Tony DeMeo

The Forward Pass by Phillip Brooks

I picked up this book with the idea of learning a little about the history of the great game of College Football but I got much more than I bargained for. Phillip Brooks does a great job explaining how The Forward Pass basically saved college football which was on the brink of extinction but also gives insight into the role of innovation has played in forming the game we now know.
Prior to The Forward pass, football was a brutal game. In 1905 there were 19 deaths in college football. Football resembled Rugby more than football. Coaches like Pop Warner, John Heisman and Amos Alonzo Stagg realized the game was in jeopardy and The Forward Pass would open up the game.

Stagg was the master innovator of his time. Amos modernized football, not only with his Xs and Os but with his practice methods, his equipment and his complete understanding of the game. His protégé’ Jess Harper would bring the passing game into prominence and make history.

Harper started out at Alma College in Michigan and after a successful run there went to Wabash College where he turned that program around with his creativity and his refinement of the Forward Pass. Harper worked on the technique of throwing the perfect spiral. Harper utilized the Play action Pass which baffled opposing defenses. Jess also understood the importance of protection and its tie to the pattern. Harper’s use of misdirection and deception made his offense a work of art and enabled little Wabash College to compete with the college football powers of the day.

In 1913 Jess Harper moved to South Bend, Indiana to coach the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, a little known Catholic school in the Midwest. Harper introduced a tough off-season conditioning program to the Irish and met Quarterback Gus Dorias & an End by the name of Knute Rockne. It was the perfect storm, talented athletes with an innovative system equals history waiting to be made.
Dorias picked defenses apart with a surgical passing attack and Notre Dame was on the map in the world of college football. The defining moment in the College Football Revolution was when upstart Notre Dame met powerhouse Army on the plains of West Point. Gus Dorias’ precision passing & Knute Rockne’s routes were too much for The Cadet Defense. The Fighting Irish defeated The Black Knights of the Hudson 35-13!

Notre Dame went on to be a National Power dominating college football under Knute Rockne, who was a great innovator like his mentor Jess Harper. Rockne won numerous national titles and became an American Icon.

The lesson of the story was how Notre Dame rode an innovative offense into National prominence. Notre Dame couldn’t compete with Army running the conventional power offense of the early 1900s but they shredded The Cadets using their unique passing game.
The use of innovation has brought other football programs into the National spotlight. Here are a few examples:

1. Bud Wilkinson turned the Oklahoma Sooners into an unbeatable machine running The Split T. The Sooners won 47 straight games, still a National Record.
2. Paul Dietzel brought The Delaware Wing T to the Bayou of LSU and the Tigers won the National Championship in 1959 with speedy halfback Billy Cannon leading the way.
3. Bill Yeomen gave birth to the Split Back Veer in Houston and made The Cougars a scoring machine and put Houston on the national Stage.
4. Darrell Royal suffered through three mediocre seasons before coming up with the Wishbone and winning the National Championship in 1969 in their second year in The ‘Bone.
5. Legendary Bear Bryant installed The ‘Bone in 1970 and revived his career after two 6-5 seasons. Bear won three National Championships after the change.
6. Northwestern was one of the worst college football programs in the country. Enter Gary Barnett who turned to The Shotgun Zone Read in 1994 and Northwestern goes to The Rose Bowl and wins two Big 10 Championships.

The lessons:
1. Don’t be afraid to be different.
2. Have the “guts” to trust your gut.
3. You have to be either better or different.
4. If you’re at a “have not” you must be different.
5. Innovation & a unique scheme give you an edge because your opponents have only a few days to prepare.

A great book creates thinking and this book caused me to think about the place The Forward Pass played in the saving of college football and also the importance of innovation and the role it plays in organizational growth. I recommend The Forward Pass, an easy and enjoyable read.