Coaches are notorious copycats. That is as true in college football as in other sports, and has never been clearer than in the sport’s evolution from its run-dominated origins to its pass-happy present.
Years ago coaches like Woody Hayes were fond of saying that there are three things that can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them were bad. That thinking began to change with Jack Neumeier, who coached at Granada Hills High School, near Los Angeles, from 1960-78.
Neumeier is widely credited with inventing the modern-day spread offense, featuring multiple wide receivers and a heavy emphasis on airing things out. And his most noteworthy protege was quarterback John Elway, who played for him from 1976-78 and went on to become a Hall of Famer with the Denver Broncos.
Elway’s dad, Jack, was also a coach, and he instituted the same wide-open offense when he became the head coach at San Jose State in 1979. His offensive coordinator was Dennis Erickson, whose friend and former high school teammate, Mike Price, had a similar philosophy.
I served as a graduate assistant under Mike at Weber State in 1984, and was later the wide receiver/tight end coach there. He taught me a great deal about the passing game and developing quarterbacks, though I also came to understand that there were some similarities between what we were looking to do through the air and what my dad, Bob Sr., had been looking to do with the run-heavy veer-option attack he favored at Carroll College in Helena, Mont.
He spent 28 years as the head coach there, and I was his quarterback for three of them (1980-82). And in running the veer the idea was to take advantage of what defenses gave you. If they took away the dive by the fullback, the QB pitched it to the trailing back. If they took that away, you tucked it and ran it.
It’s really no different with the passing game. If they take away the curl, you throw it into the flat. Or vice versa. The hope is that the offense is always one step ahead, and that the defense is always wrong.
So spin it forward. We have now reached the point where fewer and fewer teams line up with a fullback. More often than not there is a single back, and three or four wide receivers, in the game. Everybody is looking to get the ball down the field, to create mismatches and exploit them.
Understand, though, that you still have to have the horses. I was fortunate during one of my two stints at Louisville to have a breath-taking athlete at QB, Lamar Jackson. He was a better passer than people realized, but like any young player needed refinement. We developed him by using some of the lessons I had learned from Mike Price all those years before, and Lamar won the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
So yes, it still gets back to talent. That is, was and always will be the case. But the way the sport has evolved, and the way coaches have pickpocketed ideas from their peers, has been fascinating to watch. That will never change, either.