Keith Piper, a legend among college football coaches, was head coach of the Big Red for 39 years between 1954 and 1992. Coach Piper’s 200 wins at one school place him in some very rare company in the history of the game. Denison’s undefeated championship season in 1985 and many other of Piper’s successes, many say, can be attributed largely to the archaic offensive formation that he employed from the late 1970s through the early ’90s, and for a few years in the early ’60s — the famed single wing.
The ’85 season, especially, attracted national media attention for DU’s Division III program, garnering coverage from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Times, USA Today, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Even CBS, NBC, and ESPN came to Granville to add to the buzz.
This had all been preceded by feature coverage in Sports Illustrated in a story by revered sportswriter Rick Telander, titled, “A Very Singular Way to Play.” The article begins with an imagined heavenly phone call from Pop Warner to Knute Rockne letting him know that their long-lost offensive scheme had been revived by Coach Piper down on Earth.
Piper’s “modern” version of the single wing, based on Pop Warner’s 1906 offense, used an unbalanced offensive line and supplied equal amounts of power and deception. Direct snaps, short motions, spin moves, buck laterals and back traps were signature features. Counters, reverses, double reverses and reverse passes were not trick or gadget plays, but were instead offered up as regular fare for opponents’ defenses to decipher.
Also in this unique formation, the quarterback called the plays in the huddle and shouted the signals at the line of scrimmage, but he rarely touched the ball. Sometimes called the blocking back, he was more like an extra lineman in the backfield.
And now, as those clipped news stories from the ’85 season are yellowing in scrapbooks and attic boxes, the single wing will forever be linked to Denison and Piper. The reason is that there’s a new book that details the days of the single wing: The Single Wing and a Prayer. It’s part playbook, part history book, and part scrapbook all in one volume.
It was compiled and partially written by Piper throughout the latter days of his coaching career, but it hadn’t been published at the time of his death in 1997. Over the last several years, Piper’s son, David, completed the text, put the finishing touches on the book, raised money for its printing, and shepherded the final product to completion. Led by football alumni Paul Hylbert ’66 and Rich Seils ’67, more than 70 co-publishers, most of them who played for Piper from the ’50s through the ’90s, stepped up to fund the publishing costs.
During a football weekend on campus in September, former players, coaches, and friends of the Big Red gathered together for the official book launch. The event featured remarks from alumni, Piper family members and university dignitaries, including President Adam Weinberg and Athletics Director Nan Carney-DeBord ’80, that paid homage to Piper and how special he was to so many Denisonians throughout the years.
In accord with the wishes of the co-publishers, all profits that result from the sale of The Single Wing and a Prayer will flow directly back to benefit the same Denison football program that Piper led for nearly four decades.