Friday, February 11, 2011

Bellard Was a Latter-Day Texas Pioneer

I have had several thoughts about Emory Bellard since I heard of his death at the age of 83 yesterday.

And I have come to the conclusion that he rarely received the credit he deserved.

That may be hard for some football enthusiasts to accept. Bellard was a pioneer in Texas, a football coach who revolutionized the sport at the University of Texas with his wishbone offense. Well, that is what they say.

Bruce Weber of the New York Times calls the wishbone Bellard's "signature contribution" to the game.

In some ways, I guess that is true. It certainly changed things at the University of Texas, which had been struggling until the Longhorns' head coach, Darrell Royal, came to Bellard, an assistant at UT, in 1968 and asked him to come up with an offense that would shake things up.

He answered that challenge with the wishbone formation, which was designed to operate a triple option with a lead blocker. It sure changed things at Texas. In the next four seasons, the Longhorns were 38–5–1 with one national title (almost two), a perfect season (almost two), a 30–game winning streak and four Cotton Bowl appearances as Southwest Conference champions.

Then, in 1972, Bellard took the head coaching position at Texas' arch rival, Texas A&M. In so doing, he embodied the civil war that has been fought in generations of Texas families that have counted graduates of both UT and A&M among their ranks.

After Bellard's departure, Texas continued to thrive, winning two more SWC titles before going into a tailspin in Royal's final year at the helm in 1976.

Bellard's Aggies, meanwhile, struggled, losing their annual showdown with the Longhorns three straight times. It wouldn't have been fair to blame Bellard for that, though. The Aggies had lost to the Longhorns in most of their previous 20 meetings, including the four before Bellard arrived in College Station.

But he turned things around in 1975, winning the annual Thanksgiving showdown and coming within a single victory of taking the Aggies to the Cotton Bowl.

Bellard was never a head coach in the Cotton Bowl, only an assistant. He left A&M in the middle of the 1978 season after the Aggies lost consecutive games to Houston and Baylor.

While Bellard gets credit from a lot of people for developing the wishbone, there is some doubt about that. Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer insists that a coach at a high school in Fort Worth actually developed the wishbone in the 1950s. Perhaps Bellard modified something he had seen as a high school coach in the 1950s and early 1960s for use on the college level.

If he did, though, he also applied elements of the veer offense that was being run at the University of Houston and the variation of the triple option that was being used by Gene Stallings at A&M.

So perhaps the wishbone was not strictly Bellard's revolutionary innovation.

But Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle reminds us of something that was Bellard's innovation — the integration of the A&M football program.

"In 1972, we had one black player on scholarship," R.C. Slocum, one of Bellard's assistants at A&M, said. "Now you can imagine the reputation of Texas A&M at that point. Not just A&M, but pretty much everybody in the Southwest Conference.

"Not many people appreciate what a bold step that was, to bring in nine black players to a place that had virtually no blacks. The deeper story is trust. It's the kind of man he was. Parents trusted him to do the right thing."

Earlier this week, Justice reports, two of those black players came to see Bellard on his deathbed and thank him for what he had done.

As Justice observed, the integration of the Aggie football program was Bellard's true legacy. Integration undoubtedly would have come eventually. Bellard just saw to it that it arrived that much sooner.

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