Nicknames were the vogue in the Davis family of Independence, Ore., and by the time all the kids were labeled, their mother's call to dinner sounded like an appeal for an exterminator.
"We were Birdie, Blackie, Teancie, Tickie and Mouse," says Mouse, a/k/a Darrel Davis, now 47 and head football coach at Portland State University, a Division I-AA school of 16,500 students. "Mouse stuck so well that by the time I graduated from high school, none of the teachers knew my real name."
Davis is indeed small and darting, with tiny hands that nonetheless served him well as a quarterback and halfback at Oregon College of Education in Monmouth. Far less mousy are bright coyote eyes and an irrepressible urge to confound. Employing these and a devotion to his kind—all the 5'6", 160-pound athletes that sensible football schools shun—Davis has developed an attack that has enabled the Vikings to challenge all NCAA schools for the lead in passing and total offense for the past four years. In that span, Portland State has won 32 and lost 20, a program-saving reversal of a 9-24 record before Davis' arrival from Oregon high school coaching. Led by quarterbacks June Jones, who has gone on to the Atlanta Falcons, and Neil Lomax, now a junior majoring in communications, Davis' Run-and-Shoot offense has produced an average of 36 points and 485 yards a game, and has proved itself to be a spectacular mode of consternating opponents.
The R&S develops out of what is essentially a double-slot formation in which both ends are split and halfbacks line up in the gaps off tackle, and the term was coined in a book by Glenn (Tiger) Ellison, once a Woody Hayes assistant at Ohio State. "We swiped it," admits Davis, "but we changed it. Ellison was still run-oriented. We always pass first and run second."
The object is to make the defense the last to know what is going on. First a back or an end in motion gives pause to the secondary, then the quarterback sprints to one side, usually still with the option of pitching to a trailing back. Then all the receivers (four, unless the trail-back is out there, too), rather than running set patterns, react to what the defensive backs have decided to do. The 6'3", 214-pound Lomax, watching the same defensive keys, anticipates his receivers' moves and puts the ball where necessary. He is so proficient that he has completed 56% of his passes for an astounding 8,105 yards and 63 touchdowns in the 28 games he has played since he broke in as a freshman.
Last Saturday afternoon at San Francisco State, Lomax surpassed NCAA major-college career passing yardage and total offense leaders Jack Thompson of Washington State (the Division I-A passing leader) and Gene Swick of Toledo (the total offense leader in I-A). It was hard for Lomax to get excited about the feat, because he has his senior year yet to play. For the season his 2,887 yards gained on 208 completions plus 58 rushing yards puts Lomax 1,004 yards ahead of any other quarterback in Division 1-AA, and his favorite target, 5'9", 165-pound Slotback Stuart Gaussoin, leads the nation in receptions with 81 for 1,054 yards and eight touchdowns.
Opportunity, of course, has something to do with these remarkable numbers. Against Northern Colorado, Lomax passed 77 times and completed 44, both NCAA records for any division, yet Portland State lost 21-20. The Vikings are 4-4 this season, although the defeats have come by a total of six points.
"Sometimes opposing coaches will sidle over after a game and ask how to defense us," says Davis. "I say it takes either a monstrous defensive line to clamp down on things before our little bitty kids get all scattered out, or it takes clearly superior athletes. Frankly, when the players and execution have been equal on both sides, we simply haven't been defensed."
Portland State is a commuter college nestled against Oregon's fir-covered southwest hills. The football program is supported neither by state funding nor student fees. Ticket sales finance the operation, and when Lomax wants extra tickets for friends and family he sits down and writes a check for them. "To say this is a shoestring outfit is too kind," says Davis. "The premium is on imagination."
For one thing, Portland State has no football field. The Vikings practice in venerable Civic Stadium, where the venerable artificial turf is growing shiny between the 40s. There they throw and throw until the receivers have run three miles of imaginative patterns; until Lomax begins to list to the right, his throwing arm swinging two inches lower than his left; until the team is chased out by flocks of dimpled cheerleaders, harbingers of that afternoon's high school game.
Mouse Davis coaches from no remote tower. He might as well be in a ditch as the receivers swirl around him. His dry baritone finds each player in turn, congratulating, instructing. "If you're having trouble seeing it," he calls, "turn your head, turn your torso, use both hands." The voice is workmanlike, patient. "It is my inherent belief," he says, "that all kids truly want to get better. Our job is to help them." There is no helmet-pounding castigation. The players speak of Davis fondly, as a cherished teacher, perhaps one who needs watching over occasionally. And it is always "Mouse," as in, "Has Mouse gone to lunch already?"
The night before the San Francisco State game, Davis and the team walked eight blocks from their hotel—chosen for its assent to lodge four players per room—to dine on a $3.99 steak-and-shrimp special in a shopping center restaurant. Davis and Lomax sat together and spoke of each other.
"What more can he learn from me?" asked Davis, swelling appreciably. "Why, great humility."
"He played quarterback some," said Lomax, watching his chuckling coach out of the corner of his eye. "That must be how he got humble."
Walking back, the coach sprang for a few ice-cream cones. Lomax had a Quarterback Crunch, Davis a French Vanilla.
"He comes to a place with 31 flavors and has vanilla," said Lomax.
"Am I not classy?" said Davis. "Elegantly subdued?" He would have been, but for the volume of his laughter.
Yet because of these easy ways, the discipline of his teams has been questioned. In reply, Davis reveals something of the sage beneath the little-brother veneer. "Usually when coaches talk about discipline they mean conformity," he says. "A disciplined pattern is 18 yards and out-of-bounds every time. But discipline to me is different. The law, medicine, teaching—those are disciplines, callings where development of the basic tools leads to creativity. Conformity is fairly easy to have. But self-discipline is always to be worked for, in order to approach your potential. As a kid learns the tools of this offense, reading defenses and acting on the run, he can be more and more creative. That requires more mental discipline than rote offenses."
Davis developed his Run-and-Shoot while coaching in high school and won the Oregon State Class-AAA championship with his 1973 Hillsboro team. "We were told that this whacko offense would only work in high school, so it was fun to succeed with it in college," he says. "Now they say it will work only at small colleges, no higher. But look what Wake Forest and Minnesota have done by putting it in at times. Mike Shanahan, the Minnesota quarterback coach, called after they played Ohio State. 'You'd have loved it,' he said, it looked like a damn track meet.' I said, 'Then why did you lose?' And he said, 'We messed up by trying to run the ball, and fumbled.' "
Yet Davis recognizes that his attachment to this racy concept might stand in the way of a major-college opportunity. "There might be a school in the doldrums somewhere that would take a chance, for fan excitement," he says, "but if I were to hire on as an offensive coordinator, odds are that most head coaches—like most defenses—wouldn't be flexible enough to adjust."
So Davis goes on enjoying himself at Portland State, begging a movie camera from a nearby high school, planning the Vikings' excruciating road trips. Typically, their pregame meal is served by Hughes Air West, but the real travel stories do in fact concern the road. "The worst was in 1975 against Montana State, and it had to be my birthday," says Davis. "We bused 350 miles to a hotel in Spokane, Wash. and the next day bused through the Rockies another 350 to Bozeman, up above Yellowstone Park. The next day we had them 34-28 with two minutes to go. One of their passes bounced off one of our defensive backs into the hands of their receiver, and they won 35-34. Then we had two days to think about it on the bus home." Such jaunts are surely the reason the Vikings lose their share of away games, but they have won 23 of their last 27 at home.
Then there is weather. The conditions the Portland State offense faced at San Francisco State last week seemed the worst possible deterrent to the forward pass. Torrential rains turned tidy, eucalyptus-lined Cox Stadium to the consistency of mashed avocado.
Lomax was sacked on the first play from scrimmage. Then he arose to complete 27 of 39 passes for 412 yards and two touchdowns as Portland State won easily, 37-10. Gaussoin, after a sharp word or two of direction from Davis, consistently found a seam in San Francisco State's coverage and caught 11 passes for 155 yards and one touchdown. Returning to the sideline, he stood beside Davis and said he felt the tone of his instruction had been somewhat harsh.
"I still love you, you know," said Davis with disarming gentleness.
Mollified, Gaussoin said, "Yeah, I know that."
Later, while showering in full uniform, Lomax admitted to finding a perverse sort of glee in struggling in the slop. "If we can throw in this, we can throw in anything." He seemed to be seeing the last quarter again, the teams distinguishable only by the colors of their helmets. "You know, football is a stupid game if you think about it, but it's all such a challenge—the miserable conditions, the defense knowing we're going to pass—I can't help it, I really enjoy playing it."
Davis walked through the steam and sodden uniforms, reaching out to his players, whom he called "all the little poopers who can really fly."
"This is the best group we've had, kidwise," he said. "They believe school is important. They are a joy to be around." The man's love was apparent in his caressing of bruised necks, his deft praise for every player. "Fun game," he said again and again. "Fun game."