The twin veer offense was on its way out.
Following Tumwater High School’s 1986 football season — which ended with a 6-2 loss in the state semifinals — coach Sid Otton and his staff threw out the offense they’d run for more than a decade.
That system put a lot of emphasis on quarterback play. The T-Birds’ signal caller had gotten hurt. Their halfback broke his leg, further limiting the team.
“We knew we had to make a change,” Otton said.
So Tumwater adopted the offense it still runs today — the wing-T.
Otton attended a clinic early in 1987. A coach from Georgia preached the wing-T, a misdirection offense that features a quarterback and three other players in the backfield who are used to fake, counter and otherwise cause havoc against a defense.
Otton said he liked the idea, mainly because it spread the workload around to other players.
“With the wing-T, you didn’t need to have a stud quarterback, you just needed someone to discipline himself to run the offense,” Tumwater offensive coordinator Jamie Weeks said.
Seeking more guidance, Otton, Weeks and assistant Randy Reynolds loaded into Otton’s station wagon and drove north that spring.
It was dark when they arrived at Bellevue High School to meet Dwaine Hatch, one of a few successful wing-T coaches whom Otton knew at the time. Hatch, who guided the Wolverines to the 1983 state title, led the coaches through empty hallways to his office, and pulled out his playbook to explain the nuances of the offense. They watched film.
That summer, the coaches took several players back to Bellevue for a football camp to learn wing-T drills, techniques and blocking schemes.
“We were just trying to stuff our brains with everything we could to learn,” Weeks said.
Tumwater’s wing-T was basic in the beginning — a wing-right, wing-left, buck sweep and a few other series. Otton estimated that the program had two or three formations at its inception, compared with the 15-20 it has now.
It didn’t look like a wing-T to begin with, Otton said, until Tumwater won its first state championship later that year with a 21-14 victory over West Valley of Yakima.
“They embraced it in the last game of the season,” Otton said. “Our defense was awesome, our defense got us there. Our offense shined — looked like a clinic.
“And the other team hadn’t seen it. That’s when it kind of did its thing and became something really special.”
Six years later, Tumwater hosted Bellevue in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs. Otton’s rendition of the fabled wing-T offense bested Hatch’s, and the T-Birds won, 41-6.
The two programs play again for the first time since 1993 in a nonleague game Friday at Bellevue High School.
After a whirlwind offseason that saw longtime Bellevue coach Butch Goncharoff placed on “nondisciplinary” leave following allegations of illegal recruiting and violations of coach-pay rules, the Wolverines on Friday will play their first game in a limited schedule. The new coach is Mark Landes, a former assistant.
Nobody is certain what kind of changes Bellevue has made. Or if the Wolverines will run the offense that Goncharoff used in winning the school 11 state championships between 2001-13.
In the past, Goncharoff has credited Hatch as his influence in the wing-T, although he directly was schooled in that offense as an assistant under Bill Heglar, who replaced Hatch in 1996.
“When (the Wolverines) were running the wing-T, they were very disciplined,” said Vic Randall, who ran the wing-T at Ferndale High School for 17 years before becoming the program’s defensive coordinator.
“If you keep running something over and over, you get good at it, and you know how to fix it when things aren’t going well. They’ve done a nice job with it. Tumwater is in the same boat.”
The two schools’ successes speak volumes: Combined, Bellevue (12 state titles) and Tumwater (five) have won 17 state championships while running the wing-T.
It’s not an NFL offense, or a college offense, Otton said. The majority of high school programs in Washington run the spread.
“I’m glad,” Otton said. “I like it to be unique.”
The Delaware wing-T, developed by former college coach Dave Nelson in 1950, is considered the grandfather of all wing-T offenses. Its base principles are used in wing-T offenses all over the country.
“You do adapt a little bit with some stuff,” Otton said. “The wing-T is about if they stop this, then you put somebody in conflict and run something that relates to that conflict.”
It’s smoke and mirrors. Randall said he would give one of his backs a ball of tape during practice — small enough to conceal, and impossible for the defense to see. The defenders, instead, had to watch the offensive sets — who’s pulling and blocking where.
The object is simple — against a good wing-T team, you can’t find the ball, said Ferndale coach Jamie Plenkovich, who has been running that offense since he started as an assistant at Sehome High School in 1989.
“Making the ball disappear is essential to our success,” Goncharoff told USA Today in 2007. “When I know our offense is going good, the quarterback is calling plays and I’m 10 yards away watching the fakes — and I don’t know where the ball is. That’s when I know that 16-year-old linebacker we’re playing is in for a long night.”
Based on personnel, several pieces of the offense can be emphasized.
“When you have three backs who are pretty equal, it’s pretty deadly,” Plenkovich said. “You put the defense in tons of conflict with what you’re doing.”
Both Tumwater and Bellevue have added wrinkles to their base wing-T through the years.
“Then it was formation and different plays,” Otton said. “Now it’s motion and different sets, but running a lot of wing-T plays.”
Otton likens it to a pitcher in baseball — different tempos, not just a fastball, is what makes a pitcher successful. Over the years, Tumwater has added speed sweeps such as the jet sweep and rocket sweep, in addition to the buck sweep.
Bellevue has expanded emphasis on the quarterback, incorporating more passing.
“You see it both in Bellevue and Tumwater,” Plenkovich said. “Year-to-year, there’s little different things that they do, and it’s subtle. … They’re constantly evolving and and changing a little bit, tinkering with the offense.”