Ye Olde Wishbone Returneth

According to reports, Army is going back to the wishbone.

Despite his double-secret spring practices and a spring game that will only be a “defensive scrimmage,” Stan Brock’s plan to keep his new mystery offense under wraps has failed. Not that we have any details or anything, but at least the Army coaching staff’s renewed acquaintance with Jim Young has been explained.

The general attitude of Army fans at the moment.

To Army fans, the wishbone is roughly analogous to Jesus Christ, Chuck Norris, Winston Churchill, the Emancipation Proclamation, Luke Skywalker, and penicillin all rolled into one. It’s the wonder drug. The messiah. The badass panacea that will cure all that is wrong with the football program. That’s because whatever football success that Army has had in the last 30 years came when the team was running a wishbone (or wishbone-ish) offense. The architect of those teams was Jim Young, the former Arizona and Purdue head coach who relieved Ed Cavanaugh as Army’s top dog in 1983. After losing 9 games in his first year, Young decided he needed to make a change on offense and installed the wishbone. The success was immediate. In 1984, Army went 8-3-1, won the Commander in Chief’s Trophy, stunned Tennessee with a 24-24 tie, and beat Michigan State in the now-defunct Cherry Bowl. Young won 49 games in seven years at Army after installing the wishbone.

The similarities between Young’s experiment and today’s Army team are pretty obvious. Cavanaugh coached Army for three years before Young was hired. Bobby Ross coached Army for 3 years before Stan Brock replaced him. Both Young and Brock used offenses similar to their predecessors’ in their first year. Both ended up with 9 losses that year. And now, Army is apparently switching to the wishbone once again. Optimism is sure to abound.

Hopefully, that optimism is kept in check. I think most Army fans would agree that duplicating the immediate success they saw under Young isn’t a reasonable expectation. But they all expect it to work before too long. It’s their dogma; the wishbone– or at least the triple option– is the path to service* academy football nirvana. After all, Ken Hatfield installed the wishbone at Air Force and resurrected that program after its doldrums of the ’70s. Fisher DeBerry used the basics of the same offense for two decades. Paul Johnson took Navy to 5 straight bowl games with his option offense. But service* academies have lost with the option as much as they’ve won with it. Elliot Uzelac ran the wishbone at Navy and won a whopping 8 games in 3 years. The Mids ran option-heavy offenses under Charlie Weatherbie and gradually deteriorated into a winless team. And while Army fans like to remember Bob Sutton for the 1996 season that saw the Cadets go 10-2, the rest of his tenure wasn’t nearly as good. Outside of that one season, Sutton’s record at West Point was 34-53-1. Suttonites would argue that at least the team was competitive. But 14 of Sutton’s wins at Army came against non-scholarship I-AA programs (Colgate x4, Harvard, Holy Cross x2, Lafayette x4, Lehigh, Bucknell, Yale). Sutton also lost to The Citadel twice, and lost to Boston University (not Boston College) four years before that school dropped football. If Bobby Ross had the luxury of playing those teams, how much better would his record at Army have looked? The truth is that Army football under Sutton wasn’t much different than Army under Bobby Ross and Stan Brock. Sutton just had a much easier schedule.

That means that the option alone wasn’t the answer to all of life’s problems. There had to be another underlying cause of Army’s futility. Whatever those problems are, Army’s answer to them is to imitate Air Force of the 80s; pack the prep school with players, ease service requirements for graduates, and run the option. Shady, but it worked once already. But can you imagine the meltdown if it doesn’t work? The option is supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle. If Army doesn’t win even with the option, one of two things will happen. Either Army will completely give up and seriously consider dropping to I-AA, or they’ll just completely abandon whatever integrity they have left and start cutting even more corners. Relaxed admissions standards, maybe? Athletic dorms? Kinesiology majors? The sky’s the limit.

Meanwhile, assuming that this report is correct and Army is indeed returning to a true wishbone offense, I think it’s a good thing for college football. I like watching wishbone offenses. And ever since Ken Hatfield left Rice, there hasn’t been a decent wishbone playbook for me to use on my Xbox. Don’t talk to me about that generic “option playbook” garbage, either.


Going off on a bit of a tangent now… Something that annoys me when listening to college football fans– and Army fans are by no means the only ones guilty of this– is how much they overrate the value of individual schemes, both offensive and defensive. “The wishbone” or “the option” do not win games. Coaches win games. I am a firm believer that any scheme can be a winner if the right coach is running it. All it takes is a guy that’s smart enough and experienced enough to know how to adjust within his system to counter whatever the other team is showing him. On the other hand, any brilliant scheme will fail if it’s put into the hands of a coach that doesn’t know how to use it.

Anyway, we’ll see if this report holds up. You never know when stories cite “sources.”

12 thoughts on “Ye Olde Wishbone Returneth

  1. Mel

    Given the number of recent convictions of Navy football players, it is surprising that a Navy fan would claim that Army might “abandon whatever integrity they have left and start cutting even more corners.”

  2. thebirddog

    The funny thing is, those two players actually got harsher treatment from the USNA administration because they were football players. And you want to call that cutting corners? You = FAIL

    I sleep well at night knowing that the Naval Academy doesn’t bend rules to win. With 60+ players headed to USMAPS and players getting sent straight to the pros, I don’t know how you do.

  3. Hookers and Blow

    Gotta side with Mel on this one. First of all, you started it. Your words: “they’ll just completely abandon whatever integrity they have left and start cutting even more corners. ”

    Seriously, was that necessary? Justified? And if you can answer “yes” to both of those, then was it honorable? Are you proud of that comment? Did you share this with your kids and say to them, “this is the example I want you to follow?”

    FYI: I played high school b-ball with David Robinson. He was 6’11” his senior year… and yet as a freshman at USNA, he was listed as 6’9″… just under the entrance requirements. A year later, he was 6’11” again.

    I’m not saying that USNA is worse than USAFA or even USMA… only that you’re talking about something you really can’t measure, and something that cannot be separated from personal experience. Better to just let it go, I think. Take the high road. You might like it, for a change.

  4. Yeah, it was both necessary and justified. My kids aren’t old enough to understand all this yet, but when they are I’ll be happy to explain it all in detail. On the other hand, “You started it” is the kind of thing I want them to avoid.

    Honorable? I’m not sure what’s dishonorable about it. Sending players straight to the pros? Stuffing the prep school? Are you saying this isn’t cutting corners? Do you not follow these things? I suggest that you read the volumes upon volumes that I’ve written on this before you overreact to one comment.

    I also find it odd that you’re telling me to let it go when you’re responding to an 8-month old post.

  5. Hookers and Blow

    Sending players straight to the pros? You mean, like David Robinson and Napoleon McCallum?

    Oh yeah, McCallum served his time… as a supply officer for a reserve detachment conveniently located where again?

    Was the standard military obligation in ’87 only two years? How is cutting four years off of his obligation somehow morally superior than USAFA or Army letting a kid go straight to the pros? You’re talking degrees, and when it comes to honor, it’s black and white. There’s no such thing as a little bit more honorable than someone else — you either are or you aren’t.

    Seems like you are pointing out the sliver in everyone else’s eye while not noticing the log in yours. If you’re cool with that, then so be it. I just need to know where you stand and what kind of man you are, so I won’t waste time trying to figure you out.

  6. Hookers and Blow

    Speaking of honor… I noticed quite a few photos here that don’t have accreditation or copyright information. That doesn’t bother you?

    Where I’m from, that’s called “stealing.” I’m sure you’ll cite “fair use,” but fair use requires acknowledgment of the source for starters. And I’d question your use of the picture at the top of this page, as “fair use” requires the topic to be germane to the picture in question.

    Duty, country… two out of three ain’t bad.

  7. @Hookers and Blow:

    You wrote: I played high school b-ball with David Robinson. He was 6′11″ his senior year… and yet as a freshman at USNA, he was listed as 6′9″… just under the entrance requirements. A year later, he was 6′11″ again.

    You lose your credibility with that comment. I was a MIDN 3/c when Robinson entered. He was actually 6’7″ plebe year. He grew 4″ that first year and was 6’11” by the time his 3/c year rolled around.

    McCallum served on the USS Peleliu (LHA-5), not a “reserve detachment. You should get your facts straight before you try to pick people’s blogs apart.

  8. David Robinson was 20 years ago. He had an individual arrangement between him and the Secretary of the Navy. If you want to cry foul about that, I won’t stop you. But his was a two-decade old freak occurrence, not an established policy meant to lure recruits with NFL dreams and intentionally violate an established DOD directive, which is a part you seem to ignore. As for McCallum, he was stationed onboard USS Peleliu and USS California, which he actually joined on deployment. And again, this was 20 years ago. Pointing out ancient history isn’t an argument supporting the Army’s actions now.

  9. t wolf

    the wish bone is the only offense that can salvage
    Ohio State if Jim Tressel’s ego will insist that Terrell
    Pryor is thier future at QB,a few more low risk elaborate pass plays can be inserted into the wish bone giving Terrell an image that he is a adaquete quarterback,and that Jims
    recruiting acumen is in fact intact,but other then the wish bone
    offense,the Ohio State offense will continue to disinegrate

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