Rich Rodriguez was a 29-year-old coach trying to both find his identity and make a name for himself.
With a $40,000 check secured for his program, Rodriguez brought his Division II Glenville State Pioneers to the Midwest to play Division I-AA Indiana State on a cool October afternoon in 1992.
The offense Rodriguez’s team showed that day in a 63-49 loss in Terre Haute, Ind., would eventually revolutionize football.
“We were up and down the field the whole game,” Rodriguez said. “Their coach wouldn’t even shake my hand after the game because he was so mad he gave up 49 points to little ol’ Glenville State.”
Rodriguez and the Pioneers spread the field and didn’t huddle once. Every once in a while, Rodriguez gave quarterback Jed Drenning the option to run or pass based on what he saw from the opposing defensive end.
If the end went inside, anticipating a handoff, Drenning would keep it and run right where the defender had originally lined up. If the end went outside, anticipating a sneak, Drenning would hand it off.
It’s what now has become known as the spread option, zone read.
Rodriguez and the Arizona Wildcats run it, and it’s an offensive philosophy that is taking college football and now the NFL by storm.
Glenville State had employed the up-tempo offense a season earlier, but it was the Indiana State game that caused the offensive “Rod-olution.”
The Star talked to several people involved in the birth of the offense.
This is the oral history of how Rodriguez brought his offense to Division I football — and changed the game.
Rich Rodriguez: As mad as we were after the Indiana State game because we thought we should have won, a day or two later, I said, ‘You know what, that’s pretty neat.’ We had eight full scholarships and they had 63. Our offense gave us a chance to compete on that level, and I felt like I was really onto something.
Jed Drenning: I think after that game, it reached a point where we felt like it was going to work no matter who we were playing. If we run a conventional offense in that game, we lose by 50. From there, it all just took off.
Rod Smith (Arizona’s quarterbacks coach and the quarterback at Glenville State after Drenning): I remember when I was a player, not one team was doing it in Division I. Us little Division II guys used to look up to the Division I guys and watch them on TV. I remember asking my quarterback coach at the time, Jed Drenning, ‘Why don’t people do what we do in Division I?’ His response was ‘They’re scared.’ It was so different back at the time; no one was doing it.
Rodriguez and Glenville State used the up-tempo, spread option zone read for the next four years, which were all winning seasons. Most Division I coaches believed Rodriguez’s offense was a fad. That changed in 1997, when coach Tommy Bowden was hired at Tulane and selected Rodriguez as his offensive coordinator.
Tommy Bowden: We used to have a Bowden Academy and we’d bring in younger coaches to work for nothing. Rich came in and I liked his style. I’m a loud coach; he’s a loud coach. And I really liked his personality. We’d stay up and talk football at night and I looked at the success he had out of the shotgun. I had shotgun experience and I wanted to run a shotgun, no-huddle offense and needed a guy with that background. That’s how we got there.
Rodriguez: When Tommy called me about coming down to be the coordinator, I said, ‘I really only know this one offense that we’re running.’ He said, ‘That’s fine, do what you do.’ He let me put it all in. I was the only coach on that staff that knew that offense. I can remember that first spring, I don’t think we got a first down the entire spring. If there was a record for sacks in a spring game, we would have broke it because (quarterback) Shaun King probably got sacked about 15 times.
Shaun King: There was a whole lot of yelling that spring. That’s what I remember. They were really hard on us, but they wanted us to buy into what they were selling. When they got there in ’97, no one was running the spread. It was something that was new and took some time to get it right.
Drenning: It wasn’t until ’97, when (Rodriguez) got a guy like Shaun King, that he could really capitalize on what was there. When we ran the zone-read at Glenville, it was something that would keep defenses honest. When he had Shaun, he started adding all these quarterback twists in the run game. We had physical limitations at Glenville. Those were gone when he got to Tulane.
Bowden: I remember walking off the field after a scrimmage in the fall and Rich was discouraged and didn’t know if it was going to work at that level. But I looked at it differently. We’d throw a screen or a bubble and it was inches away from being a huge play. We were so close to making big plays. I just kept telling him, ‘Let’s be patient.’ He wanted immediate execution and we didn’t have it at first.
Rodriguez: Tommy is the one who gave me the confidence to keep at it. I can think of the first game of the season against Cincinnati. We were down 10-0 in a heartbeat and I said, ‘Uh-oh, what’s going on here?’ But our guys came back and won 31-17 and it all took really well.
Bowden: Rex Ryan was the defensive coordinator for that Cincinnati team and I just remember we were moving the ball well the whole game. Shaun made some throws into tight coverages. We got behind early and then we caught fire. For two years, nobody could defend it.
Tulane went 7-4 that season and a perfect 12-0 the following year.
King: We were grooving. Tommy had a pregame speech on repeat. And this is where Rich deserves a lot of credit. I’ve been around a lot of brilliant offensive minds: I’ve been around Jon Gruden, Mike Martz, Denny Green, Tom Moore in Indianapolis — and Rich was the only guy that didn’t have an ego. He’s capable of adapting his system to his personnel. He’s truly brilliant when it comes to offense.
Following the 1998 season, Tommy Bowden was hired as the head coach at Clemson. King and Bowden both figured Rodriguez would get the head job at Tulane, but he was passed over for Chris Scelfo.
Bowden: When Rich called me and said he didn’t get the job, I said, ‘Stay where you are. I’m sending you a plane right now to take you to Clemson.’ The top five things that have ever happened to me in my life are becoming a Christian, having children, getting married, getting my first coaching job and hiring Rich Rodriguez at Clemson — and I’m considering moving Rich up on that list.
Rodriguez: When we got to Clemson, we had a quarterback named Woody Dantzler and he was a freak of an athlete. He had great tailback skills and could obviously throw it. That’s when I could integrate the quarterback runs and keep the tempo up even more. It was different for the ACC and different for everyone. I really, really enjoyed that. That was a lot of fun.
Bowden: Woody came on the stage and became the first quarterback in NCAA history to throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000. Now, it’s not that uncommon, but he was the first to do it. And it was because we were on the cutting edge. We were doing a lot of quarterback counters, sweeps, keeps, zone read and then with the tempo that Rich brought, it just added to it.
Bowden, Rodriguez and Clemson went 6-6 in 1999 and then 9-3 in 2000. Rodriguez was then hired by West Virginia, where he brought his offense with him. Rodriguez went 3-8 in his first season, but by 2005 the Mountaineers went 11-1 and beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Rodriguez: We beat Georgia and played pretty well with a bunch of freshmen and young guys, and after that we probably had 35 different colleges come visit us. I was maybe too open because everyone was coming in. So, I thought at that time, ‘Boy, someone in the NFL, if nothing else, is going to do the up-tempo and go fast-paced and use it as an advantage.’ But it didn’t really catch on until a couple of years ago when the Patriots starting pushing the tempo. Because, really, there are two components to this: There’s the zone-read, the quarterback run game part of it and then there’s the up-tempo part of it. The up-tempo part is what really took off and now we’ve seen the zone-read, too.
Smith: I’d be lying if I said I thought — all those years ago at Glenville — that so many teams would be doing it now. But you knew you were onto something special. It was so unique at the time. It’s really neat to sit back now and say, ‘Look at how many spread teams there are. Look at how many teams are going tempo. Look at how many teams are incorporating zone-read.’ It’s all the things we did back in the day in Glenville, West Virginia.
Rodriguez: I’d still rather be the only ones running it. I like being unique; that’s why I run the ‘odd stack’ on defense. It’s a little bit like, ‘Jeez, why do so many people have to be doing this?’ But it is a little bit of validation that maybe we weren’t all that crazy. It’s a little bit flattering. Truthfully, I’m surprised it didn’t take off four or five years ago.
Drenning: I watch Arizona games now and will still see a play that we ran. When people ask me if the offense is still the same, I tell them Rich’s offense is like a language that adds a bunch of new words each year. He never stops developing it. You can’t stand still and he doesn’t. He wants to maximize the pressure on defense, and that’s a process that never stops.