Emory Bellard’s passing was noted in almost all of the national news outlets this week. Those accounts called him father of the wishbone. Appropriate, but not hardly enough on the former Texas A&M and Mississippi State head coach.
Innovator is one way to describe Bellard, who died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease on Thursday. His triple option offense with four runners sent Texas on its way to 30 straight victories and shares of two national championships (69-70).
That offense would also lead to national championships by Bear Bryant at Alabama (73, 78-79), Barry Switzer at Oklahoma (74-75, ‘85) and Bill McCartney at Colorado (90).
However, Dean Campbell sees more to what Bellard did for college football, especially the Southwest Conference, than just the creation of the wishbone. He broke the color barrier in the SWC.
Oh, there had been black athletes in the SWC before Bellard became head coach at Texas A&M in 1972. Hayden Fry did that with Jerry Levias in the mid-60s. But no one had recruited black athletes in numbers at an SWC school until Bellard signed nine in his first class in 1972, a group that would come close to taking the Aggies to the 1975 national title.
Campbell can tell Bellard’s story well. Bobby Petrino’s director of high school relations at Arkansas for a little over two years, Campbell was in Bellard’s meeting room for three years as a wide receiver during that incredible run at Texas. Then, he coached the defensive backs for Bellard at A&M during a meteoric rise to SWC co-champs.
Campbell is coach at Hyde Park Baptist Schools in Austin where his team went 8-4 last year, losing in the semifinals of the playoffs to the eventual Texas high school champ.
Of course, the Razorbacks were the ones to derail the Aggies in 1975. Entering at No. 2 after a victory over Texas the previous week, the Aggies fell, 31-6, then lost badly to Southern Cal in the Liberty Bowl.
“I always say you should never play a tough game the week after you play Texas,” Campbell said. “That’s what we did in ‘75. We moved the Arkansas game to the end for TV. Texas was such an emotional game for us at A&M.
“We lost two quarterbacks before the Arkansas game and we lost George Woodard, our fullback, in warmups. He pulled his hamstring and we were just a shell of a team we’d been all year. I know Coach Bellard always says the Arkansas game was the most disappointing game of his career. I know losing that game hurt Coach Bellard. The Liberty Bowl, we just didn’t want to be there. We had thought all year we were going to the Cotton Bowl.”
Former Arkansas coach Ken Hatfield, who copied Bellard’s wishbone and tweaked it with more passing at Air Force, knows the Aggies were close to the top of the mountaintop.
“Emory was one game away from winning the national championship,” Hatfield said. “They were that good.”
Campbell’s ties with Bellard led him into coaching. He joined the Aggies as a freshman team coach in 1972.
“I learned so much football from Emory,” he said. “He was my position coach at Texas and I saw very early the passion he had for coaching and competing.
“I had walked on that spring and he was already tinkering with the wishbone. We had three great running backs and the idea was just to get all of them out there together. The split back veer was the rage and he started with the principles for that, then added the third back with the triple option, a lead blocker and a counter.
“They always remember him for the wishbone, but the thing he changed in the Southwest Conference was the way the black athlete was recruited. At that time, teams were signing one or two black athletes per class. We were signing 10 or 12 at A&M. Emory told us to go get the best players. More than anyone else, he changed the color of the teams in the league.”
The other thing Campbell remembered was the way Bellard helped all callers in regards to the wishbone. Darrell Royal allowed it, even when it came to calls from Barry Switzer at Oklahoma.
“Emory wrote a book and I got a copy when I saw him last summer at a coaching clinic at San Angelo,” Campbell said. “He wrote how Darrell told him to help them all. One of the first who came to see about the wishbone was Bear Bryant. Darrell told Emory, ‘Give him everything we’ve got.’ I was always impressed by that. And Emory was gracious to everyone who came to see him.”
One of those was Hatfield.
“We took our defensive staff from Florida to A&M to see Emory,” Hatfield said. “We were playing Alabama and couldn’t stop the wishbone. We wanted to learn it. The funny thing about that, the day we got there to start spring practice, Emory had decided to tinker with it. They moved both halfbacks up in a dead-T much closer to the line. He just always was looking for a new advantage. That lasted about one week and they scrapped that.”
That’s what Campbell remembers, too.
“You’d go in his office and he’d be drawing plays, smoking that pipe, looking for a new play, a new formation, a new way to do something,” Campbell said. “He loved that. And he always drew on draft paper. He wanted to know how many steps apart the linemen’s splits were, how far back the linebackers were, the exact spacing of every player on the field. To do that, he drew on draft paper. He was exact.”
Switzer said the wishbone saved their jobs at Oklahoma.
“We had Jack Mildren and great players around him, but we couldn’t get them all on the field,” Switzer said. “We couldn’t get Greg Pruitt on the field. He was a wide receiver. The wishbone got them all out there in the same backfield. We were about to get our butts fired before we went to it.
“I remember getting a call when Emory put it in at Texas. One of our alums in Austin called us and he said, ‘You aren’t going to believe what they are doing at Texas. It’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. They’ve lost their minds.’ Well, when I saw it, I recognized immediately that it was fantastic. I argued for it in the spring before we finally did it that next fall during the open date. We were wallowing around 1-3 when we did it.”
As for Bellard’s help, Switzer will be eternally grateful.
“He didn’t have to help us,” Switzer said. “That offseason, Chuck (Fairbanks) called Darrell and he gave us permission to call Emory. And Emory answered all of our questions on the phone, all of them.”
Bryant saw what the wishbone could be in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl when Oklahoma played the Tide to a 24-24 tie. He was knocking at Bellard’s door almost immediately after the game.
Hatfield said it took the Florida staff a couple of years to began to sprinkle in the wishbone.
“And we didn’t read it the first year,” Hatfield said. “We just ran pre-determined plays. We just called it inside or outside. But our fullback, Jimmy Dubose, broke the school rushing record.”
When Hatfield got to Air Force, the slot-I was the base offense.
“It was pretty much the same thing we ran when we won the national title at Arkansas,” Hatfield said. “But we weren’t good enough to whip people up front. So we needed a formation with a running quarterback so you could have an extra back. It was a good formation to shorten the game and keep the defense off the field.
“Then we started breaking the formation and getting another receiver on the field. Our sports information director, Hal Bateman, nicknamed it the flexbone. He said it gave us more flexibility and that was good enough for me. But it all started with Emory. That offense of his won a bunch of national championships in four different decades.”
There was some irony in the Forida staff’s trip to learn the wishbone from Bellard. The Gators drew Texas A&M in the ‘77 Sun Bowl the next year. Did the Gators use any of that newfound knowledge to stop the Aggies? A&M romped, 37-14.
“They beat the dog out of us,” said Hatfield, noting he learned a critical lesson that week.
It’s one of Hatfield’s favorite banquet story.
“We had a luncheon a few days before the game with 500 people,” he said. “Each team had a player speak. Ours told me he had an Aggie joke. I said great. He got up and said the reason the Aggies put artificial surface on their field was to keep the Homecoming queen from grazing.”
The Gators roared. The Aggies didn’t.
“They got mad,” Hatfield said. “The queen was there at the luncheon. She was Miss Texas and a knockout.”
The joke was on the Gators.
“Emory told that same story at a dinner I was at when I coached at Rice,” Hatfield said. “Darrell Royal was there. I told them both it was an important lesson for a young coach. Don’t make your opponent mad before a big game.”