Dave Nelson, Tubby Raymond and the rise of the Wing T Offense

In a recent interview, Wink Martindale commented that the Broncos are seeing a lot of Wing T running plays this year - he indicated that many of Denver's 2010 opponents (which tend to a heavy percentage of running plays) use it at least part of the time. The Wing T also is a very viable, deception-based passing offense too, but right now the rushing aspect seems to predominate when it’s used in the NFL. With that being the case, and with NFL games available on NFL Rewind and more and more fans enjoying watching film and learning from it, I wanted to give you an overview of the system. It was originally developed, as so many are, out of sheer necessity - you could even say desperation - by Coach Dave Nelson along with Harold Westerman and Mike Lude. Over time, however, most authorities would tell you that it was Coach ‘Tubby’ Raymond who brought it into its modern form. Let’s take it from the very beginning, then on to small Hillsdale College, onward to the University of Maine, the University of Delaware, and the Hall of Fame careers of Dave Nelson and Tubby Raymond.

David Nelson was a brilliant football mind with a knack for success. Like many of his era, he was a single-wing specialist, originally learning it at the University of  Michigan where he shared a backfield with Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon in 1940. Nelson was a rarity - a 5’7”, 155 lb halfback. Needless to say, Harmon tended to take the majority of snaps and carries in the season they shared the backfield. That’s something that you still need to run a single wing/Wildcat system - a Ronnie Brown-type halfback, one with multiple skills who can hurt you in many ways. The following year, 1941, however, saw Nelson leading the team in rushing with an average of 6.3 yards per carry. He was, as Mouse Davis liked to say, one tough pissant.

The single wing uses extremely deceptive blocking schemes, with pulling and trapping on nearly every play. Stopping it is often a matter of finding out who had the ball and where they are going with it. It isn’t easy; hence the increasing use of it in colleges and in the NFL during that era and into modern times. It’s no longer a system that you use predominately (for reasons that I’m about to make clear), but it packs a hefty punch as a change of pace.

Nelson went on from Michigan to coach at nearby (100 miles west) Hillsdale College, where he had a talented two-way guard by the name of Mike Lude. It was just toward the end of the two-way player era, in 1946, and both men had recently returned from  their military service in WWII. Hillsdale ran the system with success and Nelson’s record over two years was an enviable 14-1-2. After graduation, Lude provided him with a knowledgeable and talented line coach during Nelson’s second year there. After serving one year as an assistant coach at Harvard, Nelson was promptly poached by the University of Maine, and he brought Lude there with him. Their backfield coach was a man named Harold Westerman, and together they installed the single wing. Their first season, however, ended in only a 2-4-1 record, and the coaches put their heads together. What was going wrong?

The problem was, in the end, a simple one. The single wing requires a Tom Harmon/Ronnie Brown level of tailback, and the coaches already knew that they didn’t have one. In addition, as Tim Tebow found out on a TD run using a similar approach, the single wing can be very hard on the ballcarriers. Frequent injuries and a lack of the appropriate personnel required a change - but to what?

Full House T Formation

At that time, the T formation was in vogue among the upper tier of football, both on the college and pro levels. It’s what the Chicago Bears used to dominate the Washington Redskins in the most lopsided Championship victory in NFL history, 73-0. The top colleges of the era were Notre Dame and Army, and both of them were running the T. Nelson sent Lude and Westerman to Notre Dame to learn it from Coach Frank Leahy.

Unlike the single wing, the T didn’t have much of anything in the way of deception - the blocking was straight ahead from a balanced line. It’s a very old system, generally considered the offspring of football legend Walter Camp, back in the 19th century. Most folks don’t seem to know this, but Walter Camp was the dominate force in systematizing American football, back in and around 1879. It was derived from rugby and soccer, but it was Camp - who had studied both business and medicine at Yale and actually headed a clock company, before becoming the athletics director for Yale in 1888 - who had played football at Yale and who helped evolve the rules of the game away from rugby and soccer rules into the rules of American Football as we know them today. Camp’s legend lives on in the foundation that still bears his name

Nelson and his team were facing what they considered as two considerable problems. The first was that the T called for a quarterback to take the snap under center, and they’d never coached that. They decided to go with it anyway. The second was that Nelson wanted to keep the level of deception that the single wing provided, but also wanted to employ the simpler backfield system that the T makes use of. The three of them worked feverishly in the summer of 1950, and they eventually came up with a hybrid of the two systems. 

There’s no evidence that they called it the Wing T at the time, but the name eventually emerged out of simplicity. The approach used a combination of the highly deceptive single wing blocking approach, but the T backfield. 

Single Wing

They also used a ‘wingback’ from the single wing formation in addition to the other two backs (plus the QB) in order to increase their options on any given play. Their record leaped to 5-1-1 the next season, and they knew that they were on to something. 

They also added an assistant by the name of Harold R. ‘Tubby’ Raymond in 1951, a man who had also learned learned the single wing at Michigan under Fritz Crisler, the architect of the ‘Mad Magicians’ whose ball-handling skills are still legendary in college football circles, and whose team went 9-0, and then beat USC 49-0 in the Rose Bowl. Nelson and his group of coaches found that Raymond, another old-school two-way player who had been a QB and a linebacker at Michigan, had as fertile a football mind as their own. 

But in 1952, Nelson took a job offer at the University of Delaware, and he took Mike Lude with him. Westerman took the empty slot as head coach of the U of Maine, and both universities began to change, modify and improve their hybrid system. Nelson’s work on it was so vital that the system became increasingly known as the ‘Delaware Wing T’. Raymond stayed behind, working with Westerman in Maine on the Wing T which Westerman kept in use, but Tubby was added to Nelson’s staff at the U of D in 1954. He was brought in to coach the backfield. Nelson would stay at the U of D from 1951 to 1966, with a record of 84–42–2 over that time period. He is now ensconced in the Blue Hen Athletics Hall of Fame. Just as importantly, his hybrid system has stood the test of time, and is still in use in the NFL. In recognition of his contributions to the game, Dave Nelson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

Nelson was also asked to join the NCAA Football Rules Committee in 1957, a request that he honored. He became the Secretary-Editor in 1962, and held that position until his death, 29 years later. His inventive system was used by the Iowa Hawkeyes and Coach Forest Evashevski, who used it to win the Rose Bowl in 1957 and 1959, by Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame (which completed a circle of trust and sharing among coaches, since Nelson had originally sent Lude and Westerman to Notre Dame to learn the T from Frank Leahy) among many others. He was also the prolific author of several books, including Scoring Power with the Winged-T Offense (co-authored with Evashevski, 1957), The Modern Winged-T Playbook (with Evashevski, 1961), Football: Principles and Plays (1962), Championship Football by 12 Great Coaches (1962), Dave Nelson Selects 99 Best Plays for High School Football (1966), Dave Nelson Selects the Best of Defensive Football for High Schools (1967), and Illustrated Football Rules (1976).

Tubby Raymond, who followed him as head coach, became a legend in his own right. Raymond stayed with Nelson at the U of D and in 1966, he took over the head coaching position while Nelson stayed on as Delaware's Athletics Director, a position he held from 1951-1984. Raymond has long been given credit for advancing and modernizing the Wing T system that Nelson had started with the help of his assistant coaches. Tubby’s role as head coach lasted for an unheard-of 30 years, until his retirement in 2002. Raymond is often given credit for developing the system, but as you can see, that’s not accurate. 

By the way, this otherwise excellent site Football for Youth doesn’t mention Dave Nelson, but it has a ton of information and downloads. With the exception of the mistake on the history of the system, this is one very good comment from their introduction:

The Wing-T has been made famous by University of Delaware Coach Harold "Tubby" Raymond, and is a popular misdirection offense that can be hard to stop. Characterized by a wingback in the slot just behind the tight end, and a split end on the weak side, the offense places all three running backs in prime locations for counters, fakes, and other misdirection plays. The system also features the Quarterback Waggle, which gives a good quarterback the chance to run or throw, and can tear apart a defense. With the split end in position where he is, the opportunity is created for one of the most effective plays in youth football: the crack sweep.

Crack Sweep

While Coach Derek Wade, who runs that site, may not have his history fully in place, you can’t argue with his understanding of the Wing T. His focus is, granted, on youth football, but you’ll quickly find that the information can be applied on any level. The basic lineup for the formation that he gives is still often accurate, although in football, as in Ecclesiastes, the sole constant in life is change. As you can tell from this and from the Elway/Spread series, what was once new becomes old, and then becomes new again. Raymond was a prime reason that the Wing T is still in use, in whatever form. All through the seasons, he continually refined, improved and perfected the system. It’s been run by programs as diverse as the Kansas City Chiefs and Carnegie Mellon University head coach Rich Lackner. High school, college, and professional football teams alike vary the system in diverse ways to meet their own needs. 

There is the so-called Bay City variation of the Wing T that appeals to me because it employs a two-tight end set, an approach that mirrors my own feelings about offensive football options. I don’t believe that you should use such a formation at all times, of course, but having the personnel to run it well when necessary can counteract many run-blitz and pass-blitzing packages. For most teams it’s the basis of a ‘max protect’ package with that in mind. However, all such ‘Bay City’ packages feature three running backs.  A more efficient version of that could be to merge the so-called 'Magic 3' variation, which used three TEs, with the Wing T. In such an approach, the three TEs would include one who stepped back and functioned as a receiver or blocker. This 'flex tight end' as some might call it could also be utilized in certain reverse plays that feature multiple instances of trapping and pulling by the offensive line. The Wing T has survived in great part because it is almost endlessly versatile. 

Wing T

There’s an old saying that you can’t argue with success. On that basis, Raymond is a coach that you can’t argue with. A Renaissance man who is also a talented painter, Raymond has painted his players throughout the years, and his work hangs in the U of D. He still paints the seniors, even though he’s retired. He claims that his politics are ‘A little right of Genghis Khan’, but supports Democrat Jack Markell, a childhood friend, as well. He was on Markell’s gubernatorial campaign staff. He’s a man who values both loyalty and results, and his coaching record proves it. 

When Raymond retired, his final record was 300-119-3. After achieving his 300th win, the remarkably humble man had this to say:

I have to apologize for paraphrasing, but I feel a little bit like Lou Gehrig. I'm the luckiest man on the face of the earth. First, I'd like to thank the Delaware fans who have been here for so many years. I know there are things that happen that you don't like. There are things that happen that I don't like. But the thing that's there all the time is you. You're at every football game. You're excited about being here, and you truly made Delaware football something we can all be proud of. Thank you very much.

By the way, Raymond also coached the baseball team at U of D for the years 1956-1964. He found substantial success there as well - he’d been a minor league player back in 1951 before going into coaching football. His final record in baseball was 142-55-2. On August 29, 2002, Tubby Raymond Field at Delaware Stadium was dedicated in his honor. 

They say that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Dave Nelson and Tubby Raymond are perfect examples of that. Because of their intellect, drive, dedication and personal integrity, the Wing T is as fresh now as it was back in the early 1950s. That’s a legacy that any man could be proud of. 

So, when you see a play with one or two running backs, a wingback in the slot lined up behind the tight end, and a receiver split out on the weakside (and you will), take a moment and give a smile to two men whose contribution to the game cannot be overstated. It’s probably a running play, if you’re watching Broncos football, and it might be good to know that in advance. On the other hand, it could just be a smart offensive coordinator setting up the defense, and passing the ball when they read ‘run’. That’s the beauty of the system. It’s flexible, highly deceptive, and you can run or pass in multiple ways out of the basic formation.

Which is likely to be one of the many headaches that Wink Martindale will have to endure and overcome over the rest of this season. Kansas City makes good use of it. So do the Raiders, Titans and Jets. The Wing T hasn’t gone anywhere - it still marries deception with power, and is equally effective using the run or the pass. It can be set up as an option offense and its basic concepts can even adapted to a multiple-TE formation. 

All this came about because Dave Nelson and his coaches were desperate to change their team’s fortunes around. Harold Westerman and Mike Lude’s contributions cannot and should not be denied, but the work of Nelson and Raymond were the real powers behind the system. Theirs is a living legacy; a system so effective that it is used from Pop Warner all the way to the NFL. It has left in its wake thousands of victories, and a debt of gratitude to the fertile football minds who saw and nurtured its potential. Enjoy it when it crosses your screen - it will. After 60 years, it’s still fresh. All the best to you,

Doc

This particular article was inspired by comments made by Wink Martindale on the number of teams that Denver was playing this year (2010) that are running different variations on the Wing T. For those who are interested, I’d like to share some research resources that I found helpful in writing this article.

One of the best reads of this year has been Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tom Layden. Several of the chapters contain information that has been helpful in writing various installments, including this one. Other texts have included America’s Game by Michael MacCambridge and The Physics of Football by Timothy Gay.

Research sites have included BuckSweep.com, a great resource for books on the subject, a pictorial tribute to Raymond, and a page devoted to Nelson. They describe themselves as a website dedicated to the Delaware Wing T, and it’s headed by Bryan Schaumloffel.

Also, the above-mentioned Football for Youth site, with good info on the system by Coach Derek Wade. A sample:

The Wing-T is also a great passing formation. With the tight end and flanker located where they are, there is vast potential for quick crossing patterns and out passes, and the strong side can be easily overloaded against zone defenses by sending the fullback into the flat underneath the flanker's route.

This same site offers a vast array of downloads of plays and playbooks on the Wing T. If you have an interest in learning more, I’d strongly recommend starting here. There are plays for youths, and plays of increasing complexity.

Others are linked throughout the article with information drawn from them. All mistakes are, of course, my own.

I would also like to thank the many coaches and members who’ve shared information with me on the philosophies, systems and formations of the game.  It’s a debt that I try to repay by passing that knowledge on. Please do the same when it’s helpful.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

You can reach Doc at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter @alloverfatman

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