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Clark Shaughnessy

Clark Shaughnessy is the cornerstone of football knowledge.

Chicago's George Halas called Shaughnessy "the greatest play designer in the game." He was "one of the great innovative minds," according to San Francisco's Bill Walsh. "It disturbs me that Clark Shaughnessy is not in pro football's Hall of Fame," San Diego's Sid Gillman said. "He's a man who definitely deserved to be called a football genius."

Shaughnessy's own coaching career featured the ups-and-(mostly) downs that most coaches experience. As a young head coach at Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, Shaughnessy enjoyed considerable success that led to him obtaining a more prestigious job at the University of Chicago in the Big 10. But things quickly deteriorted at Chicago as the university president first deemphasized football in the late 1930s and then completely abolished the sport after the 1939 season.

However, a positive externality emerged from Shaughnessy's move to Chicago: He met and began to consult with the Bears' Halas. In 1937, according to James Johnson's The Wow Boys: A Coach, A Team, and a Turning Point in College Football, Shaughnessy joined the Bears in an advisory capacity, helping Halas with terminology and analyzing game-scouting reports.

"I did a good bit of inventing, but George did the selecting and correcting," Shaughnessy said. "I'd come along with something and say: 'You know football; you pick this to pieces and take what you like.' That's the way it was done, gradually, experimentally."

The play design that Shaughnessy invented that Halas and everyone else in the game soon came to like was the modern T-formation and man-in-motion. Prior to the 1940 season, during an interview in a hotel room for the position of head coach at Stanford, he gave Walter Ames, chairman of the university's athletic board, "the works." According to The Wow Boys, "'[t]he works' was Shaughnessy's plans for revitalizing Stanford football: the T formation. He dazzled Ames with his Xs and Os. Ames phoned two other members of the athletic board, Judge L. R. Weinman and J. Wesley Howell, who came to Ames's room. From there, Shaughnessy left to meet the with the Stanford athletic board, which quietly and unanimously offered Shaughnessy a contract."

Shaughnessy's installation of his T formation and man-in-motion at Stanford produced instantaneous results. In 1939, the Cardinal had finished 1-7-1. In 1940, using Shaughnessy's T, Stanford was 9-0 and defeated Nebraska, 20-13, in the Rose Bowl. Football coaches recognized that the turnaround could be attributed almost entirely to play design and the T formation began to spread both by osmosis and by conscious adoption.

After the Rose Bowl, Nebraska coach Biff Jones gave his film of the game to Missouri's Don Faurot. In 1941, after studying Stanford's execution of the T, Faurot invented a variation, the split-T, that carried his Tigers to the Orange Bowl.

In 1942, Notre Dame's Frank Leahy adopted the T, which led to its adoption by Army's Earl "Red" Blaik, the most influential coach of the 1940s. In Blaik's autobiography, You Have To Pay The Price, he wrote:

"The Wednesday practice before that Notre Dame game was to prove most significant.... Our plebes were using Notre Dame T plays against the varsity. Despite their unfamiliarity with the formation, they were making them go, frequently for substantial gains. After practice I remarked to my assistants, 'If our plebes, with that little experience, can make the T go that way, what would an experienced varsity do with it?'

"The idea took deep root and the following spring we adopted the modern T as our formation. I said farewell with respect, thanks and nostalgia to the single wing, for it had serverd me well. Like most other coaches, I found the T provided greater deception and quicker hitting and required that a player be, above all things, mobile. As years went on, we were credited with improving the T by new concepts of plays and techniques."

Among the assistant coaches and players who helped Blaik develop new T-based play designs were Vince Lombardi, Sid Gillman, and Bill Yeoman. According to biographer David Maranniss, Lombardi originally copied the design of his famous power sweep from another Shaughnessy desciple, Los Angeles coach Hampton Pool. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a young Paul Brown began attending Bears' practices and copying Shaughnessy's designs that Halas was implementing at the professional level.

Shaughnessy also continued to innovate. In 1949, Shaughnessy became the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. He modified the T formation to improve its vertical passing options by splitting Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch as a flanker. In doing so, Shaughnessy created the "pro set" design, the formational foundation of the modern NFL passing game.

"Clark Shaughnessy had so many formations and plays it was unbelievable," Hirsch said. "He evolved the three end system in '49 to confuse the opponents. One game I would play left half back and flank right and in the next game I would play right halfback and flank left."

In 1949, Los Angeles won the Western Division before losing to Philadelphia in the NFL Championship Game. In 1950, Shaughnessy's assistant, Joe Stydahar replaced him as head coach and Stydahar hired Pool to coordinate what esseentially were Shaughnessy's play designs. The Rams set an NFL record that still stands, averaging 38.8 points a game, and again reached the NFL Championship Game, where they lost to Cleveland, 30-28.

In 1951, still using much of Shaughnessy's designs, Los Angeles defeated the Browns in the NFL Championship Game and claimed the title. "I give a great deal of credit for our great teams to Clark Shaughnessy," said former Rams' fullback Dick Hoerner.

"[I]t is important to remember that so much can be learned from the past," San Francisco's Bill Walsh wrote. "When I was at Stanford, I searched for and finally found, in a warehouse, film of Clark Shaughnessy's 1940 Rose Bowl team. Watching that reinforced my feeling about the use of the man-in-motion. Shaughnessy was using plays and formations very similar to those we were runnning at Stanford nearly forty years later."

In the 1950s, Shaughnessy returned to the Bears, this time as a defensive assistant. During this time, he mentored George Allen (who mentored Maxie Baughan, who mentored a young Bill Belichick). "He was, how do you use the word, guru, a genius," said Bears' Hall-of-Fame tackle Stan Jones in Jeff Davis' Papa Bear: The Life and Legacy of George Halas. "It was like having Albert Einstein work with first-year algebra students. He went to the board with his back to everyone. He never used an eraser, just the back of his arm. He'd be up there breaking chalk and writing up all those things."

In 1961, Shaughnessy confronted Red Hickey's "shot gun" spread offense, which appeared unstoppable the previous weeks in wins over Detroit (49-0), Los Angeles (35-0), and Minnesota (38-24). According to Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule, Shaughnessy designed "a defense that seemed never to be the same on successive plays and which varied from a three-to a seven-man line." In Chicago's 31-0 victory, Shaughnessy's designs so devastated the shot gun that the formation would not be seen in the NFL again until the mid-1970s, when Hickey convinced Dallas coach Tom Landry to use it in obvious passing situations.

It should be pointed out that Shaughnessy could not have contributed so much knowledge to football without Halas. "Football is a science to me," Shaughnessy wrote in 1942. "So when George Halas didn't laugh at my theories I naturally warmed up to him. He didn't make fun of me and was willing to listen. So when I'd make a suggestion he'd listen and we'd discuss it. So as I propounded some of these pet theories of mine, he would take them, try them out. Some results were apparent."

Whether Shaughnessy's massive contributions to the stock of football knowledge qualifies him for the Hall of Fame, as Sid Gillman suggested, is open to debate. But what is not debatable is that no coach in history contributed more fundamental football knowledge to the publicly available stock of knowledge than Clark Shaughnessy.

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