The silver-haired coach stood at the big chalkboard on the practice field at Stanford University with his new football team facing him. It was the spring of 1940.
“Now on this play,” Clark Shaughnessy said, drawing some quick circles in a strange new formation and plotting lines in red, green and blue chalk, “you boys will score at least a dozen touchdowns this fall.” The play was called 43R.
Frankie Albert, destined that day to become the first modern T-formation quarterback in college football, recalls the Stanford players poking each other and exclaiming, “What’s he talking about? We didn’t make 12 touchdowns with our whole offense under Tiny Thornhill.”
In 1939, Stanford had won only one game, a season-ending 14-3 upset of Dartmouth on a sleet-covered field in New York; tied one, 14-14, with UCLA; and scored a total of seven touchdowns in nine games. Claude (Tiny) Thornhill was fired as coach immediately thereafter.
Norm Standlee, who would play fullback in the new offense, had trouble deciphering the multicolored routes Shaughnessy had drawn on the chalkboard and kept interrupting the coach.
“What’s wrong, Big Guy?” asked Shaughnessy, who couldn’t remember names.
“I’m color-blind, Coach,” Standlee replied.
Stanford in 1940 was the first college team to use the T-formation as its basic offense. In the most dramatic turnaround in football, the Indians--as they were known then--swept through nine regular-season games undefeated, and on Jan. 1, 1941, put an exclamation mark on their achievement with a 21-13 victory over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.
Next Tuesday’s 50th anniversary of that Stanford victory in Pasadena is a reminder of its impact on college football.
By the spring of 1941, Frank Leahy had introduced the T-formation at Notre Dame and went on to win four national championships before the decade ended. Earl Blaik followed the trend at Army and won two national titles in 1944-45. There is not a major team, college or pro or even high school, that doesn’t operate out of a derivative of the T-formation today.
The spirit and soul of Stanford was Frank Albert, whose exploits quickly established the T-quarterback as the most important man on the field, a notion that persists to the present time of Ty Detmer and Joe Montana.
The quarterback supplanted the tailback of the single-wing formation, which had produced such legendary heroes as Red Grange of Illinois and Tom Harmon of Michigan. They were triple-threat players who stood four or five yards behind the center and took a direct snap, the ball in full view of the other team and the entire stadium, before running, passing or kicking.
The T-formation quarterback practices legerdemain. The essence of his trade is deception, masking the intentions of the offense with tricky spins and deft ballhandling. Albert was a little left-hander from Glendale who played only one year on the high school varsity because he weighed 130 pounds. As a sophomore at Stanford, he was a 160-pound single-wing tailback on that miserable 1939 team, although he had a hand in all seven touchdowns scored that season.
The bonding of Shaughnessy and Albert revolutionized football. Frankie was the Artful Dodger to the dour and taciturn Shaughnessy’s Fagan. In a story for Esquire in 1943, Shaughnessy wrote: “First of all, there was Albert, a superb ballhandler, a magician with the ball and a gifted field general; wonderfully observing, a great left-handed passer and a great kicker. . . . He was neither strong nor fast. His talents were primarily those of a faker; he could fool people, and by temperament he ate up that sort of assignment.”
The system that Shaughnessy installed at Stanford was remarkably complex for its time. “The T-formation they run now,” Albert says, “looks an awful lot like the one we ran 50 years ago, although it’s tough to get the blocking assignments watching television.”
Not that the T-formation itself was revolutionary. In fact, it goes back almost to the origin of college football. Amos Alonzo Stagg devised the T-formation--a quarterback directly behind the center, three backs abreast several steps behind to form the crossbar of the T--in 1888 at the University of Chicago. Knute Rockne lined up his teams in the T-formation but had them shift to the “Notre Dame box” before the snap.
When a reporter complimented Shaughnessy on his invention of the T-formation in 1940, he grinned and said, “Young man, I appreciate the compliment but must admit I played the T under Doc Williams at Minnesota in 1911. I’ve just added a few little extras.”
Some extras. While coaching at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, Shaughnessy also assisted George Halas with the Chicago Bears, the reigning power in professional football. Working with Ralph Jones, another coach on the Bears’ staff, Shaughnessy put a running back in motion before the snap of the ball. Based on the faking of the quarterback, he tinkered with counter plays and quick openers.
The Bears started playing the modern T-formation in 1937 and went to it full time in 1940. They won the NFL championship in a 73-0 rout of the Washington Redskins.
At Stanford, Shaughnessy found Albert and three other players to form one of the great backfields in football:
--At left halfback, Pete Kmetovic, a backup to Albert in ’39, was swift and elusive, ideal as the man-in-motion and a receiving threat when he broke down field.
--Standlee was the classic fullback, quick and strong and the biggest man on the squad at 225 pounds.
--Hugh Gallarneau, a tough 185-pounder, was the best athlete and the fastest and lined up at right halfback.
“What made the T-formation so successful was that it didn’t depend on personnel,” says Sid Gillman, a Hall of Fame coach. “In the single wing, you had to have a hell of a tailback, a quarterback who could block, a fullback who could spin, a wingback who could block and carry on reverses. You needed the exact personnel to make the offense. In the T, you line up anybody in any spot.”
Shaughnessy and his line coach, Phil Bengtson, who later succeeded Vince Lombardi as coach of the Green Bay Packers, improvised a supporting cast:
--Vic Lindskog, a transfer who played fullback at Santa Ana College, became the center.
--Chuck Taylor, a sophomore blocking back, was moved to guard, earned All-American honors and eventually became Stanford’s coach.
--Sophomore Ed Stamm was switched from tight end to tackle.
--Bruno Banducci, later a perennial All-Pro guard for the San Francisco 49ers, was a sophomore tackle.
Stanford’s transition to the T-formation wasn’t instantly smooth. Neither Shaughnessy nor Bengtson knew the mechanics of a direct snap from the center to the quarterback.
“It was a ticklish process at first,” said Lindskog, who went on to play eight seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. “It wasn’t easy to keep from fumbling.”
Bernie Masterson, a quarterback with the Bears, came to Palo Alto for spring training and taught Albert how to move his feet and pivot. However, in the last scrimmage, a week before the opening game of the season, the varsity was drubbed by the freshmen team. The players themselves were skeptical of the new quick-hitting system.
Gallarneau, who went on to star with the Bears and later became a Chicago men’s clothing executive, says: “It was the first time I heard of a guy going through a hole without a blocker in front of him. I thought, ‘That guy’s nuts.’
“Well, I’m a local Chicago boy and I looked up Shaughnessy’s record. He was the only coach in the country that had a worse record than ours. (Shaughnessy’s last team at Chicago in 1939, before that school gave up football, lost to Michigan, 85-0, and to Harvard and Ohio State by 61-0 scores.)
“But when he put in the T-formation at Stanford, he had done an awful lot of homework. The whole premise was predicated on deception. We were fortunate to be the first team to use it, because nobody really knew how to defense us.”
The opener against then-powerful University of San Francisco at Kezar Stadium was a revelation. “We were amazed,” Albert said. “They absolutely couldn’t find the football.”
Taylor says: “They were so confused, they kept sending in new guards in front of me, and they lined up lower and lower. You couldn’t block them; all you could do was lie on top of them. Which was all you wanted in the T.”
Stanford won, 27-0, and began the march to Pasadena. The Indians won a 7-6 squeaker over Santa Clara, which had beaten them four consecutive years. Their big hurdle was undefeated USC and the Trojans’ 6-2 defense that shut off all the gaps.
“Those big linemen,” recalls Albert, “typical of Howard Jones teams, would hit and slide and not worry about the pass.”
So, Albert immediately struck with a 61-yard touchdown pass play to Kmetovic, set up another score with a long pass to end Fred Meyer and, playing defensive safety, ran back an interception 13 yards for the final touchdown in a 21-7 victory.
Stanford became the “Wow Boys,” descendants of the “Vow Boys” who played in three consecutive Rose Bowls in the 1930s.
Albert lived only four miles from the Rose Bowl and had played high school games there on Friday nights. He wasn’t fazed when Nebraska took the kickoff Jan. 1, 1941, and drove for a touchdown in seven plays.
“As we walked by our bench,” Gallarneau said, “Shaughnessy was tearing his hair out. Frank said, ‘Coach, don’t worry. We haven’t had the ball yet.’ Which was exactly his attitude. He was never, ever concerned. He always knew we’d win.”
Late in the first quarter, Stanford tied the score on an 11-yard run by Gallarneau. The play was 43R. Standlee and Kmetovic faked to the right. Gallarneau took a handoff from Albert and darted between center and guard on a quick opener into the end zone.
“Everybody followed Standlee and Kmetovic going in the opposite direction,” Gallarneau said. “I walked right by (Nebraska defensive tackle) King Kong Kahler, and he didn’t even touch me.”
Albert later threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Gallarneau, and a 39-yard punt return by Kmetovic, on which Albert blocked two Cornhuskers, clinched the victory.
The little quarterback also got off an 85-yard quick kick and added the three extra points. After the game, Al Wolf reported in The Times, Coach Biff Jones of Nebraska said: “Go tell Clark Shaughnessy I’ll buy him 120 acres of fine corn land if he’ll tell me where we can get a Frankie Albert. That kid had too much pass, too much kick, too much noodle for us.”
Albert is approaching his 71st birthday in January and lives in retirement in Rancho Mirage with his wife, Marty (the former Martha Jean Barringer), his high school sweetheart who followed him to Stanford. They have three daughters and seven grandchildren. His middle daughter, Jane, was a tennis player who ranked as high as fourth nationally and still teaches the sport.
The Alberts’ house on the country club’s Stanford Drive contains virtually no mementoes of his football career. The photos and other memorabilia are tucked away in a cardboard box in the garage. He prefers it that way.
After two operations in recent years on the rotator cuff of his left shoulder, Albert still plays competitive tennis and an occasional round of golf. A brace on his left knee is the only visible reminder of his football days. But he still weighs 170 pounds, the same as when he quit football.
Albert was a unanimous All-American in 1940--Tom Harmon of Michigan won the Heisman Trophy that year--and even went Hollywood after graduation in 1942. He starred in “Spirit of Stanford,” a Columbia production for which he was paid $6,000, then joined the Navy, serving as an officer on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.
After World War II, Albert was the first man signed by the San Francisco 49ers of the new All-America Conference. He played seven seasons, enhancing his reputation as a T-formation quarterback, until he was replaced by Y.A. Tittle in 1952. Albert tried the Canadian Football League for one season, with Calgary, before retiring and joining the 49ers as a scout and coach.
In 1956, Tony Morabito, the original owner of the 49ers, elevated him to head coach, succeeding Red Strader. Albert noted that there wasn’t much security in the job. Morabito sold him 5% of the franchise, which then had a total value of $600,000. Albert wrote a down-payment check for $5,000 and asked Tony when the rest of it was due.
“Let’s wait till the end of the season,” the owner said, “and see how we do. Maybe you can pay it out of dividends.”
Albert never wrote another check for his share of the club. He coached for three years, and the 49ers tied Detroit for the Western Conference title in 1958, then led, 27-7, in the third quarter of a playoff game until the Lions rallied for a 31-27 victory. But Albert collected those dividends for years--he also worked in real estate and car leasing--before selling his share of the team when the franchise was acquired by Edward DeBartolo Jr., the current owner, for $19 million.
Albert’s $5,000 cash investment had increased to almost $1 million. He was a smart quarterback.