I pushed back the heavy velvet curtain as the boys hopped up on the stage to get their ankles taped. Head coach Jerry Fullmer had a strict rule about ankles. All the backs and receivers received a full ankle wrap, with the lineman getting a figure-8 or “Louisiana Wrap” as coaches and trainers have called the final stage of a full ankle wrap with its quick up-over-and-around over the socks pattern.
We didn’t have a major ankle injury in the three years I coached the Lusk Tigers.
The gym at Hemmingford, Nebraska was a combination of the old Riverton High School gym that is now the Wolverine wrestling facility, and the demolished Pavillion gym which looked like it came right out of the movie Hoosiers.
It was my first road trip as an assistant football coach. By the time I finished three decades later I’d accumulated hundreds of thousands of miles riding Bluebird buses.
Both of these long-defunct local gyms had a stage, as did the one used by the Hemmingford Bobcats.
As one of the boys shuffled into place, he put his hand on a stapled set of standard-sized typing paper. He handed it to me to throw into a nearby trashcan, but before I did, I read the mimeographed cover, “Hemmingford Bobcat Football 1980.”
It was their playbook. For just a second (ok, maybe less than a second) I thought of just tossing it away, but decided to read a few pages.
Jerry came by to see my progress on taping the team, and I showed it to him. He pulled me into a small neighboring room and we read through the playbook.
There was nothing fancy about their Power-I offensive formation, we ran the identical offense with an additional pro-set style alignment with the I-back lined up in the slot position.
What we didn’t do was run an unbalanced line, Hemmingford did, as their base set.
An unbalanced line means you stack a pair of guards, or a pair of tackles on one side of the center and leave just one lineman and a tight end on the other. It gives you a numerical advantage on the strong side, and in later years I often ran counters successfully to the short side when a team adjusted.
Jerry told me to find some chalk, but that was something I’d learned from my own high school coaches and I always carried a piece of it through my entire three-decade-long career.
We found a blackboard, and Jerry outlined how we would adjust our five, and seven-man defensive fronts. Instead of lining the nose guard up on the center, we shifted him over the strong side guard, taking away their unbalanced advantage.
Hemmingford was a good team, but we beat them 13-0 on a tight-end screen pass and a pair of field goals. It was a great ending to coaching my first game on the road.
Hemmingford’s playbook was relatively simple, with just a few running plays, and a handful of pass plays. We didn’t have a playbook, instead, the boys had to commit everything to memory at practice.
As Jerry often said, “If you don’t have a playbook, you can’t lose a playbook.”
He was a very wise head coach.
We often complain about the present state of affairs in almost every setting. Modern coaches take more of the brunt of these complaints than just about any other profession, but in truth, old school coaches made the same mistakes, claimed the same breakthroughs as the young guys do today, and were the central topic of discussion at the local barber shop, at the downtown bars, and the local cafes on Saturday morning after games.
The biggest mistake young coaches make is packing a playbook with too many formations, plays, and alignments.
I’ve watched some programs that have so many formations, alignments, plays, and cadences that all they do is generate volumes of procedure penalties and rarely produce a consistent effective offense.
Instead, a handful of running plays aligned with a passing tree that is easy for receivers and quarterbacks to learn, and even easier for coaches to call routes with is the simpler, more effective alternative.
It works at the high school level and it is the only successful way to keep absent-minded, hormone-driven, middle school-age boys in tune with what the coach is trying to do.
I spent the majority of my football coaching career with eighth-grade teams. An eighth-grade team means it’s made of eighth-grade boys, I know that sounds obvious, but if you haven’t had the pleasure of working with a few dozen kids in this age group, you’ve missed out on epic levels of amazement and frustration, with the only way to address that paradox being massive doses of sarcasm.
At the eighth grade level, you can motivate these kids to the point where they’ll try to run through a concrete wall, but at the same time, they’ll forget everything they’ve learned over a two-week period when it matters the most.
That’s why you need a simple, uncomplicated set of plays. Not a playbook, heaven forbid, they would probably eat it, but a set of plays they learn through rote in practice, running it, again and again, ad nauseum until they remember it.
I had a power play, with a back leading another one through a hole with the linemen double-teaming at the point of attack, with a counter that started just like the power. Simple dives to the interior, a toss sweep, a bootleg by the quarterback, and my favorite, a slotback reverse were the playbook. That’s the entire running arsenal of my teams. Running them to the odd numbers on the left or the even numbers on the right gave you a dozen options. If we did have a playbook it would have easily fit on a single piece of paper with printing on the front and back.
Combine that with a simple passing tree that uses just three numbers to name the routes for three receivers from left to right, or four if you’re in a trips formation or a double-slot and you have a way to call every conceivable pass route.
A passing tree means numbering routes one through nine with each number representing a flag, post, curl, drag, out, in, slant, button hook, or fly pattern. If you had a tight end on the left, and a slot and wide receiver on the right and called a “slot right” 816. The tight end knew he ran a fly or an eight route, the slot ran an out route seven steps and cut hard towards the sideline, a one, and the wide receiver ran a six, a slant, or crossing route across the middle.
These simple instructions won a lot of games, and it was something the boys could easily figure out.
Simplicity is the key. Playbook or no playbook, the opposition can quickly figure out what you’re doing, but they have to stop it. If you execute properly they can know exactly what you’re running in advance and it won’t do them any good, you’ll still get yards,
Jerry also said KISS all the time to the boys, “keep it simple stupid” an acronym we can all live by.