Drawing from history: Origins of wildcat offense remain unsure, but effect on football is clear

Graphic Illustration by Beth Fritzinger | Design Editor

To this day, it’s one of football’s great urban legends.

The rumored origins for the unorthodox formation spread the entire country, from a high school in La Center, Wash., to an emerging Big 12 Conference power in Manhattan, Kan., to a then-Division-I-AA school in Villanova, Pa.

One of the most popular origin stories traces the legend back to Central New York, where the West Genesee Wildcats rode the unique offense to the 2007 New York Class AA State Championship.

The answer, though, goes much further back in history than any of those four locations, though all four now have been inextricably tied to the lore of the wildcat formation.

“This thing that they call ‘the wildcat’ is nothing more than what they call a direct snap,” North Beach (Wash.) High School head coach Hugh Wyatt said. “So it’s really not that original.”

The history of the wildcat formation goes all the way back to 1907 when Pop Warner — a man whose name is synonymous with football’s beginnings — was the head coach at Carlisle (Pa.) Indian Industrial School. There, Warner employed the single-wing formation to take advantage of Jim Thorpe’s rare athletic ability. The single-wing offense involved a direct snap to either a tailback or fullback, both of whom were lined up several feet behind the center, who would carry the ball himself.

The simple formation led Carlisle to incredible success, winning at least 10 games in five of the eight seasons Warner coached during his second stint with the Indians.

But despite the encouraging results, by World War II the forward pass had rendered Warner’s single-wing obsolete.

Half a century later, the formation re-emerged.

On Sept. 21, 2008, the Miami Dolphins broke it out against the New England Patriots. The Dolphins sent out running back Ronnie Brown to take a shotgun snap late in the first quarter.

The formation caught the Patriots off guard and Brown took advantage of the extra blocker to dart into the end zone for a 2-yard score, giving Miami a 7-0 lead.

New England would never lead as Brown scored three more touchdowns and threw for another on just six wildcat plays. Unprepared and overwhelmed, the Patriots were routed by the Dolphins 38-13.

So began the newest iteration of the single-wing formation. The legend of the wildcat was born.

“It was exciting because also it was one of the first times they had lost a game at home in a long time and we really dominated the game,” said Steve Bush, Miami’s wide receivers coach in 2008. “And for us, it kind of kickstarted our program that year.”

But that’s not the whole story.

This second coming of the wildcat can trace some of it roots right back to Camillus, N.Y., right outside of Syracuse, at West Genesee. In 2007, Bush, then the Wildcats’ head coach, implemented a spread-option offense with a mobile quarterback reminiscent of the formation Miami would run a year later.

While Bush wasn’t responsible for bringing the wildcat to the NFL — that was the Dolphins’ quarterbacks coach David Lee, who ran a similar offense as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas a year earlier — he did add his input and expertise based on the system he ran at West Genesee.

“We kind of expanded on that,” Bush said. “And we were rolling along as an offensive staff, and game planned every week and added a few wrinkles to it.”

In the late 1990s, La Center (Wash.) High School, then coached by Hugh Wyatt, implemented a formation that had two running backs line up in a shotgun formation, either able to take a direct snap. It was a system that Wyatt’s offenses ran for more than 50 percent of their plays some years.

“It was original for us because it meant that we could adapt some of what we did to single-wing principles,” Wyatt said. “But I’m sure other people have been doing things similar to that.

“The main thing that I take credit for, and I could win this in the court of law, was giving it the name — ‘the wildcat’ — that’s all.”

In 1997, Wyatt published an article about his new formation using the name “wildcat,” the first known use of that name for the formation. That same year, Wyatt began selling instructional coaching videos to teach this formation. He said sales for his videos are “in the thousands,” including several college coaches, though he wouldn’t divulge any names.

Villanova head coach Andy Talley, who has run a similar offense at Villanova since the late 1990s, also takes credit for the name. Talley even said he invented the whole concept.

In 1999, Brian Westbrook was a star at Villanova before becoming a two-time All-Pro for the Philadelphia Eagles. To take advantage of his superstar running back, Talley implemented the wildcat formation, taking its name from the school’s mascot.

“We used to direct snap the ball to Brian and we called it the wildcat … because we couldn’t think of a much better name for it,” Talley said. “And I’d not seen anybody run that formation prior to us running it in college football.”

Though the stories contradict, none tell why the formation returned to the forefront — how the wildcat became the ultimate gadget package and most talked-about adaptation in modern football.

That story takes place in Manhattan, Kan., and starts with head coach Bill Snyder.

“(Snyder’s) a very innovative guy,” Wyatt said. “And he made maximum use of his players.”

By 1998, Snyder was already a well-established head coach at Kansas State. In less than a decade in Manhattan, Snyder had taken a team that Sports Illustrated once called “Futility U” to respectability. By his fifth season, Snyder coached the Wildcats to a bowl game. Two years later, K-State won 10 games.

Kansas State entered the 1998 season ranked No. 6 in the nation. The Wildcats were successful, but no one could have imagined how that success was attained.

Snyder essentially turned quarterback Michael Bishop into a direct-snap running back en route to 11 wins and what was then the program’s most successful season.

Football in the 1990s was dominated by the I-formation and split-back offense. Defenses would stack the box and neutralize the running back. As teams adopted more and more spread principles, KSU searched for a way to run the ball easier with a single running back in the backfield.

“Why can’t the remaining back be the fullback, and let Michael Bishop be like the tailback?” former K-State offensive coordinator Ron Hudson said. “And that’s how it evolved where now we started running the same plays out of one back with Michael out as the tailback with the remaining back as the lead blocker.”

The formation’s evolution into the modern read option actually came about by accident. During a practice, Bishop botched a handoff to the running back and carried the ball himself.

Though they call players like Bishop quarterbacks now, that’s not a name Wyatt likes to use for these read-option signal callers.

“It does bother me that they refer to these guys as quarterbacks because really they’re not,” Wyatt said. “They’re single-wing tailbacks.”

Though the wildcat seems to have faded away since that 2008 season when it took the NFL by storm, shades of it are still visible throughout college football and even in the NFL.

Quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Collin Klein and Braxton Miller, and NFL stars Michael Vick and Tim Tebow all help keep the legend alive. Most call it the read or spread option now, but it all traces back to one of football’s earliest formations.

“There were so many of these accomplished quarterbacks who could run and pass that it just seemed to me that we were getting ready to see a revival of the single-wing,” Wyatt said. “That’s what we’re seeing.”


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