In 1985, the Denison football team went undefeated in regular-season play, and the Big Red found themselves in the national media spotlight. Many believe that season’s success all came down to a feisty coach, a number of talented players, and archaic formation called the single wing.
Even today, 25 years later, offensive tackle Gearinger ‘86 gets choked-up recalling the feeling in the locker room before the football team took the field for their regular-season finale. “We all knew Coach Piper wanted to have an undefeated season,” said Gearinger, one of six senior starters on the 1985 offensive line. “We didn’t talk about it, but we all knew going undefeated was our common goal.”
Keith Piper, a Niles, Ohio, native, was 64 years old at the time and in his 32nd year as head coach at Denison. He was a Civil War buff with a biting sense of humor, and a voice like John Wayne’s. Under Piper’s leadership that year, Denison outscored its opponents by an average of 30 points per game, while rolling to that 10-0 regular-season record, the college’s first-ever North Coast Athletic Conference championship, and berth in the Division III playoffs. “We had that swagger,” said star tailback Chris Spriggs ‘87. “We just knew we were good.”
And how rare is a perfect season? Of the 38 NCAA football programs in Ohio, only eight others have posted undefeated seasons in the last 25 years.
The 1985 season was a high-water mark of Piper’s career, which included 200 wins at Denison from 1954 to 1992 (he died in 1997 at the age of 76). His peers voted him the NCAC Coach of the year, the Columbus Touchdown Club dubbed him Ohio College Coach of the Year, and the Ohio House of Representatives and Ohio Senate honored him and the Big Red with formal resolutions.
The team also attracted national media attention throughout the year, earning coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and USA Today, not only for winning, but for overpowering opponents with the single wing–a quirky and archaic (pre- World War II) offense that was Piper’s pride and joy. The single wing was the reason, some argue, that Denison ran the table in ‘85 and made it to the playoffs. Attention continued to mount, and toward the end of the season, CBS, NBC and ESPN traveled to Granville to cover the Big Red on a national television.
Using an unbalanced offensive line, the Big Red ran the ball 84 percent of its plays that season while confusing opponents with direct snaps, short motions, spin moves, buck laterals, and backtraps. The quarterback called the plays in the huddle and barked the signals at the line of scrimmage, but he seldom touched the ball. He was best described as an extra lineman, except that he lined up in the backfield. The tailback handled the ball on most plays and would either run, hand off to the fullback or wingback, or throw a pass. The offense combined the best of power and deception, and it set up uniquely advantageous blocking angles and double teams. What were considered to be trick or gadget plays in other offenses (double reverses, reverse passes, inside counters, throw- back passes, fake bootlegs, etc.) were standard fare in the single wing.
Even though most of his players and coaches think Piper believed the single wing to be a superior offense, the always-quotable coach would never say publicly that it was better. He would instead dismiss such assertions by saying that the single wing’s only advantage was that it was different than what other teams were using. He often remarked that if all the other schools were in the single wing, he would rather have used the T-formation. “We didn’t have superior talent, but our offense was so unique, no one knew how to prepare for it,” Spriggs said, understating his own abilities.
Spriggs, a junior from Newark, rushed for 1,049 yards and six touchdowns, and also passed for 541 yards and 11 scores in 1985. He is still the only player in the history of college football, in any division, to rush for more than 4,000 yards and pass for more than 2,000 yards in a career.
“Without Chris Spriggs running the single wing offense, we probably would have lost two or three games,” said David Elliott ‘87. “He was incredible.”
Spriggs was named the NCAC’s Most Valuable Player and was voted to two All-America teams after that season. Still, he’s the first to say that it was a team effort that allowed the Big Red to prevail in key games. Elliott, a towering defensive tackle, blocked a punt late in the fourth quarter versus Allegheny, and speedy linebacker Dave Behler ‘86 returned the loose ball 20 yards for the winning touchdown in a 16-10 second-game victory.
On the road two weeks later, Thad Winston ‘86 intercepted a pass at Denison’s 10-yard line with 57 seconds left to preserve a hard-fought 24-17 win that ended DePauw’s five-year home-field wining streak.
And in the season’s pivotal sixth game, Gary Keller ‘86 kicked a 37-yard field goal with less than five minutes to play. It proved to be the winning score in an emotional 17-16 win at Case Western Reserve. Most fans and sports scribes consider that to be the victory that secured the ‘85 conference championship for Denison.
The Big Red went on to outscore their final four opponents 145 to 33, concluding on November 16 on a rain-soaked Deeds Field with a 41-6 victory over the University of Rochester to complete the perfect season.
A week later, in the first-round of the NCAA play- offs, the Big Red fell behind early to Mount Union and couldn’t catch up, losing their first-round playoff game 35-3. “The Mount Union game was a big disappointment, but it didn’t take away from that season,” Gearinger said.
The 1985 Big Red set nine team offense records for a season, including most total yards (4,330), most rushing yards (3,510) and most points (377), all three of which still stand today. They also set five other team marks for a single game. Denison had an unprecedented 19 players named to the All-NCAC team, including seven members of the first-team.
Memories of those honors and specific plays have faded a bit, and time and jobs and family have spread the players across the country, yet the 1985 season still bonds members of that storied Denison football team. “There’s a connection between a magical year like that and the fact that the people stay in touch,” said Elliott.
“The excitement we experienced in that locker room never fades,” added Keller.
The classic single wing formation is characterized by an unbalanced line (here it is strong right) with two tight ends and four backs, all in close proximity. The quarterback calls the signals while the tailback and fullback are the only two in position to take the direct four-yard snap from the center. The formation can feature power running plays by the tailback or fullback and speed sweeps by the tailback or wingback, along with an abundance of play-action passes. On most running plays, the quarterback becomes either a lead blocker or a misdirection decoy, only handling the ball on buck lateral plays or as a pass receiver.