Tuesday, January 16, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Something is out of WAC here

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

For 39 seasons the Western Athletic Conference has painstakingly crafted and polished an image of wide-open, points-a-plenty offensive football.

It has come to revel in the tag of the "wacky WAC," an anything-goes offensive confederation where games have been played to pinball-like scores and, more often than not, it seemed the last team with the ball won. It has long been an article of faith in the WAC that, win a few, lose a few, scoring should come in bunches.

Now, just when the conference finally lands two of its alumni, Jim Fassel (New York Giants) and Brian Billick (Baltimore Ravens), in the Super Bowl spotlight as head coaches, they get there by winning with ... defense?

Here’s an opportunity to showcase chuck-and-duck football at the highest level and they’re blowing the conference image to smithereens by holstering the offense?

"It really is (ironic) that both of these guys were known as offensive gurus, so to speak," said LaVell Edwards, the former Brigham Young architect who is coaching in Saturday’s Hula Bowl on Maui.

Indeed, who would have thought that Fassel would get to the Super Bowl, primarily on defense? After all, his only head coaching job before the Giants was five years at Utah, where he employed a pass-first-and-ask-questions-later offense.

Who would have believed that Billick’s go-deep-young-man philosophy shaped as an all-WAC tight end at Brigham Young (1976), an assistant there and as San Diego State’s quarterback coach for five years in the mid-1980s, would put his money on stopping opponents, rather than outscoring them?

Recall that Fassel, the last player to throw a pass in the World Football League while with The Hawaiians, extended even the bounds of WAC passing sensibilities. At Utah from 1985 to 1989, he installed the so-called Duck formations — Huey, Dewey, Louie and Daisy — which spread receivers all over the field and turned games into memorable 58-49, 56-49, 50-45 and 47-43 shootouts.

For Fassel, defense at Utah was such an afterthought, its players might as well have been in the French Foreign Legion. It was where wide receivers who dropped passes or couldn’t crack the starting lineup were exiled.

Likewise with Billick, who — even before he became the offensive coordinator of Minnesota’s record-breaking offense — was a big-play offensive proponent in the WAC and in subsequent stops.

Years later, Fassel and Billick have shown the ability to adjust to their personnel and reinvent themselves as coaches and strategists. They have, Edwards says, "both recognized you have to have defense and done a nice job with it."

Which, if such blasphemy persists, is almost enough to get them thrown out of the WAC Alumni Association.

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