Because of its rich, often coveted, history, single-wing coaches can frequently trace the roots of a particular play or series in their offense to a definitive moment of discovery. My coaching tree is no different. Though I credit much of what I have learned to Steve Ragsdale, now retired head coach at Giles High School in Pearisburg, Virginia, I also know that Coach Ragsdale had a moment of discovery in September of 1982, when Sports Illustrated published an article entitled “A Very Singular Way To Play” that told the story of the last college team to run the true unbalanced single-wing, Denison University, and its head coach, Keith Piper.
Ragsdale’s 1980 Giles team had won a state championship using only the straight (power) and buck lateral series learned from his legendary father, Harry. To attack the weak side of the formation, however, Giles had to go under center, leaving it susceptible to formation tendency. Upon learning of Denison, Ragsdale traveled to Granville, Ohio in hopes of finding ways to advance his offense, including a true weak side complement. One series in Piper’s offense really intrigued Ragsdale. It was not of the Princeton lineage, like so much of his offense. That series, characterized by full speed motion of the wingback towards the weak side, was known as Piper’s “motion series.” While all coaching literature that mentions this series (which is extremely limited) refers to it as Piper did, single-wing contemporaries of today also use the term “T-series.” For simplicity, I will use the term T-series, but recognize that they could be used interchangeably.
The T-series was very special to Piper and it had a story of its own. Piper learned the series as player at Baldwin-Wallace College, where he was a center from 1940-1941 and 1946-1947; however, its origins there could actually be traced to the West Coast.
In 1939, the NFL’s Cleveland Rams held their training camp at Baldwin-Wallace in Berea, Ohio. It was then that the Rams’ new mentor, Earl “Dutch” Clark, and his assistant, Art “Pappy” Lewis, spent time with Yellow Jackets head coach, Ray Watts (who would be Piper’s head coach). Watts learned that the previous year, Lewis, who was still a player, was forced into the interim head coaching role, when the organization fired Hugo Bezdek three games into the season. More specifically, he told of a November 1938 trip to the West Coast to play an independent team named the Los Angeles Bulldogs.
The Los Angeles Bulldogs, who had failed to gain entry into the NFL in favor of the Cleveland Rams, were coached by Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson. Henderson had coached at USC (1919-1925) and Tulsa (1925-1935) before getting the job at the professional level with the Bulldogs. Despite being an independent, the Bulldogs were coming off an undefeated season in the AFL.
The Bulldogs dominated the Rams 28-7 in front of a crowd of approximately 14,000 at LA’s Gilmore Stadium. Henderson’s troops ran roughshod over the team led by Art Lewis running an offensive series the Cleveland team had not seen. We know from Piper’s writings published posthumously in The Single-Wing and a Prayer, Art Lewis was so impressed by Henderson’s T-series, he scrapped his aerial circus and adopted the T-series as the Rams’ primary attack.
“When I played at Baldwin-Wallace and coached there we ran the [motion series] most of the time. We got it from the Cleveland Rams (who later became the Los Angeles Rams) professional football team in the early forties who played a team out on the West Coast. That team used this series against the Rams and just killed them with it. So the Rams adopted it and made it their main series.” – Keith Piper
When Dutch Clark was hired for the 1939 season, Lewis stayed on as his assistant coach and taught him the series. Clark kept it intact. After hearing this story from Lewis and Clark, Ray Watts also implemented the T-series at Baldwin-Wallace. The Rams held their training camps at BW until 1941, so Lewis, Clark, and Watts continued to exchange information about the series.
Under Keith Piper, Denison used the T-series just as he had learned it as a player at Baldwin-Wallace. Steve Rasgdale installed it as his weak side complementary series and from there it became part of my playbook in 2007. The travels of the T-series had taken it across the country to my playbook in 80 years. That’s a moment of discovery. Fascinating.
Fear The Wing!
In 1939, Gus Henderson took the job as the head coach of the Detroit Lions; below is film of his Lions team running the T-series against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
By 1944, Lewis and Clark had moved on from Cleveland, yet the team still used a variation of the series under Aldo Donelli. Below is film of this against the Chicago Bears.
Finally, below is film of UCLA, another team in the Los Angeles area, running the same T-series under Babe Horrell in 1939. As a previous article highlights, the wingback for UCLA is Jackie Robinson.