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Innovation or Oddity? The Reverse Center
Coaches have exploited loopholes in the rules to obtain a competitive advantage since football began. Other coaches saw opportunities within the rules that others had not recognized or were unwilling to implement. The two can be challenging to tell apart at the time, with some innovations, such as Fritz Crisler's platooning system, changing the course of the game. Others are little more than oddities, which the rule makers quickly outlaw.
Football Archaeology previously covered several unusual innovations of the past, including the Reverse Quarterback, the Tower Play, the 12th Man on the Field, and others but the Reverse Center has not been covered until now. The Reverse Center or Y Formation became the latest thing in 1941 when Ozzie Solem's Syracuse team implemented it, but there had been predecessors.
The reverse center is simple in concept since it involves nothing more than turning the center around, so he faces the backfield rather than the opposing defense. The rules did not require players on the line of scrimmage to face forward, though most everyone had done so. A few early football formations cocked linemen inward at a 45-degree angle, just as wings sometimes do behind the line of scrimmage. So, turning the center around was not crazy as long as the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.
The core advantage of reversing the center was its visibility and snapping flexibility. Centers aligned conventionally only see the backs by looking through their legs, which works well when the backs remain stationary or move only after the snap. Conventional center snaps are also most accurate when snapping to backs directly behind the center or slightly to the side. Snapping to a back outside the offensive tackle is difficult for conventional snappers.
So, while the reverse center lacked the ability to monitor defensive movements, it allowed the center to snap to a range of backfield locations accurately and, some believed, pull more easily.
The first school known to use the reverse center was Tufts in 1914. Tufts was also among the first schools to paint their helmets (white), so their passers could more easily distinguish Tufts receivers from their opponents. Kansas used the reverse center that year as well, as did Lawrence (WI) in 1915 when coached by Mark Caitlin, whose tackle for a safety in the 1905 Michigan-Chicago game gave the Maroons a national championship. After 1915, the reverse center went dormant as the Single Wing, and Notre Dame Box dominated the football scene.
It is not clear whether Ossie Solem was familiar with the reverse center applications of the past, but he had considered implementing the approach for a few years. As a college football rules advisory committee member, he knew the reverse center was legal and made it a core feature of his Y formation. Besides the reverse center, the Y formation positioned one back immediately behind the center and another a yard or two further back. Two halfbacks aligned several yards deep, and behind the tackles, so the combination formed a Y, with the wide halfbacks presenting the threat of quick tosses going wide.
The Syracuse line coach was young Minnesota graduate Charles Wilkinson, who went by "Bud." He and Solem chose as center a long-armed speedster who proved an excellent choice all season. The Orange did not show their conventional offense in the season opener with Clarkston, hoping to surprise Cornell, a national power, in week 2. Unfortunately, their longest gain against the Big Red was called back, as they otherwise played well in a 6-0 loss. Successive wins over Holy Cross, NYU, and Rutgers preceded their upset of Wisconsin. They finished the season with a loss at Penn State and a tie with Colgate. Throughout the season, they befuddled defenses with their unconventional tosses and misdirection, including one reverse play that went to the reverse center.
Of course, the 1941 college football season ended with the Rose Bowl in Durham, North Carolina, and the Shrine Bowl in New Orleans due to fears the Japanese might bomb the games' usual West Coast stadiums, so the football rule makers were in no mood to mess around as they looked toward 1942. The rules committee agreed to avoid core rule changes, only to edit existing rules, a stance they maintained through 1945. Still, one of the edits for 1942 was the requirement that players on the line of scrimmage had to face their opponents.
That was the end of the reverse center. Some future teams tried to match the reverse center's wide snap by sending the ball across the body as one might toss a shovelful of snow to the side. However, the technique proved ineffective, and the advent of the T formation quarterback with hands under center largely made it a non-issue.
Like a few innovations before and after, the reverse center is now considered an oddity, but who knows how football might be different today if the rules committee had not reversed the reverse center.
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