By Ryan Sprayberry
The West has long been known as a lawless place, ruled by gunslingers. With quarterbacks, such as, Andre Ware and David Klingler, the University of Houston became the college football equivalent of the Western outlaw. Playing by their own rules, Houston made a mark on the college football landscape that resonates today.
“On paper, nothing out there concerns me,” former Houston Head Coach John Jenkins once said. “Obviously, we have certain plays that are better against certain looks. But there is nothing that puts us in handcuffs or traps us in a dead end.”
With that mentality, Houston was able to take on the world and become giant slayers.
But what was the run-and-shoot and how did it work? Depending on who ask, the answer to that question varies wildly.
Once, a columnist in Detroit described the offensive scheme as “a jar of cockroaches emptied in in the backyard.” Former Texas A&M head coach R.C. Slocum dismissed the offense saying, “It’s not unstoppable, or everyone would be doing it.” Even Heisman-winning quarterback and Houston Cougar legend, Andre Ware simplified the offense to, “… a bunch of guys playing in the backyard. You send a lot of guys out on pass patterns and just find the one that’s open.”
With all due respect to such iconic figures, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Usually run out of a four-wide set with one running back, the inventor of the run-and-shoot was a high school coach in Ohio. Coach Glenn “Tiger” Ellison had been leading a struggling high school program and was looking for an advantage.
Like many of the traditional coaches from Ohio, Ellison tended to avoid the pass and unquestionably favored the run, however, when he watched kids playing pickup football, he saw they all gravitated to the passing game. He figured if he could install that passion and enjoyment into his high school team, he could lead them to new heights.
In his first version of “fun” football, Ellison created the “Lone Polecat” where the center and QB would line up over the ball on one side of the field, while the other nine players lined up on the opposite side of the field. Surprisingly, the formation worked. Based on the system’s success, Ellison started utilizing four wide sets the next season with wild pass patterns. He found even more success.
After Ellison wrote a book on the run-and-shoot, Darrel “Mouse” Davis became the vehicle that would take the offense to new heights. After reading the text, Davis led Portland State where his quarterback Neil Lomax set 90 Division I-AA records in the 1970s. Davis would install the run-and-shoot with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, the Houston Gamblers of the USFL, the Denver Golf of the USFL and the New York-New Jersey Knights of the WFL. Davis would use these stops to spread the gospel of the run-and-shoot.
When Houston hired Jack Pardee in 1987, he brought Jenkins with him as an offensive coordinator. Both had worked for the Gamblers and were ready to install a similar offense at the collegiate level. Prior to Pardee, Houston had experienced great success under legend Bill Yeoman, but Pardee and Jenkins were ready to trade in Yeoman’s veer for something entirely different.
“At some point, things had diminished and people were ready for a fresh look,” Jenkins said of the change. “The Gamblers had been successful in Houston, but winning through the air was something that had not been accepted in this part of the country. You can’t believe the attitude that continued to exist, coaches believing if you put the ball in the air, boy you are gonna get beat.”
Of course, as with every new offensive innovation, different people had different thoughts on how to use it. Some thought the run-and-shoot was most effective when utilized as a portion of an offensive strategy. Other, such as, Jenkins firmly believed the run-and-shoot was an all-or-nothing system:
“Our offense is based on understanding defenses. We are at the point where we have categorized and labeled every defense and every defensive reaction. This allows our receivers to make decisions and to have freedom as far as getting open. We’ve had the top receiver in the nation every year I’ve been here.
“Our offense is built for success and for big, big play opportunities every time the ball is snapped. Look at the scores we put up. We’ve had 15 to 20 games in which we have scored 60 points or more. When all these players are concentrating and executing and making the right decisions, it doesn’t matter whether it’s our second or third teamers out there. That’s a thing of beauty.”
Jenkins’ ‘thing of beauty’ was called many things by others, especially those opponents that ended up on the wrong end of scores, such as, 95-21 or 84-21. Jenkins’ argument was he couldn’t tell his players not to score. For example, in one game when the Cougars put up 80 points, nine different receivers caught touchdown passes. Most offenses don’t even have nine receivers that catch a pass, much less catch a score. Put another way, it wasn’t Houston’s starters piling up points – it was every member of the team.
As Jenkins put it, “Many of those players are the future of Houston football. I want to see them do well. I’m not interested in running a different offense just to get the game over with. I’m not interested in seeing them go down on their knees or running out of bounds. I don’t have anything designed in my offense to go for two or three yards and run out the clock.”
Like many Baylor fans today, Houston fans often experienced the run-and-shoot’s biggest weakness – ball control. With an offense routinely in the top-ten for total yards and top-15 for scoring, an average touchdown drive lasted a mere two and half minutes. By the end of the game, defensive players were exhausted and put at a severe disadvantage physically.
Another big problem was any team using the run-and-shoot depended heavily on the quarterback. With complex pass patterns and multiple decisions being made mid-play, a well-versed and intelligent passer was more important than in any other system.
“This system exposes a quarterback’s weaknesses more than anything. The triggerman is key,” said Jenkins.
One thing is certain. The run-and-shoot made football fun for Houston fans, just as the spread has for other offenses from Baylor to Tech to Texas A&M to TCU. Hopefully, you learned a little something about this segment of Texas sports history and will come visit us at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame to learn about many other great Texas sports moments!
Ryan Sprayberry is the Director of Content and Community Engagement at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame