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Searching For Eddie Gran's Offensive Roots

As spring practice opened today in Clifton one of the most pressing questions of the day is about the offense. What will the personnel be? What will the formations look like? What will the run/pass balance be? With a first time playcaller like Offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran the answers to all of those questions are, and will remain for awhile, fluid. To start on the process you have to look at who he has worked for, and more importantly who his bosses worked for early on in their careers. Which takes us to Southern California in the mid 70's.

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Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Grenada Hills California is a mid sized Los Angeles Neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. It is an unlikely launching point for a revolution in Football strategy. In 1960 Jack Neumeier took the head coaching position of the Granada Hills Charter High School Highlanders. Like everyone else in Southern California at the time Neumeier was a split back veer option coach. He was a tough guy, who wanted tough guys on his team, and he ran his program with that in mind. His teams were good, consistently winners, but never a championship caliber team. The 1969 season saw the Highlanders lose two close low scoring games to more talented squads. Understandably this frustrated him to no end and he began to search for a solution to his problem. The solution came from an unlikely place. He recounted telling his quarterback at the time that he read a book by "some high school coach in Ohio."* That book changed his thinking about offense, and in time the way that everyone thought about offense.

*This is purely speculative but that book was almost certainly Run and Shoot Football: Offense of the Future. A seminal work by Glenn "Tiger" Ellison, legendary former Middletown head coach.

After reading the book Neumeier adjusted his offense from a run oriented approach to one that favored passing. He did not lift Ellison's offense wholesale, but took the main concepts and adjusted them to suit his personnel. His offense shared some common ancestors, but it was not the run and shoot, it was what came to be known as the One Back Spread, and it shook Southern California High School Football to its core as Granada Hills won their first L.A. City Title in 1970.

Neumeier offense could be considered ground zero for all that we have come to think of as modern in the game of Football. Spreading the defense horizontally with formations, and vertically with passing concepts. Isolating defenders in match ups where your guy has the best chance to win. It all seems so simple now, but in 1970 when everyone and their mother was running the Veer it truly was revolutionary

Year after year his team put up stellar numbers and he attracted quite a following in the insular world of Football coaches. One who took notice was an unheralded assistant from Montana and later Washington State by the name of Jack Elway. Elway was so impressed by the offense that when the chance came to coach at Cal State Northridge* he jumped at the chance not just for himself, but for his son. John Elway enrolled at Granada Hills in March 1976. Under the tutelage of Neumeier John Elway became the most sought after recruit of his generation, if not of all time. Just like that the city Granada Hills became a must stop destination for college coaches across the nation. They came for Elway, but they couldn't help but notice the offense.

*About a mile from Granada Hills High School

Neumeier began teaching his offense to any coach who would ask. Among those that asked were Jack Elway, obviously, but also a young offensive coordinator from Fresno State by the name of Dennis Erickson. Erickson took what he learned and applied his craft in Fresno for three seasons before moving on to San Jose State to work with Jack Elway as his offense coordinator. After three more years honing his philosophy with the Spartans Erickson got his first head coaching job at Idaho. Three years with the Vandals and then it was onto Laramie, Wyoming to coach the Cowboys for the 1986 season. The Cowboys were an option team until Erickson installed his offense. Then they were a passing team, and a successful one at that. His single season in Wyoming gave him a chance to move up the ladder again. The next rung was at Washington State.

When Erickson got on the job his program was in disarray with just three winning seasons in the last 8. Eternal rivals Washington were ascendant, in the tail end of the greatest run under Don James. Meanwhile coaching in the Palouse was an uphill climb because the talent pool was non existent, and the facilities poorish. But it was the perfect place to take some chances and to strike out against orthodoxy. Thats exactly what Erickson sought to do. His first season was a disaster piece of a 3-7-1 season, with the only wins coming against (ironically) Fresno State, Wyoming and (less ironically) Arizona.

His second season in 1988 was a different story. The Cougars traveled to Big Ten country in back to back weeks to open the season against Illinois and Purdue, winning both comfortably. They came home and were beaten by an Oregon team that started strong and got as high as #18 in the polls before evaporating down the stretch. But it was the next game that sent shock waves through the sport. The Cougars went into Neyland Stadium and hammered the Vols 52-24. That was not a good Tennessee team, but the list of opponents who have gone into Neyland and hung half a hundred is very short. They dropped back to back games to the Arizona contingent before going on the road and knocking off a top ranked UCLA squad led by Troy Aikman in the Rose Bowl. A Christmas day bowl win* over #14 Houston and Andre Ware capped off one of the better turn around stories of the 80's.

*The Cougars first bowl win since the 1916 Rose Bowl, in their first bowl game in 56 years.

Washington State went on to a 9-3 record, at the time, the most wins in Pullman since 1930. But the offense is what made Erickson one of the hottest names in the country. It wasn't just that the offense put up yards and points in bunches. But that they did so with what many considered to be inferior talent. On paper Washington State shouldn't have been able to compete with Southern California, UCLA and Washington who had won 9 of the last 10 PAC 10 titles before Erickson took control. Yet they did just that beating both Washington and UCLA during that 1988 season. After that season Dennis took his talents to South Beach to coach the Hurricanes just one season removed from their second national championship.

When Erickson went to Miami a scheme that was intended to give inferior athletes the ability to compete against superior ones was put in place for a roster of nothing but superior athletes. In his first year as a steward of the Hurricanes he won the national championship. Two years later the Hurricanes won it again with concepts that were ripped from a half empty high school stadium in the Valley 15 years before.

It is at this point, 1,000 or so words after the start, that the two main figures from a Bearcat perspective enter the picture. Tommy Tubberville got his start at Miami as a graduate assistant for Jimmy Johnson and slowly worked his way up under the ladder. During his run Tubs was employed by what amounted to a Center for Football Innovation. One of many coaches he encountered with the Hurricanes was Eddie Gran, one of two* graduate assistants on the 1991 Hurricanes staff. Tuberville stayed with Miami until the conclusion of the 1993 season. Gran took a position coaching receivers for Tim Murphy at UC. Gran left, as Murphy did, after the borderline miraculous 1993 season .

* Randy Shannon was the other.

Tubberville ran the defense at Texas A&M for R.C. Slocum during the 1994 season. Gran plied his trade at Idaho State for a season. When Tuberville took the Ole Miss job Gran joined his offensive staff which was then headed by Noel Mazzone. Mazzone had previously worked at Minnesota alongside a young Kevin Sumlin, then fresh off working with Joe Tiller at Wyoming (not to mention GA'ing at Wazzou under Erickson before that). When Tubs left his pine box in Oxford to take the Auburn job Gran and Mazzone followed along. Mazzone stayed through the 2001 season before taking the same position at Oregon State under, wait for it, Dennis Erickson.

In Mazzone's place on the Plains Tubs brought in Bobby Petrino who at this point in his career was not yet known for much beyond his football mind. He was then at the forefront of the ongoing one back revolution,* a rising star with the likes of Urban Meyer (2nd second year at Bowling Green), and Rich Rodriguez (2nd year at West Virgina).

*"The Spread" as a two word catch all for all offense that wasn't the wishbone or B1G Ten power football was not yet a thing, and the world was better off for it.

After those heady times on the forefront of offensive innovation with Mazzone and Petrino, Tubs took a different tack for his next offensive coordinator, the West Coast denizen, Al Borges. Borges was not a member of the Petrino, Rich Rod, Meyer cabal. He was of the previous generation, when the west coast offense was the new and radical approach to offense. His offenses came to display that. The dominant image of his offense is probably Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams in the I with Jason Campbell under center behind a massive offensive line preparing to run power, or maybe even a screen off play action.

Borges stayed on until the 2007 season before moving on after all parties bowed to diminishing returns and parted ways. In his place Tuberville brought in Tony Franklin renowned in equal parts for being the creator of "The System", and the only guy in recorded history to be too crazy for Hal Mumme. The 2008 season was a disaster from the start. Tuberville brought him in to run the system, but either Franklin never got the offensive staff (almost all holdovers from the Borges era) to buy in or Tuberville was aghast at the thought of throwing the ball 50 times a game and cut him off*. Either way it was a disaster. Tubs got fired and took 2009 off, Gran took a job with then wunderkind (now merely kind) Lane Kiffin at Tennessee. When Kiffen bolted for LA Gran headed south to Tallahassee to work for Jimbo Fisher.

*If only he knew...

Now if you have gotten to this point without quitting you are surely wondering why all of the above matters. What does the above indicate other than your humble blogger's ability to cross reference CV's? Its a fair question to raise, but it does matter. The ideas, theories and practices that a coach picks up in the formative years of his career are likely to stay with him until the end. The Wishbone and its variants remained dominant in the sport through the 80's and relevant into the 90's because the majority of coaches who led programs at those times began their careers in the 60's when option football was the new, new thing begining its ascendency.

If you look at Grans history and the men who shaped his ideas of offense, and those who shaped their views of offense its not hard to see a career that is steeped in the one back offense. That is his reference point, which is why all of the talk on the message boards, twitter and the like about the return of a "pro style offense" to UC is annoying. Not just because the conception of a "pro style offense" is a meaningless catch all phrase that people like to throw out at the bar to sound smart while saying little*. But also because the very image that the phrase conjures; of a quarterback, full back and running back stacked in the I waiting to unleash Power over the right guard behind a massive offensive line and 4,000 tight ends doesn't really exist to anyone but a Wisconsin fan.

*And yes, I do deplore the lack of specificity in the way Football is discussed

Gran will certainly have his own views on offense. Every coach, hell every person, who has ever watched a game of football has his or her own ideas about offenses that will work. Those will certainly come to bear in the offense he chooses to run here at UC. As will the work that he will do hitting the road and visiting staffs. He is rumored to have spent time at UCLA with Noel Mazzone, the Bruins Offensive Coordinator. The offense Mazzone ran with the Bruins, and with Arizona State and Dennis Erickson before that, is basically a fusion of the original one back spread's balanced rushing approach with the air raid passing game. That is the direction where I would expect the Bearcats to head under Eddie Gran, Playcaller. In the second part of this series we will hit on what that entails.

Special hat tips for this go to Tim Layden for his One Back Spread chapter of Blood, Sweat and Chalk, buy it today if you don't already have it. Also Coaching Roots and Chris Brown of Smart Football.