Going The Rounds: Is Hoquiam the birthplace of the spread offense?

Few readers would expect a book on the development of football’s spread offense to contain many references to Grays Harbor.

They would discover otherwise. The recently published Football Revolution: The Rise of the Spread Offense and How it Transformed College Football traces the root of the high-powered attack to Hoquiam High School in the late 1940s.

The 242-page soft-covered book can be ordered online at nebraskapress.unl.edu. Some copies of the publication are also available at the Polson Museum in Hoquiam.

Author Bart Wright, a former sports writer and columnist for several Northwest newspapers (including the Tacoma News-Tribune, Bremerton Sun and the Oregonian), makes the case that the late Hoquiam High grad Jack Elway was one of the architects of the spread, with its empty backfields and heavy emphasis on the passing game.

The father of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and a successful college coach in his own right, Elway first tinkered with the principles of the offense while playing in, of all things, a flag football league at Washington State College after a knee injury ended his Cougar career. He later implemented a spread devised by John’s high school coach in Granada Hills, Calif., Jack Neumeier, when he took the head-coaching position at Cal-State Northridge.

“The thing Jack Neumeier and Jack Elway thought about the spread — that it wasn’t just a series of plays but a completely different strategic context in which to play the game — has proven to be the most progressive and utilitarian vision for football since the 1960s,” Wright wrote.

Currently sports editor of the Greenville News in South Carolina, Wright traces the evolution of the spread through Northwest native Dennis Erickson, who popularized the attack in a vagabond coaching career that began as Elway’s offensive coordinator at Cal-State Northridge and later included head-coaching gigs at Washington State, Miami and Oregon State, among other schools (as well as the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers), to such contemporary proponents as current Washington State coach Mike Leach.

This book, however, isn’t merely a dry strategical treatise designed only for football junkies. It contains extensive profiles of Elway, Erickson and the late Jack Swarthout, Elway’s coach at Hoquiam.

Later a successful coach at the University of Montana, Swarthout never used the spread himself (his best Montana teams ran the wishbone formation). But he was a mentor to Elway, his assistant at Montana, and his willingness to challenge conventional football wisdom influenced his protegé. While coaching Hoquiam, he had scrapped the single-wing attack popular at the time in favor of a pass-oriented T formation to accommodate the skills of Elway and pet target Bill Earley in leading the Grizzlies past Aberdeen in the 1947 and ‘48 Thanksgiving Day games.

“Not many reporters in those days (he coached Montana) traced his career back to Hoquiam, where Swarthout’s detailed mind had started shaking up standard football orthodoxy,” Wright recounted.

The book is filled with fascinating anecdotes, not all of them related to the spread.

Angered that Dee Hawkes, one of his Port Angeles High School assistant coaches, had criticized a player for not executing techniques the way the aide had taught it, Elway confronted Hawkes in a post-game shower, reminding him that it was the head coach’s duty to demand unified instruction. After the assistant apologized, Elway emphasized his point by turning off the hot water and walking away “as Hawkes stood naked under a cold stream of water.”

Elway and Hawkes, incidentally, became close friends after that incident.

Wright spends the first two chapters describing Grays Harbor in the late 1940s and ’50s, a subject that has defeated many an author from outside the area. A recent biography of legendary football coach and commentator John Madden, who spent one year at Grays Harbor College, fancifully reported that present-day Aberdeen is filled with upscale bed-and-breakfasts and boutiques.

Wright’s depiction of the area — “(Aberdeen and Hoquiam) relied on a burgeoning timber industry that had frantically deconstructed the surrounding forests for profit and turned the region, in less than a century, from a pristine emerald dreamland into a smoldering pile of careless economics and witless personal vices” — might not suit every Harborite. He did, however, use On The Harbor: From Black Friday to Nirvana, the 2001 book former Daily World Editor/Publisher John Hughes co-authored with ex-World writer Ryan Teague Beckwith, as a source.

He also recycled the questionable assertion that Aberdeen and Hoquiam “still maintain the longest continuing high school rivalry west of the Mississippi River.” That may have been true when Elway played at Hoquiam, but the cancellation of the 1996 game when multiple suspensions prevented the Grizzlies from fielding a representative team ended, by most definitions, the continuity of the series.

While Wright offers a multi-dimensional portrait of Elway, readers expecting a similar warts-and-all profile of the controversial Erickson will be disappointed. For the most part, he soft-pedals or ignores Erickson’s compulsive job-hopping and off-the-field foibles and defends him against accusations that a win-at-all-costs philosophy made him overly permissive toward his players.

Those quibbles aside, Football Revolution is a good read that focuses on a worthwhile topic. Those who want to learn about changes in football philosophy, with a dash of Grays Harbor sports history mixed in, should give it a try.

Rick Anderson is The Daily World sports editor. He can be reached at (360) 537-3924 or by email at randerson@thedailyworld.com. You can follow the Daily World Sports Department on Twitter: @DW_GHSports.


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