A Genius For Football; Coach Warren Woodson :: Part One

Written By: Walter Hines

Over the forty-one football seasons of 1968 to 2008, New Mexico State had a dismal record of 140-313-2, with no bowl appearances and only four winning seasons – the best being 7-5 in 2002 under Tony Samuel. In contrast, from 1958 to 1967 under Coach Warren Woodson, NMSU won 63 games, lost 36, had a glorious undefeated season and seven winning seasons. Woodson’s Aggies appeared in and won two Sun Bowl games. They had four national rushing champions, the only first-team All American in NMSU history, a future All Pro NFL quarterback, and more than a dozen pro players in all.

Yet, in 1967, at age 65 and against his wishes, Woodson was ‘retired’ by the NMSU administration headed by Roger Corbett. To this day, older Aggie fans call it The Curse of Warren Woodson, and they may be right. The same fans and many of his players proclaim Woodson a football genius, and based on the record and the influence he had on thousands of young men, that is hard to dispute.
A genius is a person with exceptional natural intellect, manifested by creative thinking and original work. Such persons display strong individuality and imagination, and are highly innovative. Geniuses are believed to have much less latent inhibition than most persons. This allows them to ignore “unimportant stimuli” and focus on critical problems and tasks. Such descriptions fit Coach Warren Woodson to a “T.” One might say to a “Wing T” (Sorry, please read on).

When Woodson retired from coaching at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas in 1973, his record at 4-year colleges was 203-95-14, with 70 more wins as a junior college and high school coach. At the time, it was a record unmatched among American college football coaches, including the legendary Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant. Using his powerful Wing T attack, Woodson took teams to nine bowl games, winning six. He coached players who won national collegiate rushing titles nine times, and his teams led the nation in total offense in several years.

As a devout and bright Christian man, one might expect Warren Woodson to have heeded the Biblical passage, "For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise." Not true in Woodson’s case. He believed that those who did not truly understand football or disapproved of his leadership style just got in the way of his football program -- they were “unimportant stimuli.” Such people included certain college administrators, boosters, and sports writers.

Like Bill Parcells, Woodson had little patience for what he considered silly questions or Monday morning quarterbacking. While this trait would lead him into trouble on more than one occasion, he was steadfast and confident in his actions. Some would say to a fault. But he mostly got away with it. Why? Partly because he was right more often than not, and partly because his players revered him. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he won an amazing number of football games, and especially those that counted. Notably, Woodson’s successes came at schools that lacked the money and resources available to many larger universities and many of his competitors.

Warren Brooks Woodson was born in 1903 in Ft. Worth to an itinerant Baptist minister and a deeply religious mother. An only child, he had an upbringing steeped in Church, hard work, scholarship, and athletics. Woodson went to high school in Ft. Worth where he played basketball, football, and tennis. A severely injured shoulder prevented him from playing football at Baylor where he matriculated in 1920. Instead, he played on the basketball team and took up tennis seriously, becoming one of the top players in Texas. A fine student, he immersed himself in study, graduating from Baylor in 1924 with a dual degree in Bible and History.

Determined to be a coach, Woodson enrolled at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Springfield had a national reputation for teaching and scholarship in physical education, physical therapy, physiology of exercise, and overall wellness (and later sports medicine and biomechanics). Springfield had close ties with the YMCA and served as a training ground for YMCA executives. The college prepared many fine future coaches. Springfield’s first football coach was none other than Amos Alonzo Stagg. Alumni included Dr. James Naismith and William G. Morgan, inventors of basketball and volleyball.

Woodson was no doubt very proud to be in such company. In later years, given his staunch Christian beliefs, he may have been less proud of two younger alumni – hard-drinking Hawaiian celebrity Don Ho, who attended Springfield for one year, and Dr. Tom Waddell, 1968 Olympic dechalete and founder of the Gay Games.

Springfield honed Woodson’s intellect, provided confidence in his ability to lead young men toward manhood, and reinforced his faith in Christian values -- three traits that would guide his coaching career and life in general.

After graduation from Springfield in 1926, Woodson returned to Texas and accepted a job at Texarkana Junior College, where he coached from 1927 until 1934. There Woodson coached football and three other sports -- track, basketball, and baseball. In his spare time, he also coached football, track, and basketball at nearby Texarkana High School. His football teams at Texarkana JC won 58 games, losing only a few.

While at Texarkana, Woodson met his future wife Muriel who was a student at the time. They were married in December 1928 by Woodson’s minister father. Muriel was a very competitive basketball player and a scratch golfer who often played with Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan at the Texarkana Country Club. This relationship and their shared Christian beliefs led to Warren being best man in Nelson’s wedding to Louise in 1934.

Warren WoodsonIn 1935, Woodson accepted the job as head football coach at Conway Teachers College (now Central Arkansas). In six seasons from 1935 to 1940, his Bears went 40-8-3 and won four conference championships. To this day, Central Arkansas touts Woodson as the "Father of Bear Football."

Woodson’s 1936 and 1937 teams were each undefeated at 8-0. The 1937 squad was Invited to Conway’s first ever postseason game against Fresno State at the Charity Bowl played before 5,000 fans in Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles. Also known as the Little All-American Bowl, the game was a fund raiser for the Under Privileged Children's Milk Fund, an important cause in those Depression days. The game went back and forth with several tie scores, good passing and tough running. The Bulldogs were the last to score. and because of a missed extra point by the Bears, scored an exciting 27-26 victory.

At Conway, as at Texarkana, Woodson was a very busy, multi-sport coach. His basketball teams had a 114-40 record over seven years, won five conference titles, and qualified for several trips to the National AAU Tournament. His track teams also won two conference titles.

The record is unclear as to when Woodson began tinkering with the T formation, though it was probably during the late ‘30s at Conway.

Until then, the single wing had dominated college and professional football. With long snaps to the tailback or fullback, typically five yards behind the line of scrimmage, the single wing was a running offense with limited opportunity for effective faking. As the second back from the wing, the quarterback was primarily a blocking back. The wingback was also mostly a blocker, or an occasional runner on reverses.

The T was the first offense where the quarterback took the snap from under center, with the option to hand off or drop back to pass. The T became viable in 1933 when passing was legalized from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Previously, the passer had to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage. In the mid ‘30s, Knute Rockne at Notre Dame took advantage and introduced a crude, though effective, T formation passing game for the Irish.

With the quarterback under center, T offenses became unpredictable and deceptive. Running backs could receive the ball and hit any number of designated "holes" near the point of handoff.

The center was a better blocker because his head was up at the snap. Offensive plays developed much faster and closer to the line than with the single wing. The quarterback could fake handoffs from a point near the line of scrimmage. This led to "option" plays which placed great pressure on the defense. Far fewer double-team blocks were required because the back hit the hole so fast. And, the back could choose a different hole than originally planned due to single-blocking across the line. Running backs could be less versatile than single-wing tailbacks who had to run, pass, and block – and sometimes throw.

The arrival of Clark Shaunghnessy at Stanford (who previously employed the T at the University of Chicago in the late 1930s) was a watershed event in college football. In 1940, Shaunghnessy’s T offense led Stanford to a 10-0 season and a victory in the Rose Bowl over heavily favored Nebraska. A few weeks later, George Halas’ Chicago Bears employed the T to destroy the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the NFL championship game. The stage was set for the T formation to sweep college and pro football.

A smart man like Warren Woodson knew good football when he saw it. He liked the T, but wanted to add his own flair, to give his smaller college teams an advantage over the big boys. Woodson’s invention was called the Wing T, and it was designed to use the threat of the pass, team speed and misdirection to take advantage of the defense. It was still a rushing offense, but could rely on the pass if necessary – a now proven way to prevent the defense from stacking against the run.

Woodson’s Wing T moved one of the backs (wingback) a few yards wide of the end. There the wingback was a better receiver, but also in ideal position for blocking on sweeps, hand offs on reverses, or wide sweeps run off motion to the opposite side. Woodson’s early version employed two tight ends to provide power blocking. Later versions, popularized by David Nelson’s Delaware Wing T, replaced one tight end with a wide receiver lined up 4-5 yards wide of the tackle.

In 1941, Woodson was offered and accepted the head coaching job at Hardin Simmons University in Abilene. He replaced “the Mighty Dutchman” Frank Kimbrough who, having led the Cowboys to a 9-0 record in 1940, moved on to Baylor. Woodson installed the Wing T at HSU and his first team finished the season 7-3-1, good for fourth in the Border Conference.

With recruits pouring in, Woodson’s program was now ready to compete with much larger colleges, including those in the Southwest Conference. In 1942 the Cowboys went undefeated at 8-0-1, and won the Border Conference title. Football experts were shocked with the record, which featured wins over Baylor and SMU, and a tie with powerful Texas Tech. HSU finished 24th in the final AP football poll. In the process, they led the nation in rushing offense and had the top rusher in single season history in Rudolph ‘Doc’ Mobley.

Although glorious, the 1942 season would lead to problems. By years end, the Cowboys were depleted by players leaving for wartime enlistment. Even so, Hardin Simmons received an invitation to the Sun Bowl in El Paso. It proved to be a classic game replete with fanfare and patriotism.

Military Band at the 1943 Sun BowlHSU was matched against the undefeated 2nd Air Force Superbombers, a powerful team with many former collegiate and professional players now serving in World War II. The Superbombers may have been the best football team west of the Mississippi. Their record in 1942 had no losses, and only one blemish, a tie with Washington State. They won the Pacific Army title with a victory over March Field.  

1943 Sun Bowl ProgramUnfortunately for HSU, Coach Woodson was called to active duty with the Navy before the game. The 1943 Sun Bowl was dubbed the “Win for Woodson” Bowl by HSU. The Cowboys coach for the Sun Bowl was assistant Clark Jarnagin. At 28, Jarnagin was the youngest man ever to coach in a postseason bowl game.
The Sun Bowl lived up to its name. The weather was extremely sunny and hot. The attendance at Kidd Field was at capacity, 16,000. The game was the only bowl in 1943 that featured two undefeated teams.

The Cowboys were led by freshman fullback Camp Wilson and ‘Doc’ Mobley at halfback. They swarmed over the Bombers in the second quarter and led 7-0 after Wilson scored over left tackle. Outplayed, the Bombers trailed through three quarters, but used their bulk and strength to wear down the Cowboys and come from behind. At the final gun, the Bombers had scored a battering 13-7 victory.

All proceeds from the game went to WW II relief funds. Woodson read about the game from afar, no doubt agonizing over his inability to be in El Paso and call the plays.