UNC coach Larry Fedora first installed a spread offense at Middle Tennessee State in 1999. PHOTO: Robert Willett
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and I spoke for a while recently about his version of the spread offense, which will debut on Sept. 1 when the Tar Heels begin the season against Elon.
I wrote a story detailing Fedora’s spread that you can read right here.
But, of course, there was a lot of stuff that didn’t make the story. So I figured you might learn a thing or two from the extended interview I recently conducted with Fedora.
This is basically an oral history – if you’re into the Grantland model – of Fedora’s spread. I was curious to know about what made Fedora want to run a spread, where he found the inspiration for it and what made him a believer that it could work.
Here’s part one of the interview:
Andrew Carter: Where did you get the idea for your version of the spread offense and how did the offense come together?
Larry Fedora: Well you did it as you put your philosophy together in your coaching career early on. I knew that I wanted to try to be a spread it out, throw it around, be no huddle – what we are today. Just at that time nobody was doing it, you know. And so it was hard to imagine that it could work. And I know when I left the Air Force Academy, you know, we were either going to do what I really wanted to do or we were going to run the option like we did at Air Force, to give us an edge there.
And with the personnel we had [at Middle Tennessee State], we didn’t feel like we could run the option so we put this offense together. And I would say that probably really the only other no-huddle team at that time was when Tommy Bowden was the head coach at Tulane. And they went undefeated with that offense in Conference USA. And beat BYU in a bowl game. Well that spring before I got the job at Middle Tennessee, I went out and visited for about three days in spring ball I visited Tulane and just spent some time with that staff.
AC: Of course, Rich Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator then at Tulane, and he had used the spread at Glenville State, right?
LF: Glenville State was kind of the origin of it. And what it did for me in watching them at Tulane, it wasn’t like you took the exact offense. But it reinforced some things that I felt like you could do with an offensive football team. And it just reinforced what I believed in. And then I was able to see how he implemented it and how he was doing some of the things and I was able to take some of those things and built it into what it became.
AC: Going back even before that, what made you want that style originally?
LF: I guess a lot of it is my personality. It’s kind of the way I am – I think that’s kind of the way the game should be played. It’s kind of hard-nosed, exciting, attacking all the time, moving constantly – just all those things that are characteristic of this style of offense. And I also – probably growing up I was a wide receiver and got to catch the ball. I liked doing that, and so it was more oriented to spreading it out and throwing it around.
AC: How many elements of older offenses does your version of the spread contain?
LF: I would say mine … a football guy can see that it’s got option characteristics to it. It has some of the things that when I was at the Air Force Academy. So the zone read, I mean, it’s an old play now but back in ’99 it was something that was new.
AC: What has your reaction been to how much the spread has caught on in college football?
LF: Well, I think everybody wants to do something that’s going to be successful and there’s a lot of teams that have had success with it, so any time that happens it just grows and grows. You go back to when Emory Bellard started the wishbone many years ago. And teams were having a lot of success with it. Well, that became the new rage and everybody began doing it, and all defenses started trying to figure out how to stop the wishbone. So more teams have gone to a spread and also I think the reason a lot of people have done that is because spread is the kind of term that recruits like to hear. They think of excitement, and they want to play in that type of offense.
AC: So how’d you do it at Middle Tennessee – how’d you create this offense from scratch?
LF: It was OK, first of all, what are we going to call the positions, what formations do we want to use and where do we want to call them. And then it was, if we do huddle, how are we going to huddle and what’s our cadence going to be? From there, what are we going to call the running plays, how do we want them, what kind of running plays do we want to run? So you start off with nothing and then you become very detailed in everything you do.
And then some of it’s trial and error. If this doesn’t work – I will say [former Middle Tennessee assistant coach] Alex Robbins was an older coach at that time, and he was very inquisitive to how this was going to work. And so he asked a lot of questions. And it frustrated me, being a new coordinator. But what it did do is it made me think out every detail.
So you’d say, OK, we’re going to do it this way and then he would turn around and say, well what if this happens? And then I’d have to think through that and say, OK, well then we’re going to do this. And then he’d say, well if you do that, what if this happens? And he was just a very, very thorough coach and wanted to know every detail before he ever took it to his players. And it made me be a better coach because of all the questions that he gave me.
AC: How long did it take to install everything that first time at Middle Tennessee?
LF: We had it – we started putting it together in that spring and went through spring ball and continued to evolve with it through the summer and then when we got into fall camp, we basically had the basis of the offense.
AC: Is it basically the same now as it was then?
LF: The system is the same. Yeah, the system is the same. Now, obviously, there have been plays that have been added, there have been plays that have been dropped. There have been passing game plays that have been added, screens that have been added, screens that have been dropped. I mean, but that’s year in and year out … there will be things that we run that we ran at Southern Miss last year that we won’t run here. And there will be things that we run here that we didn’t run at Southern Miss. So you try to tweak it and you try to mold it around the talent and the skill level of the athletes that you have.
AC: At Middle Tennessee was Andy McCollum, the head coach at the time, on board with it?
LF: Andy McCollum was the head coach at that time, you know, and Andy was a defensive coach. And he didn’t – he never said don’t do it. Because it was a I-AA team and it was going I-A that year. And so obviously we were going to have a lot of I-AA talent and be competing against I-A teams. And so we needed some type of edge. And at that time, tempo – nobody knew what tempo was. And that was something that was very unique and once Andy realized the value of that then he was on board completely.
AC: Going from there to Florida, did you have doubts it could work in the SEC because I don’t think anyone was doing that in the SEC then, right?
LF: No – nobody was. And no, I didn’t doubt it. But I didn’t get to be the offensive coordinator until the last year that we were at the University of Florida. But I was proud of the fact that last year, we led the league in offense and we had the number one passer, the number one rusher and the number one receiver from the University of Florida. And that was the first time that had ever happened in the SEC. So I think it showed that it could be successful at that level, also.
AC: Do you remember a point when you realized this offense could work at the major college level?
LF: I would say probably the second year I was at Middle Tennessee. The first year, it was – we didn’t run the ball as well; we threw the ball very well and our tempos gave us a chance but we didn’t run the ball very well. So we went back that spring and really concentrated on improving the running game and that next year I don’t remember exactly where, but I think we were top 20 in the country in the offense. And then the third year we were there, I think we were number four or number five in the country in offense that year. So it was probably that second year when we really saw it jump off. And then in the third year, it really went – we really had a lot of success. But also, those players were in it for the second and third year and so they got much better.