The wishbone formation, also known simply as the ’bone, is an offensive formation in American football. The style of attack to which it gives rise is known as the wishbone offense. Like the spread offense in the 2000s, the wishbone was considered to be the most productive and innovative offensive scheme in college football during the 1970s and 1980s.
While the record books commonly refer to Emory Bellard developing the wishbone formation in 1968 as offensive coordinator at Texas, the wishbone's roots can be traced back to the 1950s. According to Barry Switzer, it was Charles “Spud” Cason, football coach at William Monnig Junior High School of Fort Worth, Texas, who first modified the classic T formation in order “to get a slow fullback into the play quicker.” Cason called the formation “Monnig T”. Bellard learned about Cason's tactics while coaching at Breckenridge High School, a small community west of Fort Worth.
Earlier in his career Bellard saw a similar approach implemented by former Detroit Lions guard Ox Emerson, then head coach at Alice High School near Corpus Christi, Texas. Trying to avoid the frequent pounding of his offensive line, Emerson moved one of the starting guards into the backfield, enabling him to get a running start at the opposing defensive line. Bellard served as Emerson's assistant at that time. During his high school coaching career in the late '50s and early '60s, Bellard adopted the basic approaches of both Cason and Emerson, as he won two 3A Texas state championships Breckenridge in 1958 and 1959 and a 4A state title at San Angelo Central High School in 1966, using a wishbone-like option offense.
In 1967 Bellard was hired by Darrell Royal and became offensive coordinator a year later. The Texas Longhorns only scored 18.6 points per game in a 6–4 season in 1967. After watching Texas A&M—running Gene Stallings' option offense—beat Bear Bryant's Alabama team in the 1968 Cotton Bowl Classic, Royal instructed Bellard to design a new three-man back-field triple option offense. Bellard tried to merge his old high school tactics with Stallings' triple option out of the Slot-I formation and Homer Rice's variations of the Veer, an offensive formation created by Bill Yeoman.
Introducing the new offensive scheme at the beginning of the 1968 season, Houston Chronicle sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz stated it looked like a “pulley bone”, while Royal agreed but changed the name to “wishbone”. Royal quickly embraced the idea of the wishbone, which proved to be a wise choice: Texas tied its first game running the new offense, lost the second, and then won the next thirty straight games, leading to two National Championships using the formation. The offense was embraced by Bear Bryant, who after seeing Bellard's offense run after visiting with Texas' head coach Darrell Royal installed the offense at Alabama.
Bellard later left Texas and – using the wishbone – guided Texas A&M and Mississippi State to bowl game appearances in the late 1970s. At Mississippi State Bellard “broke the bone” and introduced the “wing-bone”, moving one of the halfbacks up to a wing formation and frequently sending him in motion. Another variation of the wishbone formation is called the flexbone.
Ironically, the longest running wishbone offense was run not by Texas but by their arch-rivals, the University of Oklahoma, who ran variations of the wishbone well into the mid-1990s. Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer has been credited by some for having “perfected” the use of the wishbone offense and former OU quarterback Jack Mildren is often referred to as "the Godfather of the wishbone" throughout College Football lore. The Oklahoma Sooners wishbone offense set the all-time NCAA rushing average in 1971 of 472.4 yds per game, a record which still stands to this day.
The wishbone's reliance on execution and discipline, along with its ability to eat up the play clock, make it a favorite of programs that routinely play opponents with superior size and speed, such as the three service academies. Air Force saw tremendous success running the option game out of the wishbone. In 1985, Air Force climbed to #2 in the country, just barely missing the national championship game, under Head Coach Fisher DeBerry. Army football saw success using the wishbone under head coaches Jim Young and Bob Sutton in the 1980s and early 1990s, leading to the school's only bowl appearances (10–6 win over Michigan State in the 1984 Cherry Bowl; 31–29 win over Illinois in the 1985 Peach Bowl; 29–28 loss to Alabama in the 1988 Sun Bowl; and a 32–29 loss to Auburn in the 1996 Independence Bowl) and its only 10-win season.
Phil Jack Dawson, then head coach of Westbrook High School in Westbrook, Maine, developed an effective defense against the wishbone offense then in use by Texas, called “backbone defense”. Dawson contacted Ara Parseghian, then head coach of the University of Notre Dame, and convinced him to use it against Texas in the 1971 Cotton Bowl Classic. Notre Dame beat Texas 24-11.
Running the 'Bone 
The Wishbone was designed to run a Triple Option with a Lead Blocker. The purpose of an option is to eliminate one defender without blocking him. Ideally, the defender must make a choice to eliminate one of two offensive players. This is a Double Option. This Option offensive scheme forces a defender to choose one of two offensive players who can advance the ball and then allows the other offensive player to carry the ball, making whatever choice the defender made the "wrong" choice. Because of this aspect of the defensive player taking himself out of the play by his choice, the offensive player that would otherwise block that defensive player can now block a different defender, placing severe pressure on the defense to cover the dive, the Quarterback run, the pitch or the Pass to a receiver.
The Triple Option, then, eliminates two defenders without blocking them. This frees two Offensive Linemen to block different defenders, usually Inside Defenders. This isolates the Dive Key and the Pitch Key for the QB to "Read" and should leave only an outside Support Defender (usually a Safety) and the Cornerback to cover the End, who is running a deep pass route. As Pepper Rodgers and Homer Smith stated in "Installing Football's Wishbone T Offense", "To run a Triple Option with a lead blocker is the reason for the Wishbone formation."  It is the "Extra Blocker" concept that drives the success of the Wishbone and its derivatives. The Cornerback must cover the Outside Receiver. The support/Safety must support the run defense and (usually) covers the Pitch Back. The Defensive End typically attacks the Quarterback and a Defensive Tackle is assigned the Fullback Dive. These assignments must be made before the play begins and that totals eight defensive players to both sides of the ball.
As stated above, however, the Offense now has linemen that can be released to block other defenders, usually inside. The play is designed to handle five defenders on either side of the ball. Thus, the defender least able to affect the play, the offside Cornerback or Deep Safety, is not blocked by design. The Offensive Linemen, now free to block inside, can block the First Down Lineman to the Playside and the first Linebacker to the Playside. The great Emory Bellard once said, "If the threat of the Fullback can be applied to the Defense, the Offense is sound.". Then, the Lead Back Principle takes over. The Lead Back can block the Defensive End or the Safety and there is then a One-on-None possibility for the offensive player with the ball. In order to stop this attack, the defense must defeat blocks or flow defenders to the playside.
This makes the Wishbone a "Complete" Offense. The offense expects to get a One-on-None in the running game and a One-on-One in open space with the passing game. The Safety, who must support the run and also defend against the pass, is under tremendous pressure in this attack. The Basic Wishbone Triple Option play accounts for every defender on the field. Every defender is threatened before the Basic Play begins. There is an invitation to overplay or compensate on the Basic Play and overplaying or making a misstep on the Basic Play leaves the Defense open for counters that leave no one to make up for the mistake.
The wishbone has the quarterback taking the snap from under center, with a fullback close behind him, and two halfbacks (sometimes called tailbacks) further back, one slightly to the left, and the other slightly to the right. The alignment of the four backs makes an inverted Y, or “wishbone”, shape. There is typically one wide receiver and one tight end, but sometimes two wide receivers, or two tight ends.
The wishbone was designed to facilitate a running, option offense. It allows the quarterback to easily run the Triple Option to either side of the line. The quarterback first reads the defensive tackle or linebacker who is unblocked. As he reads the tackle/linebacker, he rides the ball in the fullback's stomach. If the defensive tackle/linebacker looks to tackle the fullback the quarterback pulls the ball out and runs down the line to his next option read, usually the defensive end/outside linebacker. If the end/linebacker looks to tackle the quarterback, the ball is pitched to the trailing halfback. The lead halfback is a lead blocker usually looking to block the outside defensive player, a safety or corner. The tight end to the option side 'arc' releases to block the safety.
Successful Operators 
- 1968 Texas Longhorns [9-1-1]: QB James Street threw for 1,099 yards and 6 TD and ran for 340 yards and 5 TD. Chris Gilbert ran for 1,132 yards and 13 TD. RB Steve Worster ran for 806 yards and 13 TD. RB Ted Koy ran for 601 yards and 2 TD. WR Cotton Speyrer had 449 yards receiving and 4 TD.
- 1969 Texas Longhorns [11-0]: QB James Street threw for 699 yards and ran for 412 yards and 5 TD. RB Steve Worster ran for 649 yards and 9 TD. RB Jim Bertelsen ran for 740 yards and 13 TD. RB Ted Koy ran for 441 yards and 4 TD. WR Cotton Speyrer had 492 receiving yards and 3 TD.
- 1970 Texas Longhorns [11-1]: QB Eddie Phillips threw for 894 yards and ran for 830 yards and 12 TD. RB Steve Worster ran for 898 yards and 14 TD. RB Jim Bertelsen ran for 896 yards and 14 TD.
- 1971 Alabama Crimson Tide [11-1]: QB Terry Davis threw for 8 TD and ran for 448 yards and 6 TD. RB Johnny Musso ran for 1,088 yards and 16 TD. RB Ellis Beck ran for 556 yards. RB Steve Bisceglia ran for 472 yards. RB Joe LaBue ran for 466 yards. WR David Bailey had 286 yards receiving and 5 TD.
- 1971 Oklahoma Sooners [11-1]: QB Jack Mildren threw for 10 TD and ran for 1,140 yards and 17 TD. RB Greg Pruitt ran for 1,665 yards and 17 TD. RB Leon Crosswhite ran for 666 yards and 3 TD. RB Roy Bell ran for 588 yards and 9 TD. WR Jon Harrison had 494 yards receiving and 4 TD.
- 1971 Texas Longhorns [8-3]: QB Donnie Wigginton threw for 568 yards and ran for 483 yards and 14 TD. RB Jim Bertelsen ran for 937 yards and 7 TD. RB Bobby Callison ran for 446 yards and 3 TD
- 1972 Oklahoma Sooners [11-1]: QB Dave Robertson threw for 10 TD and ran for 6 TD. RB Greg Pruitt ran for 1,024 yards and 13 TD. RB Joe Washington ran for 630 yards and 7 TD. RB Leon Crosswhite ran for 614 yards and 4 TD. WR Tinker Owens had 430 yards receiving and 2 TD.
- 1972 Texas Longhorns [10-1]: QB Alan Lowry threw for 766 yards and ran for 661 yards and 11 TD. RB Roosevelt Leaks ran for 1,099 yards and 8 TD. WR Jim Moore had 413 yards receiving.
- 1973 Oklahoma Sooners [10-0-1]: QB Steve Davis threw for 9 TD and ran for 887 yards and 18 TD. RB Joe Washington ran for 1,173 yards and 9 TD. RB Waymon Clark ran for 1,014 yards and 4 TD. WR Tinker Owens had 472 yards receiving and 3 TD.
- 1973 Texas Longhorns [8-3]: QB Marty Akins threw for 475 yards and ran for 536 yards and 8 TD. QB Mike Presley threw for 331 yards and ran for 244 yards and 9 TD. RB Roosevelt Leaks ran for 1,415 yards and 14 TD.
- 1974 Oklahoma Sooners [11-0]: QB Steve Davis threw for 11 TD and ran for 659 yards and 9 TD. RB Joe Washington ran for 1,321 yards and 12 TD. RB Jim Littrell ran for 837 yards and 1 TD. RB Clyde Russell ran for 480 yards and 3 TD. RB Elvis Peacock ran for 428 yards and 7 TD. WR Tinker Owens had 413 yards receiving and 5 TD.
- 1974 Texas Longhorns [8-4]: QB Marty Akins threw for 250 yards and ran for 659 yards and 10 TD. RB Earl Campbell ran for 928 yards and 6 TD. RB Grayln Wyatt ran for 590 yards and 8 TD. RB Roosevelt Leaks ran for 409 yards and 4 TD.
- 1974 Texas A&M Aggies [8-3]: QB David Walker threw for 666 yards. RB Bubba Bean ran for 938 yards and 4 TD. RB Bucky Sams ran for 629 yards and 5 TD. RB Skip Walker ran for 550 yards and 8 TD. RB Jerry Honroe ran for 5 TD.
- 1975 Oklahoma Sooners [11-1]: QB Steve Davis ran for 516 yards and 6 TD. RB Joe Washington ran for 944 yards and 11 TD. RB Horace Ivory ran for 649 yards and 5 TD. WR Tinker Owens had 304 yards receiving and 1 TD.
- 1975 Texas Longhorns [10-2]: QB Marty Akins threw for 463 yards and ran for 777 yards and 7 TD. RB Earl Campbell ran for 1,118 yards and 13 TD. RB Grayln Wyatt ran for 451 yards and 8 TD. WR Alfred Jackson had 596 yards receiving and 2 TD.
- 1975 Texas A&M Aggies [10-2]: QB David Shipman threw for 422 yards and ran for 382 yards and 4 TD. RB Bubba Bean ran for 1,024 yards and 8 TD. RB George Woodard ran for 654 yards and 5 TD. RB Skip Walker ran for 399 yards and 4 TD.
- 1976 Oklahoma Sooners [9-2-1]: QB Thomas Lott ran for 630 yards and 7 TD. RB Kenny King ran for 791 yards and 4 TD. RB Horace Ivory ran for 741 yards and 11 TD. RB Elvis Peacock ran for 511 yards and 6 TD.
- 1976 Texas A&M Aggies [10-2]: QB David Walker threw for 797 yards and ran for 304 yards. RB George Woodard ran for 1,277 yards and 19 TD. RB Curtis Dickey ran for 776 yards and 8 TD. WR Gary Haack had 307 yards receiving.
- 1978 Oklahoma Sooners [11-1]: QB Thomas Lott threw for 6 TD and ran for 577 yards and 9 TD. RB Billy Sims ran for 1,896 yards and 22 TD. RB Kenny King ran for 779 yards and 3 TD. RB David Overstreet ran for 408 yards and 2 TD.
- 1979 Oklahoma Sooners [11-1]: QB J.C. Watts threw for 4 TD and ran for 455 yards and 10 TD. RB Billy Sims ran for 1,670 yards and 23 TD. RB Stanley Wilson ran for 491 yards and 1 TD.
- 1980 Mississippi State Bulldogs [9-3]: QB John Bond threw for 849 yards and ran for 720 yards and 5 TD. RB Michael Haddix ran for 724 yards and 5 TD. RB Donald Ray King ran for 642 yards and 6 TD. RB Mardye McDole ran for 438 yards and 5 TD and had 289 yards receiving.
- 1980 Oklahoma Sooners [10-2]: QB J.C. Watts ran for 663 yards and 18 TD. RB David Overstreet ran for 678 yards and 6 TD. RB Stanley Wilson ran for 659 yards and 2 TD. RB Buster Rhymes ran for 659 yards and 10 TD. WR Bobby Grayson had 389 yards receiving and 1 TD.
- 1981 Mississippi State Bulldogs [8-4]: QB John Bond threw for 875 yards and ran for 339 yards. RB Michael Haddix ran for 622 yards. RB Donald Ray King ran for 581 yards and 4 TD.
- 1981 Oklahoma Sooners [7-4-1]: QB Darrell Shepard ran for 774 yards and 13 TD. RB Stanley Wilson ran for 1,008 yards and 4 TD. RB Buster Rhymes ran for 442 yards and 4 TD.
- 1982 Oklahoma Sooners [8-4]: QB Danny Bradley ran for 456 yards and 2 TD. RB Marcus Dupree ran for 1,144 yards and 12 TD. RB Stanley Wilson ran for 835 yards and 5 TD. RB Freddie Sims ran for 625 yards and 3 TD. RB Weldon Ledbetter ran for 585 yards and 3 TD.
- 1983 Oklahoma Sooners [8-4]: QB Danny Bradley threw for 7 TD and ran for 426 yards and 5 TD. RB Spencer Tillman ran for 1,047 yards and 9 TD. RB Earl Johnson ran for 945 yards and 8 TD. WR Buster Rhymes had 747 yards receiving and 3 TD.
- 1984 Oklahoma Sooners [9-2-1]: QB Danny Bradley threw for 8 TD and ran for 300 yards and 8 TD. RB Lydell Carr ran for 625 yards and 3 TD. RB Steve Sewell ran for 577 yards and 5 TD. RB Spencer Tillman ran for 449 yards and 4 TD.
- 1985 Air Force Falcons [12-1]: QB Bart Weiss threw for 1,449 yards and 8 TD and ran 1,032 yards and 12 TD. RB Johnny Smith ran for 722 yards and 5 TD. RB Kelly Pittman ran for 524 yards and 11 TD. RB Pat Evans ran for 492 yards and 2 TD. WR Hugh Carpenter had 869 yards receiving and 3 TD.
- 1985 Oklahoma Sooners [11-1]: QB Jamelle Hollieway threw for 5 TD and ran for 861 yards and 9 TD. RB Lydell Carr ran for 735 yards and 4 TD. RB Leon Perry ran for 518 yards and 5 TD. TE Keith Jackson had 486 yards receiving and 2 TD.
- 1986 Oklahoma Sooners [11-1]: QB Jamelle Hollieway threw for 6 TD and ran for 811 yards and 8 TD. RB Lydell Carr ran for 548 yards and 5 TD. RB Earl Johnson ran for 537 yards and 7 TD. RB Spencer Tillman ran for 519 yards and 2 TD. RB Eric Mitchel ran for 418 yards and 7 TD. TE Keith Jackson had 403 yards receiving and 5 TD.
- 1987 Oklahoma Sooners [11-1]: QB Jamelle Hollieway threw for 7 TD and ran for 860 yards and 10 TD. QB Charles Thompson ran for 731 yards and 10 TD. RB Lydell Carr ran for 676 yards and 8 TD. RB Patrick Collins ran for 626 yards and 8 TD. RB Rotnei Anderson ran for 586 yards and 2 TD. RB Anthony Stafford ran for 583 yards and 8 TD. TE Keith Jackson had 358 yards receiving and 4 TD.
- 1988 Oklahoma Sooners [9-3]: QB Charles Thompson ran for 824 yards and 9 TD. RB Leon Perry ran for 546 yards and 6 TD. RB Mike Gaddis ran for 516 yards and 3 TD. RB Anthony Stafford ran for 474 yards and 6 TD.
- 1989 Oklahoma Sooners [7-4]: RB Mike Gaddis ran for 829 yards and 10 TD. RB Dewell Brewster ran for 584 yards and 4 TD. RB Leon Perry ran for 582 yards and 9 TD. RB Ike Lewis ran for 558 yards and 6 TD.
- 1990 Oklahoma Sooners [8-3]: RB Dewell Brewster ran for 872 yards and 8 TD. RB Kenyon Rasheed ran for 661 yards and 10 TD. RB Mike McKinley ran for 534 yards and 6 TD.
- 1996 Army Black Knights [10-2]: QB Ronnie McAda threw for 954 yards and 5 TD and ran for 534 yards and 4 TD. RB Joe Hewitt ran for 843 yards and 6 TD. RB Bobby Williams ran for 623 yards and 8 TD. RB Jeff Brizic ran for 336 yards and 6 TD. RB Demetrius Perry ran for 476 yards and 6 TD.
- Bohls, Kirk (2008-08-27). "Forty years later, the spread is the new wishbone". Austin American-Statesman.
- "Emory Bellard, creator of wishbone, dies". ESPN.com. February 10, 2011. Retrieved February 10, 2011.
- See p. 72 of Switzer, Barry; Shrake, Bud (1990). Bootlegger's Boy. New York: William Morrow. ISBN 0-688-09384-1.
- The History of Texas Football
- CCSR Issue #6: Offensive mastermind
- "Service academies playbooks".
- "Black Knights poised for a new option". Associated Press. 2008-08-19.
- Dawson, Phil Jack (1974). Defeating triple-option offenses with the backbone defense. West Nyack, N.Y.: Parker Pub. ISBN 0-13-197277-4.
- Installing..., Rodgers and Smith, Parker Publishing, Nyack NY
- Emory Bellard, "Flexible Triple Option", Coach of the Year Clinic, 1982