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Columnist: How Don Faurot changed the game

COLUMBIA, Mo. — It is unlikely that the Georgia players – Missouri’s, too perhaps – appreciate the impact made on the game of football by the man for whom the playing field is named.

Don Faurot, former football coach and athletic director at Missouri, originated option football and saw his creation become the rage of the college game after World War II. During the war, service football was important to the military. Faurot taught Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson the formation at the Iowa pre-flight school.

After the war, Oklahoma hired Tatum who brought Wilkinson along as his top assistant. When Tatum, who wanted to return as near as possible to his North Carolina roots, left Norman after one season to take over the Maryland program, the Sooners hired Tatum’s popular assistant. Wilkinson would develop one of the most successful football programs in NCAA history.

He would win three national championships and 14 Big Eight titles. He had a 47 game winning streak during the years, 1953-57. His split T option, which he learned from Faurot, was seldom tested in Big Eight competition. He walked over all competition.

In a conversation with Wilkinson years ago in Oklahoma City, he explained that his success was based on recruiting enough players to have two teams which were near equal in talent and that “….the conference at that time was virtually a wind tunnel. To succeed, you had to run the football.”

Nobody agreed more than Barry Switzer, who took over in Norman in the ’70s, beginning an era which was similarly dominant to that of Wilkinson.

“If I were starting a football program today, I would run the option,” Switzer told me in Norman last year when I visited him during the holidays.

Bobby Bowden, who came to Tallahassee in 1976 from West Virginia to take over at Florida State, said in Athens earlier in the week that the weather can often dictate your philosophy.

“When I was at Morgantown, with all that snow and ice, I thought it was best to run the football. Then when I went to FSU and played and practiced in all that sunshine, I was more comfortable throwing the football. In the late ’80s, I thought we were ahead of a lot of people when it came to the passing game and that helped us win a lot of championships. It was good for recruiting, too.”

On Georgia’s two previous trips here, I took time to visit the plaque honoring Faurot, whom I got to know when he came South in the spring to play golf in Florida. Somewhere, there is a video tape of him explaining how he came up with the idea of the option.

Before World War II, most schools ran the single wing. After the war, there was a rush to adopt the T formation, which was originated by Clark Shaughnessy in the early forties. Georgia’s Wallace Butts was a coach whose offense flourished with the T, but you could underscore the notion that any offensive formation would have been successful with Charley Trippi in the backfield.

Faurot, originally, was a basketball coach and developed the option from a simple basketball concept. The guard brings the ball down court to the opponent’s basket with one of two options. If the defense comes out to confront the ball handler, he can pass the ball to a teammate. If the defense hangs back and gives the ball handler an opening, he takes the ball to the basket.

Faurot felt that concept would work in football. The quarterback comes down the line of scrimmage and cuts inside where there is an opening at center, guard or tackle. If there is no opening, the quarterback pitches to a halfback who takes the ball around end.

Variations of the old split T option would come about with the passing of time including the wishbone and the veer, but with so many high schools moving into the direction of pro-style passing attacks, option football has gone into great decline. All the rules favor the passing game.

Kids want to throw the ball today. Score points and keep the defense on its heels. The option has become a dinosaur, although Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech still believes in the scheme and has done well with the option.

At Don Faurot Field Saturday night, the only reference to the option will be the printed program with Don Faurot’s biography.

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Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.