Clark Shaughnessy is
the cornerstone of football knowledge.
Chicago's George Halas called Shaughnessy
"the greatest play designer in the game."
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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