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Original Issue


Houston coach John Jenkins has no apologies for his wild offense with the wide-open throttle

Back before he wore the silver-framed tinted specs and the muscle T's and the short shorts and the boot heels with the goldfish in them (well, fake goldfish), before he changed the gridiron as we know it, before he added the air-raid siren to the exploding scoreboard and invented rock 'n' roll football, even back then John Jenkins was a killer. Why, with that fountain of hair cascading up, back and every which way—apparently from a single spot at the peak of his forehead—he not only dressed the way Jerry Lee Lewis did but also looked like him. Jenkins says he was "a pioneer in the field of weight training." Uh-huh.

What he really was, was a wannabe stud-hoss genius-innovator. Back then, while his stereo blasted his favorite tunes across the iron and through the eardrums at 5 a.m. in those weight rooms of the late 1960s and early '70s, Jenkins was pumping up his pecs to impress the babes and pumping up his mind so he could figure out how to average triple figures.

O.K., so Jenkins, now 39 and the coach-offensive coordinator at the University of Houston, didn't think up the run-and-shoot all by himself. But hey, Hoss, tell you what, as Jenkins might say—and does, at the beginning of virtually every sentence—your evolutionaries come in strange packages.

"Hey, Hoss, back in Pampa [Texas], my crowd was a bunch of rowdies in a place where cracking each other over the head with bottles wasn't assault and battery, it was entertainment," says Jenkins. "Hey, Hoss, I could have been a wild-bull rider...or the biggest hoodlum in Texas."

Jenkins never smoked, drank or used drugs. And following the brawls he always drove the car. Little wonder that as a grownup (well, not really) he has settled on being the run-and-shoot gangster of love—not to mention having a reputation as the biggest hoodlum in football.

"For somebody who is really a pretty good guy," says Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, "John has managed to piss off coaches all over the country."

Already. In one season as a head coach. Without being on network television or going to a bowl game.

"We survive in the coaching profession by helping one another," says one Big Eight coach. "Jenkins has shown an inability to do this. Everyone resents a guy who thinks he invented the game."

"There's such a thing as ethics in winning," says a Southeastern Conference coach. "When you beat someone the way Jenkins does, there's a chance you're going to hurt a lot of young people."

All this from a couple of coaches who have yet to play against him.

Last December, when Houston ended its 10-1 season by devastating Arizona State 62-45 in the Tokyo Dome, Cougar quarterback David Klingler (previous story) set an NCAA single-game record by passing for 716 yards. Only he didn't know he was nearing the record until somebody on the sideline mentioned it. "It was Jenkins," Klingler said later. "He kept trying to find out what [yardage] I had." In the postseason Blue-Gray game, Jenkins installed the run-and-shoot for the Gray team and then used a megaphone to shout out the plays. "That wasn't right," said an opposing coach. "In games like that you should run offenses...that both teams will understand."

It is the numbers—especially the outrageously lopsided scores that his offense has engendered—that have bathed Jenkins in so much scalding acid. Scores like 60-0, 82-28, 66-15, 69-0, 65-7, 66-10 and 64-0 have become commonplace in the Houston record book since 1987, when Jenkins became the offensive coordinator under coach Jack Pardee. That year, Jenkins introduced his personal version of the run-and-shoot to the Cougars, who promptly misunderstood it to the tune of one win in their first seven games.

Jenkins does not claim to have invented the offense, by the way, only to have expanded it. The Cougars' run-and-shoot is vastly different from Mouse Davis's Silver Stretch, which was designed for the Detroit Lions of a few years ago, or from Jerry Glanville's Red Gun on the Atlanta Falcons or from Warren Moon's aerial festivities on behalf of the Houston Oilers. The offense is not even the same as it was when Jenkins was the offensive coordinator for the Jim Kelly-led Houston Gamblers of the USFL, a team that set 20 pro football yardage records in 1985.

"Everything's similar, but different," Jenkins says. "We're more advanced, more complex. Tinkering with this deal, messing with it in my head, the possibilities through the avenues in the air are so unlimited it's scary."

Jenkins actually converses in this hip-poetic, mad-scientist fashion, and he really does believe he has come upon the secret of the football universe—"like NASA discovering some new solar system," he says. "Other teams are crawling, we're flying."

Paranoid—isn't every coach?—about revealing the intimate details of his offense, Jenkins lectures at clinics only on fundamentals, prohibits other college coaches from watching his practices and keeps a shredder over his office wastebasket, the better to keep the eyes of spies from the 350-page workbooks he issues to Houston's skill-position players every week. "Do IBM and Xerox share their policies so some competitor can come in later and kick their butts?" says Jenkins.

Tony Fitzpatrick, a Houston assistant coach who played for the Gamblers when both Davis and Jenkins were assistant coaches there, says, "Jenks is so far ahead of everybody else, it's a joke. Mouse comes in here now, looks at our films and even he doesn't understand them. Spreading the field? Mouse had [the Gamblers'] slot guys split arm's length from the tackles. Jenks would have them start their routes over by the Gatorade carts if he could."

Davis is usually given credit for bringing the run-and-shoot to prominence with the Gamblers. "But there were times in Houston when I'd ask John, 'Is this going to work?' " Davis says. "He understands things before they start. My imagination and John's are not the same size. I'm an executor. He's an innovator."

Inevitably, Jenkins has grown weary of the run-and-shoot's mundane moniker, which usually defines a four-receiver formation with one running back and no tight end. "Now we call ours a Multiple Adjusting Passing Offense," says Jenkins. But can anyone imagine the good ol' boys from Houston actually riding into town under the flag of MAPO, which they surely didn't touch even when it was a popular breakfast cereal?

By whatever name, the offense is based on speed, spreading out the defense and attacking the resulting chaos from all angles. Runnin' and shootin' is option football through the air, wherein the quarterback decides which receiver to throw to after the play has begun. It's an offense in which the receivers change their routes depending on what the defense does.

And its effectiveness depends on repetition. "And execution," says Jenkins. "If we don't execute, St. Mary's Junior High might beat us. If we do, nobody can stop us." In Houston's first game under Pardee-Jenkins in '87, Oklahoma State shut out the Cougars 35-0. Yet Jenkins now says with a straight face, "I'd have given anything to play them again later in the year. We'd have won handily."

Throwin' and catchin', right? Not necessarily. In 1989 Houston led the NCAA in total yardage with 624.9 yards a game and was the first college team in history to have a 4,000-yard passer (Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware), a 1,500-yard receiver (Manny Hazard) and a 1,000-yard rusher, Chuck Weatherspoon, who set a record of 9.6 yards per carry, a perfect example of how the MAPO can open up the stadium for the ground game. Last year Houston led the nation in pass offense (474 yards a game), in total offense (587 yards a game) and in scoring (46.5 points a game).

Moreover, since the Houston players figured the thing out and put an ugly 60-40 whuppin' on Texas on Nov. 7, 1987, the Cougars have scored 50 or more points 15 times while putting together a 31-6-1 record, the fourth-best in the country (only Miami, Notre Dame and Florida State have won more games during that period). When Pardee moved to the Oilers last season and Jenkins was named head coach, keeping the offensive coordinator's portfolio, the Cougars hardly skipped a beat—or a beating. Even while finishing a two-year (no bowls) NCAA probation for a previous administration's cheating, Houston remained in the running for the national championship until its ninth game of the year, when it was defeated 45-24 by a revenge-motivated Texas.

That was a paradoxical result, of course, for a coach and a band of marauders used to doing the head hammering themselves. Houston had beaten Texas in each of the previous three seasons, scoring—get this—173 points to Texas's 64. And who can forget the Cougars' 95-21 "victory" in '89 over an almost-all-freshmen, just-back-from-the-death-penalty SMU? Or their 84-21 mauling of Division I-AA Eastern Washington last season?

After that game, in which Jenkins left Klingler in through three quarters, the national press declared war on the crazed Doctor Dirtbag of Run It Up. Never mind that Klingler's backup was injured and that Jenkins wanted to protect the red-shirt eligibility of two other signal-callers. Couldn't Houston have faked trying?

Jenkins "perpetuated a national image of the Cougars as bullies kicking canes and parking in handicapped spaces," wrote Jonathan Feigen in the Houston Chronicle.

Jenkins replies that if Houston actually had been trying to pile it on every week, the American public would have seen "scores that looked like typographical errors. Eastern Washington? Anybody who saw that game knows we were at least 50 points and 500 yards from running it up."

The thing is, in real life the strapping 6'3" Jenkins is so happy, folksy, open, affable, funny, hardworking, logical and downright charming, that it's difficult to stay mad at him. "The truth is, our offense is virtually uncontrollable; it's impossible to stop, even by ourselves," he says in a way that makes you believe—or at least makes you want to believe. Unless, of course, you're Baylor's Grant Teaff, the dean of Southwest Conference coaches, whose team was beaten by Jenkins's offense 66-10 and 31-15 in the past two seasons and who claims that "running it up is part of his [Jenkins's] philosophy."

Jenkins calls Teaff's remarks "crude." But what must have really hurt the crowd-pleasing Jenkins the most was when Teaff called Houston's no-huddle, no-holds-barred style "boring."

"Standing on the sideline...they're milling around, you're milling around. Then they snap it," Teaff told Skip Bay-less of the Dallas Times Herald last season. "You can't really get into it emotionally. It's not like you break from the huddle, line up, call signals and splatter somebody. For them, third-and-20 is nothing. It changes the whole perception of football. Houston-TCU went four hours and 10 minutes. Houston is going to drive TV up the wall."

Actually, witnesses to the Houston-TCU game on Nov. 3 saw Klingler throw for 563 yards and TCU's Matt Vogler throw for 690, which broke an NCAA record for total combined yardage by almost 300 yards. Of the 13 touchdowns in Houston's 56-35 victory, the longest scoring drive lasted one minute, 39 seconds. In other words, Houston—now off probation—may drive TV ratings off the charts.

"Hey, Hoss, the main reason people play football is for fun, and this offense is fun," Jenkins says. "All it is, is throwing and catching. Our guys are out there all summer practicing throwing and catching. Can you imagine players in the wishbone wanting to go out and practice in 100-degree heat? What do they say, 'Hey, Hoss, let's go out and block each other. You hurt me, then I'll bust you!' "

"The term running up the score is back in the Stone Age as far as any coach's having any clue about our system," says Jenkins, who surely takes solace from a half-time speech given way back in semi-Stone 1916. At the time, Georgia Tech led Cumberland 126-0, on the way to a 222-0 squeaker. "Hit 'em hard. Don't let up," said the Tech coach, who was not on the Christmas card list of most of his com-padres. But old John (Run It Up) Heisman is only one of many marquee names Jenkins has borrowed from.

When he was growing up in Pampa, Jenkins, his father having left home when he was 14, took as a role model Robert E. (Swede) Lee, a regionally famous high school coach. Today, Lee remembers Jenkins as a long-haired rebel "sort of dancing to his own drummer." Jenkins remembers wanting to be a football coach since he was in the 10th grade. But did Jenks really wear red bell-bottoms back then? "Hey, Hoss," he says. "Didn't everybody?"

Frank Broyles recruited him to Arkansas, where Jenkins played occasional backup quarterback to Joe Ferguson. He not only grew up there, but he also turned "hot" there: He sported muscle outfits and drove a souped-up green Dodge with mag wheels. Jenkins also played baseball at Arkansas where, always sleeveless, Big Klu-style, he was a designated hitter who crowded the plate, asking to be knocked down, which he often was. "I used to trot down to first," says Jenkins, "smile at the pitcher, flex a little and shout, 'That all you got?' "

During Christmas break his senior year, Jenkins put on a suit and tie and rumbled across Texas distributing his rèsumè to bewildered high school coaches. After short stretches at high schools in Nacogdoches and Texarkana, he returned to Arkansas as a graduate assistant under Lou Holtz in 1977. In the 1978 Orange Bowl, Jenkins, as the Hogs' secondary coach, helped Arkansas upset Oklahoma, denying the Sooners the national championship. The Arkansas quarterback then, Ron Calcagni, is now one of Jenkins's receiver coaches. In 1980, as linebacker coach at Mississippi State, Jenkins helped the Bulldogs upset No. 1 Alabama, 6-3, snapping a 28-game Tide winning streak.

In '84 and '85, finally coaching on the offensive side of the ball, Jenkins joined the Gamblers, collaborating with Davis to introduce to pro football the radical run-and-shoot idea both men had gotten from a book written by an Ohio high school coach named Tiger Ellison. About to lose his job in the mid-'60s, Ellison had drawn up a formation with the quarterback and center on one side of the field and their nine teammates on the other; somebody called it the Lonesome Polecat.

The Gamblers' version was more conventional. Kelly, now with the Buffalo Bills, recalls "just airing it out all the time, every down."

After Donald Trump merged the Gamblers with the New Jersey Generals, Jenkins was contemplating an offense with Kelly at quarterback, Herschel Walker at tailback and Doug Flutie as an inside receiver. "We'd be going up and down the field," he says, "until we got leg cramps." But the USFL went out of business, and Jenkins scampered to the University of Pittsburgh for a year as an offensive assistant while he waited for his old friend Pardee to bring him back to Houston.

At present, Jenkins is ensconced in a plain tract home in suburban Friends-wood with his tall, blonde wife, Kayla, their two children, Jade, 6, and Raefe, 3, and Bill, the dog. There are two cars and a van parked outside the garage. Only it isn't a garage; it's a football research library filled with game plans, scouting tapes, workbooks, films, programs, play files, pictures and the like, all organized in such a way that John can, according to Kayla, "find anything in three minutes."

And so the paradoxes overwhelm the questions. Is Jenkins some two-bit Texas hustler who stumbled upon an oasis of magnificent athletes? Or is he a dynamic personality and brilliant offensive strategist, his evil-plunderer half aside, just waiting to storm the conservative barriers of the NFL? Is it Jenkins or is it his system? Can his quarterback, Klingler, win the Heisman? Will the Cougars' 6'3" wideout, John Brown III (JB3), turn into the next Jerry Rice? Can Houston beat Miami on the road on Sept. 12? Will the Cougars win the national championship? Can Jenks's maniacal point junkies eventually break 100?

Hey, Hoss, Jenkins might answer as he trots into the Astrodome, flexing his brain along with all those pass plays: That all you got?