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Toughest foe yet challenges inventor of wishbone offense

By Paul Arnett

LAST UPDATED: 1:50 a.m. HST, Aug 11, 2010

A friend of mine reached across time Monday afternoon and brought me back to the 1970s with a simple e-mail that read, "Coach Emory Bellard has been diagnosed with ALS."

There aren't that many folks in the island chain who know or remember Coach Bellard and how he forever changed the game of football 40-odd years ago in his front yard in San Angelo, Texas. The story goes that he borrowed the neighbor's boy and used a couple of his own kids to design a triple option like no other.

Famed University of Texas head coach Darrell Royal gets the credit for unveiling this formation that led the Longhorns to back-to-back national championships in 1969 and 1970. But the architect, the papa bear, the designer of what Houston sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz would later call the wishbone, was one Emory Bellard.

In 1972, Bellard left Texas and brought the 'bone to rival Texas A&M and lived and died with it before he was sent on his way in 1978 after defensive coordinators across the land figured out that eight in the box was all you needed to shut it down.

My time spent with Coach Bellard was a two-year stint as sports editor of the Texas A&M college newspaper. Like most young reporters of the Watergate era, we covered sports like it was investigative journalism -- always looking for something going on in every corner of Kyle Field.

Over the summer, one of the top running backs got in trouble for having a marijuana plant growing on his back porch. We got ahold of the local police report and were set to run this big story the next day when I got a call from Coach Bellard.

"Paul, if you got a moment, come by my office, I want to talk with you."

Now, let me try to explain something about his workplace. It was like the Oval Office, presidential in every way. His secretary led me across the plush maroon carpet to a desk that was the size of a Civil War battlefield. He greeted me like a prospective recruit, shook my hand and asked me if I wanted anything as we sat down.

The ensuing conversation sticks with me as if it were yesterday. I hadn't been granted an exclusive interview before. Heck, I'd never been inside his inner sanctum, but I knew what was coming, for sure. He was going to ask me not to run that story.

We did, of course. Complete with the quote from Bellard that read, "He's got his feet back on the ground, now." Without ever realizing how funny that was considering the kid's crime.

I HAVEN'T SPOKEN to Coach Bellard in more than three decades. He left College Station, Texas, for a nice run at Mississippi State that included a 6-3 win in 1980 over then-No. 1-ranked Alabama coached by Paul "Bear" Bryant, before returning to his high school roots in the Lone Star State. I went on to be sports editor in San Angelo, where everybody knew his name.

A decade before, he led San Angelo Central, which is in the same district as Odessa Permian of "Friday Night Lights" fame, to its last state football championship. And now you tell me Coach has the same disease that finally caught Charlie Wedemeyer in the flat not two months ago. It doesn't seem right.

I wrote back to my friend late Monday night telling him how much Bellard and June Jones were alike. Both believed firmly in their offenses, both defended them to the death and if you didn't buy what they were selling, well then, to hell with you.

I remember covering a game in the Big House at Michigan my senior year in college, when the No. 3-ranked Wolverines broke the wishbone in two. If I recall, barefoot kicker Tony Franklin hit an early field goal that gave No. 5-ranked A&M a 3-0 lead that steadily turned into a 41-3 rout for Michigan. Sports columnist David Casstevens of the Houston Post began his column the following day, "Coach Emory Dullard ... "

That's how it goes in the coaching business and in the game of life as well. Coach Bellard, who was as fit as a Texas fiddle on his 80th birthday, now walks with a cane just two years later, his speech slurred, his life forever changed on a doctor's diagnosis.

The father of the wishbone deserves better, but knowing Coach Bellard as I once did, he will strap on his helmet, hitch his pants, lace up his shoes and say, "It's gonna be a heckuva challenge and a tough-old fight." One that won't ever bring him down, no matter how many men they put in the box.

Reach Star-Advertiser sports editor Paul Arnett at


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