clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Football History: Clark Shaughnessy and the T Formation

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

There are only two things I watch on TV with any consistency: sports and the History Channel. Lately I've been reading and reviewing books about college football history. A while back,  I reviewed a book named 'The Wow Boys' about the 1940 Stanford Indians football team. In 1940,  Coach Clark Shaughnessy  installed the "T" formation at Stanford. The result was to change football forever.

I enjoyed 'The Wow Boys' so much that I decided to contact author Jim Johnson and do a  follow-up interview about his book , Clark Shaughnessy and the T formation.

Coach Clark Shaughnessy - Father of the T Formation  

CN: What was different about the T formation from offenses that were being used at that time?

Jim Johnson: I don't know of a team that wasn't using either a single-wing or double-wing formations that saw the ball snapped directly to one of the four ball carriers. The quarterback's role was much different in those days. He was used mostly as a blocking back. It was a power formation, snap the ball and run straight ahead or around the corners. It was boring football with low scoring. Under the T, the quarterback took the ball directly from under center, pivoted and handed up to the running backs or faked a handoff and dropped back to throw a pass.

CN: Was the T-formation new?

Jim Johnson: The T was used in the late 1800s but abandoned at the turn of the century. Legendary coach Pop Warner said, "If Stanford ever wins a single game with that crazy formation, you can throw all the football I ever knew into the Pacific Ocean. What they're doing is ridiculous."

CN: What did Shaughnessy do with the T that was different?

Jim Johnson: Shaughnessy added his own wrinkles, primarily using the man-in-motion and the counter play. Shaughnessy used the man-in-motion to spread the defense and the counter play was designed to send a runner across the grain through the line of scrimmage.

CN: Tell me about Stanford quarterback Frankie Albert. What did he bring to the T?

Jim Johnson: Albert was a magician with the ball. He was an excellent faker. Although he didn't have a strong arm -- particularly with the rounder ball used in those days -- he was quite deceptive. The defense didn't know where the ball was. Albert also improvised the bootleg sometimes that his own players didn't know whether he was going to hand them the ball. Albert was a good athlete. He kicked extra points, field goals and punted. Teams played both ways in those days and Albert was an excellent defensive back.

CN: Why was the T so successful that year?

Jim Johnson: The T was successful because of the surprise element. Teams didn't know how to defend it. They tried all kinds of defensive alignments. It's important to remember that the T was also successful because the players were good athletes perfectly suited to running the T.

CN: What did it bring about in college football?

Jim Johnson: Within 10 years after Stanford introduced the modern T formation most of the schools in the country were using it. It brought a more exciting game for the spectators and indirectly led to the two-platoon system. (CN: Two platoon football - using different players for offense and defense, didn't happen until rule changes in 1941.)

CN: Is the T formation still being used?

Jim Johnson: Most every team, pro or college, uses some form of the T formation today. There have been  many modifications as coaches tweaked it to add another element to their offenses. But the basic strategy of having the quarterback take the ball under center remains today.

It's a long off-season coming in college football. I might just talk more about the past. Let me know if you're interested in more about college football history - Huskers or otherwise.