You’d think there would be a place in Canton for Clark Shaughnessy, the coach who modernized the T-formation, but you’d be wrong. Three times he’s been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the last in 1976, and three times he failed to make it.
But now that there’s a separate coaches’ category, you’d assume he’d be a leading candidate for admission there. Except you’d be wrong again. Buddy Parker, Don Coryell, Mike Holmgren and Dick Vermeil are the names you hear most often associated with that group.
Clark Shaughnessy is nowhere on the radar. Something has to change. So let’s change it.
Instead of considering Shaughnessy as a coach – and let’s face it, two years as an NFL head coach won’t put you on the off-ramp to Canton – let’s consider him as a contributor. You heard me: Contributor. I know, that’s not supposed to happen the way these categories are set up. Coaches are confined to (surprise!) the coaches’ group, and the contributors’ category is reserved for everyone but coaches and players.
But let’s make an exception because … well, because it’s warranted. Clark Shaughnessy changed the game, and he changed it not by winning a lot of games or championships. He changed it by bringing innovations to NFL offenses and defenses -- changes that are still visible today.
“I think contributor is the right place for him,” said NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal. “He was likely the one who popularized motion to ‘flank-out’ halfbacks and did all sorts of defensive wrinkles for Bears’ defenses in both fronts and coverages. Looking at films from the 1950s and early 1960s you see all sorts of interesting things.”
Though he’s called “the father of the T-formation,” Shaughnessy didn’t invent it. He simply popularized and modernized it, picking it up from Chicago’s George Halas when Shaughnessy was at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, then taking it to the NFL after coaching at Stanford, the University of Maryland and Pitt.
That was 1948 when he joined the Los Angeles Rams and replaced head coach Bob Snyder. There, he introduced the first pro-set, with three wide receivers, to take advantage of Hall-of-Famer Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, whom Shaughnessy thought made a better flanker.
Result: In two seasons, the Rams were 14-7-3 and won the Western Division.
Nevertheless, Shaughnessy was fired after two seasons because of what owner Dan Reeves called “internal friction,” whatever that meant (“was the kind of guy who didn’t get along with everyone, but maybe smart guys just don’t suffer fools?” said Turney), and went on to join Halas in Chicago where, from 1951-62, he served as a technical advisor, vice president and defensive assistant and achieved great acclaim.
Ironically, Halas was entrusted with running the Bear’s T-formation offense. But it was Shaughnessy who developed multiple schemes on offense and defense, adapting the T-formation to revolve around the quarterback as the NFL moved more to a passing game.
He was also in charge of developing a defense that could counter the T, implementing a 5-3-3 scheme which left outside linebackers available to defend end runs and passes in the flat and that combatted the San Francisco 49ers’ shotgun formation. He had such a profound impact on pass defenses – devising man-to-man coverages, dropping linebackers into pass coverages and utilizing blitzes from multiple directions – that a collection of his play sheets are housed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That's because Clark Shaughnessy was an innovator and relentless experimenter who changed the game on both sides of the ball. If there’s a knock on him, it’s that his greatest success was in the college game (he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 1968), but that shouldn’t detract from the impact he had on the pros.
When the Centennial Class was elected in 2020, I thought Shaughnessy might finally gain the attention he deserved from voters. Wrong again. And I realized why. Nobody has been able to find a category that suited a candidate whose greatest impact was not as a head coach in the NFL but as an assistant.
Except, now we can. And now we should. Make him a contributor candidate. Reserved for persons who made indelible impacts on the game, it seems the ideal fit for someone who made so many contributions to today’s game.