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Book Report: The Wow Boys

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Wednesday, August 25, 2010


In his 2006 book, The Wow Boys, author James W. Johnson tells the story of the 1940 Stanford University football team. That season marked a turning point in college football from an old style of play, which had been used since the early part of the century, to one that we all know today.

In 1939, the Stanford Indians (as they were known at the time) posted a record of 1-7-1. Head coach Claude "Tiny" Thornhill was let go and a new coach, Clark Shaughnessy, was hired. Thornhill had great success at Stanford earlier in the decade leading the team the three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances in 1934, 1935 and 1936, winning the 1936 game. The team was nicknamed "The Vow Boys" during those years because the players vowed never to lose to rival USC, and they didn't. The 1940 team became known as The Wow Boys because, well, keep reading and you will find outů


Shaughnessy had been coaching at the University of Chicago since 1933, but the school decided to drop its football program after the 1939 season. His record over seven seasons was a dismal 17-34-4. His teams may not have been that good, but he did have a halfback by the name of Jay Berwanger, who was selected as the first ever recipient of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy in 1935. In 1936, the name of the award was changed to the Heisman Trophy.

Prior to Shaughnessy's arrival at Stanford, the team had been using the Single Wing Formation. This was the brainchild of legendary college football coach Pop Warner, who developed it while coaching at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Warner brought the formation with him to Stanford in 1924 and it had been used at the school ever since. In this formation, the quarterback and three running backs all line up a few yards behind the line of scrimmage. The center hikes the ball directly to one of the four players in the backfield, depending on the play called, and the other three acted as blockers for the ball carrier, who could either run or pass the ball. The quarterback did not always touch the ball but usually called the plays and was a blocker. (Today in the NFL, some teams run plays from a similar formation known as the Wildcat Formation)

As soon as Shaughnessy got to Stanford he installed the T Formation, which has the quarterback taking the ball directly from the center, turning around and handing it to one of the three running backs. The quarterback could also pass the ball or run it himself.

The formation also featured a man in motion along the line of scrimmage. The T Formation was based more on deception and less on brute strength to advance the ball. Shaughnessy had been a successful college coach at Tulane (1915-1926) and Loyola (1927-1932), but when he got to the University of Chicago 1933, the school had already decided to eventually phase out the football program, so it was more concerned with the academic abilities of its incoming students rather than their football playing abilities.

As you can imagine, Coach Warner was not too pleased about the switch in formations at his former school. He blasted the idea saying, "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." Warner coached at Stanford from 1924-1932 and posted a 71-17-8 record using the Single and Double Wing Formations.

While in Chicago, Shaughnessy became friends with Chicago Bears head coach George Halas. Halas was looking to bring some excitement to the pro game and liked what he saw in the T Formation. Shaughnessy became a paid consultant of the Bears in 1937 and helped get the T Formation installed into the Bears┤ offense. It really took off, however, when the Bears drafted running back Sid Luckman out of Columbia University in 1938 and turned him into the team's quarterback due to his passing ability. Utilizing the T Formation, Luckman led Chicago to the NFL title in 1940, defeating the Washington Redskins 73-0. The Bears also won the NFL championship in 1941, 1943 and 1946.


The key for Shaughnessy in making the T Formation work at Stanford was getting the right players in the right positions. Players who played one position in the Single Wing Formation were moved to other positions in the T Formation, based on their particular talents and abilities.


The most important position of all, of course, was quarterback, and left-handed Frankie Albert fit the position to a T. (Pardon the pun) He was tough, smart, fast and a good passer. Shaughnessy even brought in a backup quarterback from the Chicago Bears to work with Albert in running plays from the T Formation.

Stanford opened the 1940 season on September 28 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. They defeated the University of San Francisco 27-0 and only used 11 of the 60 plays in their playbook. They also shut out Oregon at home the following week 13-0 using just 14 plays. After the team went 4-0 to start the season, Stanford debuted on the national Associated Press football poll at Number 10 in the country.

Eventually, former Stanford coach Pop Warner became a believer in the T Formation. After the team went 5-0, Warner said, "(Coach) Shaughnessy is entitled to the fullest credit for the phenomenal way he is making use of the T Formation. It is something new and a tonic for the game."

On November 2, Stanford traveled to Los Angeles for a game against UCLA. The Bruins featured a running back by the name of Jackie Robinson. Yes, the same Jackie Robinson who would go on to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. In the 1930┤s and 40┤s, black players in college football were few and far between. UCLA was the exception and had three black players on their 1940 team. They were also the only school to have black players on their football team in the entire Pacific Coast Conference. Robinson, who played football at UCLA in 1939 and 1940, was an exceptional all around athlete and was the first student at the school to letter in four different sports.

In the game, Robinson ran for 70 yards on 10 carries, threw a touchdown pass and kicked a pair of extra points in a 20-14 loss to the Indians.

Stanford finished the regular season undefeated and untied with a record of 9-0 and was ranked #2 in the Associated Press College Football Poll. Clark Shaughnessy was named Coach of the Year and the team was invited to play in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, 1941. Their opponent was the #7 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers, the winner of the Big Six Conference, who were making their first bowl appearance ever. Stanford prevailed 21-13 to complete the 10-0 perfect season.

In subsequent years, the Chicago Bears drafted four players from the 1940 Stanford team including quarterback Frankie Albert. The Philadelphia Eagles also drafted three Stanford players from the undefeated season.

Stanford head coach Clarke Shaughnessy went on to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams from 1948-1949 and was an assistant coach/technical advisor of the Chicago Bears from 1951-1962. The terminology and innovations he developed on the offensive and defensive side of the game are still used today. He was a finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970, 1975 and 1976, but never received enough votes. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1968.

The T Formation had been around for several years before Stanford's undefeated 1940 season, but no one had had much success with it. It was considered too complicated for college players to master. The Stanford team and coach Shaughnessy showed the college football world that, with the right players, the T Formation could be highly effective. With the Bears running the same offense that year, and dominating teams in the NFL, the T Formation was now becoming the hottest new trend in football.

Stanford's 1940 season marked the beginning of a fundamental change in how the game was played. Is it any wonder that the team was known as The Wow Boys?


Clark Shaughnessy page, College Football Hall of Fame Web Site

Frankie Albert page, College Football Hall of Fame Web Site


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