The Team That Changed the Game

Stanford Archives

University of Arizona journalism professor James W. Johnson documents and analyzes the 1940 Stanford football season down to a T—the T-formation, that is—in Wow Boys: A Coach, a Team, and a Turning Point in College Football (Univ. of Nebraska Press). 

The T-formation, in which three backs line up behind the quarterback, had been all but discarded until coach Clark Shaughnessy adapted it and brought it west to Stanford. His emphasis on deception and speed rather than brute force revolutionized the game and led to further refinements evident in today’s wide-open offenses. ESPN in 2002 ranked the development of the T-formation No. 2 on a list of best sports innovations of all time.

Shaughnessy inherited a moribund program coming off a 1-7-1 season. The Stanford Daily, Johnson notes, was pessimistic about his prospects either of winning or re-engaging “one of the most indifferent student bodies on any campus.” Led by star quarterback Frankie Albert, ’42, and Shaughnessy’s sophisticated offensive schemes, the “Wow Boys” went undefeated and won the 1941 Rose Bowl.