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Writer: Erickson deserves credit as spread innovator

7/29/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

How about some love for the West Coast's contributions to the rise of the spread offense?

Longtime sportswriter Bart Wright, currently the sports editor of the Greenville (S.C.) News, is working on a book about the spread offense, and he thinks one coach got left out of ESPN.com's recent exploration of the roots of the spread: Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson.

"I don't think there's any question he's a father -- not the originator -- but he carried it on," Wright said.

Of course, it's sometimes hard to nail down exactly what the spread is. The spread-option is a lot like the old single-wing. And the run-and-shoot certainly spreads the field with lots of passing.

But Erickson's version of the spread, Wright said, was devised by Jack Neumeier in the 1970s at Granada Hills (Calf.) High School.

Neumeier? He coached this guy you may have heard of: John Elway. 

Neumeier was looking for a way to force defenses into favorable one-on-one matchups. So he started using empty backfields and four- and even five-receiver sets.

It worked.

That's one of the reasons Jack Elway moved into the Granada Hills school district when he became coach at Cal State Northridge in 1976.

When the elder Elway took over at San Jose State in 1979, his first offensive coordinator -- yep, Dennis Erickson -- adopted some of the Neumeier principles.

The big breakout game for Erickson's spread, according to Wright, was San Jose State's 30-22 upset of then-7-0 and ninth-ranked Baylor in 1980.

What was Erickson's plan? "He wanted to attack Mike Singletary," said Wright, who's done many interviews with Erickson for his book.

Yes, that Mike Singletary.

"You don't normally try to pick on the best player in the country, but that's what he did," Wright said.

The idea was to force Singletary to chase receivers in space. Over and over again.

It worked.

By the way, the guy hurling the rock for Erickson that afternoon was Steve Clarkson, now a well-known quarterback guru.

Those spread principles, refined over time, became the bedrock of Erickson's offenses at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State, Miami and Oregon State.

One of the reasons Erickson may get overlooked in spread discussions is few recall that Miami's dominant offenses from 1989 to 1994 were pure spreads. Because the Hurricanes had so many future NFL greats on their roster, the assumption is they were running a pro-style scheme.

Just last week Arizona's offensive coordinator, Sonny Dykes, pointed this out in an interview with the Pac-10 blog. He was trying to defend the spread offense against accusations it doesn't prepare players, particularly quarterbacks, for the NFL.

Said Dykes, "It's weird. Remember [the University of] Miami was one of the first teams running the one-back and running a spread offense with three receivers on the field?"

Obviously, lots of coaches -- high school and college -- from lots of different states have discernible fingerprints on the development of the spread offense.

And Wright wants to make sure folks don't forget Erickson is one of them.