Sam Harrell helped bring the spread offense to Texas high school football, though if you ask him about it, he’s not likely to take credit for it. There’s a great story behind it, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but first it’s important for you to understand something about Coach Harrell.He is a risk-taker, and that is meant in the best sense of the word. Coach Harrell isn’t base-jumping or riding motorcycles across the Alkali Salt Flats, but he does take risks.
Coach Harrell’s story is about taking risks in football and in life, and taking those risks for the same reason: If he hadn’t taken the risks he did, when he did, his coaching career and his life would have turned out very different. In both cases, Coach Harrell’s gambles won him and his families (football and home) major victories.
Along the way, Coach Harrell has helped thousands of student-athletes become better people, learn integrity and ethics, and build character. But that’s not something he actively thinks about. Helping people is what Coach Harrell does. It is who he is and it is deeply rooted in his faith. It’s what helped him with the 2015 AFCF Power Of Influence Award– an award that has grown in notoriety and is now officially presented by TeamSnap during the general session of the AFCA Convention.
“I always said, anyone can learn to coach football,” he says. “But more importantly, you have to learn how to teach those things that are so much more important than football. If we don’t spend time doing that, when it’s all over, we haven’t done anything.”
It’s an interesting turn of phrase. “When it’s all over.”
It was very nearly “all over” for Coach Harrell on a couple of different occasions, but for some calculated risks that reaped massive rewards. Those risks come down to two very different, but completely related concepts: the spread offense and stem cell therapy.
Spreading The Love
When Harrell first arrived at Ennis (Texas) High School in 1994, they were running a two-back, tight-end kind of offense, with some option football mixed in.
“It was good stuff, but we would ultimately come up against a team in the playoffs that basically had better athletes up front, could fit more defenders in the box, and we’d get beat by them,” he says. “Our season was over. We knew if we didn’t change, well, we knew exactly what kind of season we would have.”
Football coaches around the nation are familiar with this situation, and they either come up with an answer or they don’t. Harrell started looking at his two-minute offense.
“We had a two-minute offense that we would jump into,” he says. “It was called our ‘Gun’ offense. It seemed like every time we got into that offense, we would do very well. But we would only run this offense at the end of the half or in the final two minutes of the game.
“We finally got to thinking, well, this is stupid. We’ve got something we’re good at and we’re only using it for a couple of minutes. Why don’t we just do this the whole game?”
Harrell used the motivation of season-ending losses to make a sea-change in his program. They didn’t call it the “Spread” or the “Run-Pass Option” (RPO), but that’s exactly what it was. They dipped their toes in for a season, then they dove into the deep end.
Rearranging The Play Call
Harrell’s Ennis teams turned the corner with their new offense. It all started with the Bubble Screen. He would spread two receiver’s outside and make the defense defend them.
But there was a problem. Once you call Bubble, that’s what the quarterback was going to run, whether the defense was in press or maybe manned-up, but playing off a little bit. This is a huge difference, because the Bubble doesn’t work that well when your wideout and slot receiver are pressed-up.
“We’d call Bubble and then we’d notice they were in man coverage, and we’d wish that we’d called something else,” he says. “Then we’d come to another point in the game and we’d be wishing we’d called Bubble or thrown a hitch out there. It just so happened that we got to thinking, why can’t we throw that Bubble when it looks right and without calling it? We can call whatever we want to call, whatever run play we have for that down-and-distance, and if the look is right out there, we just throw it. That’s obviously what RPO’s are about now, but back then it was a little different.”
Fortunately, Harrell’s son Graham was coming into the program at about that time and according to Harrell, Graham had a knack for making that throw easier that other quarterbacks when he started out.
“Every year, during that time, we would pick our slot receivers, and one of them was our Bubble guy,” says Harrell. “It was a big deal to us, and luckily we started about the time Graham was there, and he started for us for three years, so we didn’t have to teach it to another quarterback for some time.
“It’s not a hard concept, but some quarterbacks make it easier than others just getting the ball out there. Throwing it when you’re supposed to is what makes it good.”
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With Graham at quarterback, Ennis flourished. During the 2001 season, the team didn’t lose a game, making a run with their unique style all the way to the Astrodome in the 4A DII State Title Game against Bay City (Texas) High School.
“At one point in the second half, we were up 7-0, but we had a 3rd and 1 situation,” says Harrell. “We had our two receivers out to the left, but we called a run play. We had 3rd and 1 in the state championship game and Graham just fires one out there and it’s a huge first down. He just had that much confidence in getting it out there and his receiver catching it.”
Ennis won that state title. Harrell ended up winning three state titles (2000, 2001, 2004), and each of his three sons played on a state championship team. Sam Harrell’s coaching days ended at Ennis in 2009 after he compiled a record of 146-46, wit records for most wins in school history and the most seasons coached. Odds are, he could have kept winning, but for one of life’s major curveballs.
Stay tuned for Part II of this article, in which we discuss the greatest risk/reward Coach Harrell has ever faced.
This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor of AFCA Magazine and AFCA Insider. Markgraff can be reached at @fbcoachdaily.