbone, the Sooners quickly regained control of the Big Eight from Osborne's Cornhuskers. In the meantime, Royal and Switzer turned bitter adversaries, culminating with Royal publicly accusing Switzer of cheating in recruiting and spying on Texas' practices.

As Slocum tells it, years after they had both retired, Royal phoned Bellard out of the blue.

"Do you remember that day I came into your office and told you I wanted you to help OU run the Wishbone -- and you told me you didn't think we ought to do it?" Royal said, Bellard told Slocum. "I've had a long time to think about this -- and you were right."

Turned out, Oklahoma wasn't the only other blueblood program rekindled by Bellard's Wishbone, with Royal's help.

After witnessing the Sooners rush for 349 yards against his defense in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl, Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant flew to Austin the ensuing spring to learn the offense from Royal and Bellard, who obliged him as well.

"Bryant comes to Austin and the next morning they're going to get started," Herskowitz said. "Darrell gets to the football building and Coach Bryant is outside sitting on the steps. Darrell said, 'Paul, how long you been sitting here?' And Coach Bryant said, 'Since 6 o'clock -- when do you guys go to work around here?'"

Following consecutive five-loss seasons, the Crimson Tide immediately rebounded and went undefeated before falling to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Two years later, Alabama captured the national championship, then added two more national titles to close out the decade. "They started kicking the hell outta everybody, too," Switzer said.

From there, the Wishbone spread to every corner of the country. Even the rival Aggies relented, hiring Bellard to bring the Wishbone to College Station in 1972 after four consecutive losing seasons. Within three years, Bellard had Texas A&M in the top five in the polls.

Over the 1970s, only two programs finished with more than 100 victories, and both of them -- Oklahoma and Alabama -- ran the Wishbone for virtually the entire decade.

In 1988, the Villa Capri was demolished to eventually make way for new Texas practice fields. The Wishbone, as Bellard constructed it, would survive only for a little while longer.

It actually died at Texas more than a decade earlier, when Royal retired in 1976. Ironically, the Longhorns replaced him with Akers, whom Royal had shuffled to defense in 1968, clearing the way for Bellard to doodle the Wishbone into existence. After returning to Austin from Wyoming, Akers scrapped the Wishbone at Texas for good -- save for one play in 2012.

When Royal passed away that November, Texas coach Mack Brown honored him by having the Longhorns line up in the Wishbone on the first play against Iowa State, which turned out to be a 47-yard completion off a trick play.

"If you do something to change the direction of college football, it's a legacy," Brown said of Royal and Bellard, who died a year before Royal, in 2011.

Although just a handful of schools, such as Georgia Tech and the service academies, primarily employ the option, the legacy of the Wishbone lives on.

"Some of the original spread guys, Chip Kelly to Urban Meyer, their principles are based off numbers. They try to outnumber you," said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo. "The Wishbone was based off numbers. You pitch off this guy, this guy is your read key for the dive. Getting the numbers advantage is a principle of the Wishbone. ... and its fingerprint is definitely still heavily involved in football today."

That includes the run-pass option, which allows the quarterback to pass out of a running play if he sees a numbers advantage. The Philadelphia Eagles utilized an array of these, called RPOs, in their upset of New England in Super Bowl LII.

"Those are remnants of what Darrell and Coach Bellard came up with back in the '60s," Brown said. "You still see what they came up with impacting the college and NFL game today."

At the ground floor of constructing the Air Raid at Iowa Wesleyan, Leach and Hal Mumme carefully studied the Wishbone together and implemented its concepts into their offense.

"One thing with the Air Raid that's very important is to make sure all the skill positions touch the ball," Leach said. "In the Wishbone, all the skill positions touch the ball. All the skill positions contribute to the offensive effort. From the Wishbone, we drew the concept of distribution."

With its success, the Air Raid has since taken over as college football's attack du jour. Switzer, however, isn't so sure the Wishbone couldn't also still thrive today.

"Think about the quarterback that won the Heisman at Louisville [Lamar Jackson]," Switzer said. "S---, he'd be perfect in the Wishbone. There's a lot of them out there, with the great speed and quickness that can also throw the football. They're out there by the dozens. They're just playing different positions."

Leach, whose offense just led the nation in passing attempts for the sixth straight year, isn't so sure, either -- that still, 50 years later, Bellard's brainchild, in its original form, couldn't flourish.

"Nobody has ever truly stopped the Wishbone," he said. "There's a point to where people have lost interest in the Wishbone. But nobody ever really successfully stopped it."