THE SWAMP RAT laughed a low, rumbling laugh, his mind drifting back to 1972. He remembered how BYU coach LaVell Edwards had sent out an APB to find someone who could install a passing offense; remembered their dreams of striking fear into the opposition.
Edwards was just a young-kid head coach with an idea to pass the ball. The problem was, he had no real idea how to make that happen. Edwards was a defensive man. So he hired Dewey Warren - nicknamed the Swamp Rat - away from his job as a freshman assistant at Tennessee. Back then there was no such thing as a "West Coast Offense." For all intents and purposes, there was no such thing as Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco or Ty Detmer, either. There was only an idea."LaVell said, `I want to get back to the passing game, to throwing the football,' " said Warren, his voice rising with enthusiasm. "He said, `I want to do it like we used to when Virgil Carter was here.' He said, `I want you to put the system in.' So I just sat down and put together things from all the places I had been and I took a little bit from everybody. I even put in some things I liked to do. That's kind of how it got going."
BYU spring football begins this Friday, and had it not been for War-ren, it could be starting under far different circumstances. BYU football could still be a struggling, low-level WAC program. The Cougars could be coming off a 6-5 season and happy about it. Their stadium could still have 30,000-seats instead of 65,000.
Spring football also coincides with the release of "Finding the Winning Edge," a book by former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who is generally credited with inventing the "West Coast" or ball-control passing offense. Warren played under Paul Brown and Walsh when they were coaching the Cincinnati Bengals.
"Over the eight-year period that I spent on the Bengals' staff, we were able to develop a system that is now known as the `West Coast Offense' - a term which I imagine sounds much more glamorous than the `Midwest Offense,' " wrote Walsh. "Ideally, I would like to say that what we developed and began in Cincinnati was done with a conscious eye to the future and the affirmation that we would be able to extend this system to historic levels of offensive production for years to come. The truth of the matter, however, was that, at the time, we never really thought of it as being an all-encompassing system."
Meanwhile, Warren agreed that traveling by air was the only way to go. So when he was hired at BYU, he took some of Brown's ideas, some of Walsh's and some of what he learned as a player and assistant at Tennessee and brought them to the Rockies. Walsh went on to Stan-ford and the 49ers, making adjustments as the years passed. At the same time, Edwards was molding a similar system to maximize the abilities of his players. There was no master plan, no grand scheme, just some ideas about getting better offensive production.
In Warren's first year at BYU, the Cougars had the nation's leading rusher in Pete VanValkenburg. But the second year, BYU brought in Sheide and the race for space was on. "We gonna tho' the ball, we gonna do it all!" Warren declared in his drawling, Smoky Mountain accent.
"There were no rules," said Warren from his home in Knoxville last week. "I remember one time Iowa State came into Provo and - lord o' mercy - we must have thrown for 500-600 yards and they couldn't get over it (the actual total was 42 passes for 439 yards). We were all over the field. The defense was trying to stop it, but it was something they had never seen before. For me it was fun. Simple. A lot of people try to make it complicated, but it's not complicated."
The plan was this: Make every eligible receiver a threat - tight ends, wideouts, flankers, running backs. The coaches would script a series of plays to begin the game, moving down the field, one measured pass at a time. It wasn't a one-stroke, Hail Mary attack, it was a deliberate precision ex-er-cise.
"I said we were gonna tho' the football," Warren continued. "Then I said, `Now you figure out how to stop it.' "
The Swamp Rat laughed again. After leaving BYU he moved to Kan-sas State, the University of the South and then became a high school coach. The past few years he has been working for a publishing firm in Knoxville. But the talk about passing football and BYU had gotten the old juices flowing. He was missing the wild days when he and the Cougars were changing the game. "I get excited just talking about it," he said, then added, "I never said I'd never get back into coaching."
And somehow, with spring football on the way again, 1972 didn't seem all that long ago.