After years of tinkering, Clark Shaughnessy implemented the T-formation while at Stanford. His Stanford squad won the national championship in 1940 and were affectionately known as the “Wow Boys”. This new formation would take football by storm in 1940 and would change the way the game is played. This is the story of Stanford football’s final national championship and their impact on the game of football.
A New Philosophy
The Stanford football program suffered through a miserable 1-7-1 campaign in 1939. As a result of such a lackluster year, Stanford fired coach Tiny Thornhill and hired Clark Shaughnessy away from the University of Chicago. He had been tinkering with a new concept, the T-formation, since 1937 but had never had the right players at Chicago to execute the new style of offense. At the time, offenses typically used a single wing formation, where there was an unbalanced line and the center snapped the ball to one of the running backs behind him. In the T-formation, there was order as the line was even and the quarterback was under center. At Stanford, Shaughnessy inherited a quarterback who could execute the new concept, Frankie Albert.
Stanford began the season beating a heavily favored University of San Francisco 27-0. It was a historic win as it was the first time anyone had seen the T-formation. The Dons were perplexed all night as Stanford ran circles around them. They stunned San Francisco so badly that Stanford was quickly dubbed the “Wow Boys”, a nod to their 1930’s squads who were known as the “Vow Boys”. Stanford used that momentum against Oregon (13-0) and Santa Clara (7-6); both were unranked teams and proved to be good practice fodder for their most difficult part of the season. They then played against #19 Washington State, whom they swiftly defeated 26-14. Next on their schedule was mighty USC, ranked 17th in the nation. Stanford was ranked ninth in the nation and was looking to make a statement against their historical tormentors. They trounced their bullies 21-7 and squeaked out a 20-14 win at UCLA the next week.
Stanford then dismantled 11th ranked Washington (20-10) and 19th ranked Oregon State (28-14) at home. Stanford closed out the regular season in the 46th annual Big Game, beating Cal in a defensive slugfest 13-7. Stanford was on their way to the Rose Bowl. At the end of the regular season, Frankie Albert got fourth place in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Michigan’s Tom Harmon.
Stanford entered the Rose Bowl ranked second in the nation and were searching for just their second national championship. Nebraska wasn’t about to make it easy. Stanford running back Hugh Gallarneau scored two touchdowns and Pete Kmetovic scored on a 39-yard touchdown to seal a share of the national championship with Minnesota by beating the Cornhuskers 21-13.
Shaughnessy’s new offense made an immediate impact on the NFL in the same season as his Stanford squad won the national championship. The Chicago Bears George Halas heard about the formation and employed Shaughnessy as a consultant while he was still under contract in Palo Alto. Due to this change of formation, the Bears defeated Washington in the 1940 NFL Championship Game 73-0. The Bears triumph over Washington was the exclamation point on a year of change, when the T-formation took a hold of both the NFL and college football. With Stanford, Shaughnessy showed the football world the possibilities of his new offense and forever change the way that football is played.