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A Very Singular Way To Play

The single wing may be virtually extinct, but thanks to Keith Piper it's still alive—and running and passing—at Denison

Collect call for Knute Rockne, from a Mr. Warner.... Go ahead, sir.

Hiya Rock, thanks for accepting the call. It's me, Glenn Warner.... Pop, you senile goat, Pop Warner. Been dead since 1954.... What? Well, I'd rather have a kiddie league named after me than get played real somber by Pat O'Brien.

But listen, the reason I called is to tell you that there's this fellow at a college in Ohio who's got his boys running the single wing.... Of course I'm sure. Denison University, 2,200 students, nice wooded place up on a hill in a little town called Granville, 30 miles east of Columbus. If you ever look down, you'll see for yourself. Fullback spinners, buck laterals, unbalanced line, the whole bit. Coach's name is Keith Piper. He's only 60, but he knows stuff from way back—knows, for instance, that I invented the formation around aught-six. He's even got a copy of that book I wrote in 1912 when I was coach at the Carlisle Indian School. Remember that one, Rock? About helmets I said, "I do not encourage their use."

What?...Lord, no, they don't play Notre Dame. They're only NCAA Division III. No scholarships, opponents like Wooster and Otterbein.... No, they don't run your silly damn shift.... Do tell? Give me 11 louts and a piece of chalk and I'll stop your shift and your box in 10 minutes. And what'll you do about my Z, or the shoestring sleeper?...Four Horsemen, my Aunt Tillie....

Calm down! I am not yelling.... I don't want to fight, Rock. I just wanted to tell you about this fellow Piper. I thought, as single-wing immortals maybe we could do something for him. See, just a couple days ago this old hackberry tree fell on his house and...

Keith Piper, who has a record of 139-100-13 after 27 seasons of coaching the Denison Big Red, stands in his front yard on a summer afternoon and stares at his damaged roof. Beside him is the stump of a hackberry tree, 18 feet in circumference, sawed off and flat enough now to serve a picnic lunch on. Piper loved that tree. It was almost as old as his brick house, which was built around 1810, and like other aged things the tree always appeared to be a symbol of pluck and order to him. It was blown down in a thunderstorm. It could have squashed Piper, his wife, Mike, and youngest son, Billy, 21, sending them all to single-wing heaven, but the sturdy house shrugged off the blow. Just goes to show, says Piper, that they built things right in the old days.

Including football formations. "The thing that a lot of people don't understand about the single wing is that it was never caught up with or overrun," says Piper, sitting now in his office at the Denison field house. "It works. But football is like men's fashions. Coaches don't run the single wing because they don't want to be out of style."

Indeed, the last major college to use the single wing was Princeton, which gave it up in 1969. But until the late '40s almost every high school, college and pro team used it. By the '70s, for reasons Piper feels are frivolous at best, the single wing had become as obsolete as the flying wedge and the six-man line. The only college other than Denison that now runs the single wing is Colorado College, another Division III school, and it employs the formation only occasionally.

Except for three seasons in the early '60s when he used the single wing, Piper ran the T formation at Denison from 1954, the year he became coach, through 1977. It took him that long, he says, to realize the advantages of a forgotten system in a follow-the-leader world. "When you're at a school like this, where you don't have great talent, the single wing is ideal," he says. "It's good for utilizing slower, smaller players, and because opponents only see it once a year, you take them by surprise."

Piper indicates a framed photo on the wall of his chum Woody Hayes, who was the Denison coach from 1946 through '48. "He thinks I'm a little crazy to run the single wing," says Piper, "but I guess if you'd been at Ohio State with all those bulls, you could afford to forget about the formation. Sometimes I think about what you could do with the single wing and talent. I talked recently to Forrest Gregg, the Bengals' coach, and he said that Kenny Anderson could've been a great single-wing tailback. With Pete Johnson at fullback and Archie Griffin at wing-back—I mean, think of it."

To do that one has to understand a little about the formation itself. Essentially, the single wing differs from the T and its variations in that the single wing has no back directly under the center. In a typical single-wing alignment the tailback lines up about five yards behind the center, with the fullback at his side. The quarterback lines up a yard behind a tackle on the strong side, and these three backs crouch with their hands on their knees. The remaining back, the lone wingback, who gives the formation its name, positions himself in a three-point stance just off the tight end's outside foot. In the unbalanced-line version of the formation, which Denison uses and most of its single-wing predecessors employed, the center is flanked on one side by a guard and an end and on the other by two tackles, a guard and the tight end.

In some single wings the center could snap the ball to the tailback, fullback, quarterback or wingback in motion; Denison doesn't use any direct hikes to the quarterback or wingback. Usually, the center in any single wing snaps to the tailback, who runs with, hands off, passes or punts it. Most of the great players one hears about from the old days—Jim Thorpe, George Gipp, Tom Harmon, Doak Walker, et al., the legendary "triple threats"—were tailbacks.

When the fullback gets the ball, he often takes a step forward and then spins 180 degrees, like a man who has just remembered that he left his car keys on the kitchen table. With his back to the line he then either hands off to another back, runs a bootleg or completes his spin and dives forward. Though comic in appearance, fullback spinner plays are as essential to the single wing as halfback dives are to the T.

The quarterback in the single wing wears big pads, seldom touches the ball and spends most of his time leading other backs into the fray. After a beer or two Piper will refer to the quarterback as "the retarded guard." In truth, a single-wing quarterback must be more selfless than dumb. He calls all the plays so that the star of the show, the tailback, won't feel guilty about dominating the offense. In a 9-0 victory over Ohio Wesleyan in 1979, Denison Quarterback John Parsons put on a remarkable display of self-effacement and/or masochism when he called Little All-America Tailback Clay Sampson's number an Ohio Athletic Conference-record 54 times.

At some point, though, all the backs in the single wing will spin, reverse, hand off, block, fake, run, pass and receive. This versatility and the deceptiveness that arises out of it—combined with the devastating double-team and trap blocking set up by the unbalanced line—give the single wing its punch. To defenders, facing a single-wing play often feels like an encounter with a gigantic, rampaging eggbeater. "I think any offensive lineman has to love it," says Dave Haverstick, a 1982 graduate of Denison and a three-year starter at strongside guard. "In the T you're supposed to be disciplined and just protect your area, but in the single wing you get a chance to be more reckless, to turn upfield and clean house. Defensive players aren't used to getting trapped from any direction. They become hesitant. They try to figure out what's going on in the backfield, and then they're easier to block straight on."

Some coaches believe the single wing can be stopped simply by having defenders read keys. Piper loves it when opponents operate that way. "We've got fakes off of fakes off of fakes," he says. "We throw in misdirection plays just to make liars out of coaches. Once we got two linebackers who were reading their keys to collide head on."

Piper chuckles when he says this. A beefy former All-Ohio single-wing center at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, he's clearly as enthralled with the eccentricity of using the single wing in this era as with the formation's effectiveness. In the seven seasons Piper's teams have run the single wing, Denison has been 39-21-4. On Saturday the Big Red tied Hampden-Sydney 0-0 in their 1982 season opener. Piper can coach other formations, too. In 1957 the Big Red went 8-1 and led the nation's small colleges in total offense while running out of the T.

But Piper was unmoved by coaching the T formation. "Part of it is my age," he says. "I remember all the great single-wing teams and names, and I had a good time playing it myself. I remember watching Massillon [Ohio] High play the single wing in 1932. Paul Brown was the coach. They'd run a play and there'd be nobody left standing on the field. The system just turns me on."

So why doesn't it turn other people on? Critics point to the single wing's drawbacks: It has no quick-hitting plays; it isn't a great passing formation; it's too dependent on the accurate snapping of a center who's vulnerable to a tough defensive charge because he must look back through his legs as he initiates play; it isn't a good two-minute or come-from-behind offense. Moreover, it's the victim of its own catch-22 syndrome: Because the formation isn't used at the highest levels, it's rarely used at the lower levels, which makes potential single-wing specialists, notably tailbacks and centers, almost impossible to find and assess. Even when a coach discovers players with aptitude for the single wing, imparting the nuances of the formation to them is a formidable task. "Just teaching a single-wing center how to snap the ball can take forever," says Piper.

When the George Halas-coached Bears won the NFL championship 37-9 over the Giants in 1941 playing the T, the single wing was doomed. "Most coaches copy someone who's successful," says Bear General Manager Jim Finks. "And the fact is, you can do almost anything in football and be successful if you do it right. Single wing, T, whatever—it boils down to execution."

Finks should know. As a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers he was the last NFL tailback to take a snap in the single wing. "It was the final game of the 1951 season, at Washington, and we'd already hung on to the single wing longer than anybody else," he says. "I was primarily a defensive back, but because our first two tailbacks were hurt, I played both ways the second half. We won the game, but a few days later our coach, John Michelosen, was fired. The next season our new coach, Joe Bach, put in the T. I don't think any of us players were sad to see the single wing go. We recognized that it was a thing of the past. But honestly, I'm not convinced that it couldn't be successful in the pros right now."

Finks points out that the formation would force NFL defenses, now geared primarily to stop the pass, to change personnel. "You sure as hell couldn't stop a bona fide single-wing running game with three or four down linemen, linebackers weighing 215 pounds and cornerbacks weighing 180," he says. "You'd need a minimum of five or six men on the line of scrimmage to take on the double teams, and in the secondary you'd need bigger, stronger men who could tackle."

Dallas Cowboys Coach Tom Landry recalls that during his playing days for the New York Giants, he and all his teammates dreaded facing the Steelers' single wing. "Before we went to Pittsburgh we'd put on every pad we could find to keep from getting beat up," he says. But, adds Landry, the pounding went both ways. "Gosh, those tailbacks took a beating," he says. "They never lasted very long."

Indeed, it's probably the vulnerability of the single-wing tailback, a rare bird who must be as good at passing as running, that has been most responsible for the demise of the formation. Dick Kazmaier was a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback for Princeton in 1951, and he says he knew upon graduation that he had become an anachronism. "I was 5'11" and between 170 and 175 pounds, and off the field I looked pretty much like everybody else," he says. "Players didn't wear face masks then, they tackled differently, and the only injuries I got in college were a sprained ankle and a broken nose. Everybody was much closer in size and skill when I played. Now, though, you have players who seem to have been bred to play just one position, who develop muscles just for that use. I don't know how a tailback could survive today."

Still, the effects of the single wing linger. The pro-spread and shotgun formations are descended from the formation. When the Kansas City Chiefs wing their biggest receiver off the tight end and run the power off-tackle play, they're stealing from the single-wing playbook. Landry has even considered snapping the ball directly to Tony Dorsett, which would make Dorsett the equivalent of a single-wing fullback, but feels the timing of the exchange would make it too risky. "About the only thing the single wing would be good for in the pros is occasional short-yardage plays," says Landry.

Those few fanatics who still care deeply about the single wing and think it's good for more than just a few plays, all seem to have found one another, communicating through a sort of brotherhood of the formation. They have book exchanges, debates and an occasional film fest, at which aficionados gather to drink beer and watch single-wing footage until no one is left awake. Piper has heard from most of these people. One of them, Edward Racely, a 52-year-old contractor in Atherton, Calif. and perhaps Piper's most prolific pen pal, has built an addition onto his house to hold his single-wing memorabilia. "What can I say?" says Racely. "I think I would have been happier in the flapper era."

On fall Saturdays, single-wing devotees and the merely curious come from miles around to watch Piper's strange little football team. They sit on the hill above Denison's stadium, look out over the green, chalked gridiron and drink a few rounds from the past. Piper is thankful for the attention, but he's working on something more substantial than attracting nostalgia fans. "I'm not that good with words," he says, "but I'm writing down everything I can think of that has to do with the single wing, and it's going to be made into a book. I feel a responsibility." His jaw set, the big old coach shrugs. "I mean, if I croaked tomorrow, who's going to tell people how it was?"

Hey Rock, listen to this, from the Saturday Evening Post of Oct. 24, 1931: "Pop never was more spectacular. He opened the ball game with spins, double and triple passes until he had the lay spectators dizzy; not one in a thousand could follow the ball." Strong stuff, huh?...The truth isn't bragging, Rock.... All right, no righting.

So what do you want to do for Piper? What if you and me and Stagg and some of the other boys used our influence and made the fellow's book a best seller?...Well, yeah, maybe it would go to his head, and he'd turn to the veer or the I. What if we made Denison Division III national champs?...Hmm, I don't know. I think he'd survive.... Well, what do you suggest?

Have the trees in the forest grow even taller to make up for the hackberry? Say, that's not such a bad idea. Really. It's subtle and it won't upset anybody. I'm sorry for arguing with you earlier, Rock. No matter what people say, you've got a good heart. If you ever need anything, just let me know.... You bet. Say hi to the Gipper. So long, buddy.

Mr. Warner, this is the operator. After you hung up, Mr. Rockne left a message for you.

Yes, what is it?

"I double-reversed the charges back to you."


The buck-lateral series is a vital part of the Denison offense, just as it was for the single wings of yore. Here the ball is centered to the fullback, who hands off to the quarterback (24). He in turn will pitch to the tailback (31), who will head around left end.


In a variation on the fullback-spinner series, the fullback turns and hands off to the tailback. The fullback then completes his spin and blocks. Note how many linemen pull.


In what Denison calls the motion series the tailback (30) receives the snap and fakes first to the wingback (21)—who's in motion when the ball is centered—and then to the fullback (31). The tailback then has the option of passing or running with the ball.


Tailback Mark Frymier (30) and the Big Red went nowhere against Hampden-Sydney.


One of the last great single-wing tailbacks, Kazmaier won the Heisman Trophy in 1951.