We have already covered the 1st decade of Coach Sid Otton’s career at Tumwater High School. It was probably surprising to many who thought T-Bird Football was constantly in the running for a State Championship. Far from it, as we wrapped up 1983 with only the 3rd post-season appearance cut short in the fog and a phantom field goal in Kelso.
However, any talk of change in coaches was long gone and players continued to buy in whole-heartedly to the “T-Bird” way of football. In this edition we will examine what I call the “Great Conversion”, going from the Twin Veer option style of offense to the now cherished Wing T.
First let’s not forget about 1984 and 85. These 2 season’s much like 81 and 82 featured teams that competed hard and came close but fell short of getting to the play-offs both finishing 6-3. The more difficult season was 85 when you consider the T-Birds finished tied for 3rd with Olympia at 6-3 both teams just a game behind League Champ Shelton and Capital who finished 7-2. On top of it, Tumwater defeated Shelton late in the season, the Highclimbers went on to win the State Championship.
Tumwater since 1981 had this habit of starting slow and it continued in 1985 with an 0-3 beginning. It was mystifying as too why. This squad was led by a smaller but strong Senior class. Tim Otton was the rare starting QB and Defensive tackle combination. Bo Gilbert, Terry Sutherland, Doug Jones, Ryan Whitney were among a strong leadership coalition and an exceptional Junior class was in place behind the Seniors.
Also in those days there were no cross-over games or sharing of State Play-off berths so only the top 2 advanced, cut and dried. So when the T-Birds got off to the slow start it put them in too deep of a hole to dig themselves out but as usual this team never quit and kept fighting and finished as the team no one wanted to face.
This brings us to 1986. A huge year in more than one way. The Junior class of 1985 learned the lesson of getting off to a slow start and they were determined not to stumble out of the gate. They did get off to a fast start and they made Tumwater’s 1st appearance in a Dome. But in the end they were left with more questions than you would think for a team that just finished 11-1, a Semi-final appearance and top 4 finish.
Let’s start with the season first and understand that through the years under Coach Alexander’s direction the emphasis on defense and the belief that a swarming, aggressive defense was the true character of T-Bird Football. GATA (Get After their *ss) became the monster it is today way back in the history of T-Bird football. Defense was 1st, even if no one said it out loud we all knew we hung our hat on the defense to keep us in games.
Maybe this became the way we thought due to those slow starts where it seemed to take the offense a few weeks to get firing on all cylinders. Regardless the hard hitting T-Bird defense had become what Tumwater Football was known for and I think for many reasons.
Let me stray here from the 1986 story and tell you why I think defense became the heartbeat of Tumwater Football. It truly began in 1977 when you think about what won that critical game against Capital, a hard hit forced a fumble and it was returned for a TD and a swarming defense stuffed a 2-point conversion to preserve the 16-14 win with no time left on the clock. Those are the direct roots in what Tumwater’s defensive legacy has become.
Additionally, this man named Pat Alexander. There is no doubt who the head coach is and his presence was always there but Coach Otton allowed and encouraged each of his assistants to take ownership of their “area” and Coach Alexander did that back then and hasn’t let go since. Coach Alexander is far different than Coach Otton in how he gets his message across.
Coach Alexander is another true leader, he has that natural ability that grabs the attention of a full room, you want to listen to what he says and what he is teaching you. He could be serious and give you a big chewing out, and yet when he was done made you feel good, like he cared about you in that moment and made you want to make him proud of you. I will digress to one particular incident when I played. It was against Yelm and on a particular play I was called for holding when I had turned on a defensive line-man quickly and I must say made an amazing block and I did not hold.
Well sometimes I would (and do) say things that I shouldn’t and I told the umpire his call was a bunch of Bullsh*t. He looked shocked and asked me what did I say and I said it again, or maybe I changed it to it was a horsesh*t call. Well he got so flustered he threw his beanbag since he had already thrown his flag. I did ask what are you doing?
Of course he told the coaches I needed to work on my vocabulary and I was pulled from the game. Coach Alexander took me to the side and I was still pissed. He looked at me and said, you’ve got to maintain your poise. We are leading here, it doesn’t matter if it was a bad call you will rebound and get after it the next play, don’t let a penalty or a comment of anyone distract you from what you need to do. Then he added, I do have to admit I kinda wish you would have said something else after the 2nd penalty and the bean bag toss, I wanted to see what he’d throw next. He did so with a smile and a wink, told me get a drink, take a breath and lets go finish this thing.
This is the kind of thing Coach Alexander has built in his “area”. He built a tradition that players today still need to live up too and more importantly want to live up too and surpass. I am sure there are literally hundreds of stories like or similar to my experience.
Back to 1986, the deep Senior class was again defensive minded with Eric Williams and eventual all-state defensive line-man, Tony Prentice and Steve Tillman leading the way. Junior Jamie Land would give the T-Birds one of the strongest defensive lines in the State and so they got to work in 1986 and would go on a magnificent run.
Week 1: Tumwater 27, Olympia 13 The T-Birds would beat the hated Olympia Bears with a good old-fashioned pounding. Hildo Rodriguez ran for 154 yards behind a great effort by the O-Line. A big turn-over by the Bears was on a kick-off that no one jumped on and Tumwater’s Shawn Boyle recovered leading to the T-Birds final TD sealing the win.
Week 2: Tumwater 7, North Thurston 0 Coach Otton said in the paper after this one that the T-Birds were believing too much what everyone was telling them and that they had plenty of work ahead of them. They were lucky to escape with the win. The only TD of the game was set-up by a blocked punt by Jamie Land and the T-Birds took over on the Rams 11 and were able to punch it in.
Week 3: Tumwater 34, Centralia 12: The T-Bird defense led the way recovering 4 fumbles in this contest, one for a TD by defensive tackle Shawn Stein.
Week 4: Tumwater 33, Hoquiam 6: QB Jeff Haynie lit up the sky with 3 TD passes. A halfback pass from Tony Prentice to Craig Wood would set up another touchdown and continued to show Coach Otton’s willingness to throw in a trick play to keep the other team off-balance.
Week 5: Tumwater 34, Capital 6: This was Homecoming and Coach Otton’s 100th win. The T-Bird defense was again overwhelming giving up only a 1st half TD on a flea-flicker. Tumwater led by just 1 at the half 7-6 but 4 turnovers and holding the Cougs to -10 total yards in the 2nd half equaled a blow-out win for the T-Birds.
Week 6: Tumwater 23, Timberline 6: This was a big showdown at the time as the Blazers were also undefeated. Eric Williams put his stamp on this game getting to the Blazer offense time and again. The T-Birds would create 6 turnovers and held Timberline to -41 yards rushing in the 1st half. T-Birds improved to 6-0 while handing the Blazers their 1st loss.
Week 7: Tumwater 7, WF West 6: The T-Birds were nearly caught with their pants down in this one playing what was their worst performance of the season. The Bearcats who finished the season 5-4 nearly beat and probably should have beaten the T-Birds. Tumwater also lost their starting RB Hildo Rodriguez in this game for the season with a broken leg. Tumwater was fortunate to be 7-0.
Week 8: Tumwater 17, Shelton 3: The T-Birds were focused on beating the defending State Champions and did so with a solid effort. The defense again solid as a rock giving up only 3 points in the 1st half, but that was good enough for a 3-0 lead at halftime. Two big interceptions for Tumwater came from Todd Carson and Eric Koch. The win also clinched the Black Hills League Championship.
Week 9: Tumwater 21, Aberdeen 7: No sharing of titles for this team, they knew they had the #1 seed but wanted to finish off the year unbeaten and as undisputed Champs. Despite not scoring on several opportunities Tumwater’s defense gave up just 1-big play to Aberdeen’s Tim Langhans, a 55-yard TD run to make it 7-7. Langhans would go on to be named the BHL’s MVP. (Somehow?) None the less Tumwater was headed to the Play-offs as the BHL Champs and #1 seed.
The T-Birds were now set to make a run like none in school history. Their sights set on the Kingdome where the State Championship would be decided but first they would need to win 3 in a row and it began with Shorewood.
1st Round: Tumwater 14, Shorewood 7: The Tumwater offense again got off to a slow start and clearly missing the running of Rodriguez but hung in the game due to the defense. The Tumwater D did give up a TD in the 1st half and at the break they trailed 7-0. In the 2nd half, Todd Carson took over the QB duties and led 2 2nd half scoring drives including a 1-yard plunge of his own. The Defense then took care of the rest and the T-Birds were set to meet the only other undefeated 2A team, Lake Stevens in the Quarters.
Quarter-Finals: Tumwater 10, Lake Stevens 0: The T-Birds now faced their biggest test to date, the undefeated Lake Stevens Vikings. The Vikings were hungry for redemption after losing in the State Championship game last season to Shelton and they were not in the mood to lose to another BHL team.
The T-Birds had other idea’s and their defense was smothering. Land, Williams, Tillman, Koch and Stein controlled the front and shut down the Lake Stevens high powered running attack. Craig Wood would get Tumwater on the board with a 38-yard FG and then on a 4th and 5 the offense dialed up a pass play and Todd Carson hit Tony Prentice for the 21-yard strike. The defense then just slammed the door and ripped the heart out of the Vikings ending their season while sending themselves to a place no other T-Bird team had ever been, the Semi-Finals and inside the Tacoma Dome.
It all comes Crashing Down
Semi-Finals Burlington-Edison 6, Tumwater 2: This game was a slug fest with Tumwater putting up only 67 total yards of offense while B-E had 167 with 1-big play where the Tigers popped a 42-yard TD run. Late in the game and backed up B-E decided to take the safety than punt near their goal line. They held the T-Bird offense and held on for the 6-2 win.
Coach Otton was quoted as saying, “We’ve had a great season, but the sting is so bad right now it’s hard to think about that”. It’s that feeling that led to the Great Conversion and that is coming up next, but first let’s have some fun!
Fun with Numbers
Let’s go back to Coach Otton’s 100th win, it came on October 10th, 1986, 19 seasons after he began coaching back in Coupeville. His record was 100-71 or a 58% win percent. This is an average of 5.2 wins per season. He had 12 winning seasons and 7 losing. Since his 100th win, Coach Otton has a 284-58 record winning at a remarkable win clip of 83%. He’s had 27 winning season’s and 5 State Championships and 2 losing season’s since winning his 100th game. This is an average of 9.8 wins per season.
If Coach Otton had averaged 9.8 wins from the beginning his career record would now have stood at 470-43. These numbers do not include the current season.
The Great Conversion
When you just finished the best season in school history and fall just 4 measly points short of getting to the State Championship seems like an odd time to make any major changes. Sure, you want to tweak some here, a few minor changes there but instead how about throwing out your entire offense and starting over? Throwing out the only offense your team has known in the 13 years you’ve been at the helm. Throwing out the only offense you and your coaching staff have ever known.
Hey, then why not throw out how you’ve coached over the past decade and bring in new idea’s for a complete overhaul. We talked with Offensive Coordinator at that time Randy Reynolds and what exactly went into throwing out your entire offense coming off a State Semi-Final appearance.
Reynolds told us issues had been brewing over several seasons about the the option heavy veer offense. Reynolds pointed out 1982 when they looked like they were set to make a run into the play-offs only to lose then Senior QB Steve Haynie to a broken collarbone in the 1st half of the 1st game of the season after Haynie had run off 5 straight wins his Junior season.
Reynolds also pointed out how historically Tumwater would get off to a slow start. They questioned was it just happenstance or was it the offense. Several things concerned Reynolds and Coach Otton with sticking with the Twin Veer. First, it was so reliant on the QB and he had to be a certain type of athlete to run the veer. It also required pinpoint timing and the ability to read the blocking in a split second. Another issue was the blocking assignments that could get confusing as in the option you always leave someone unblocked. There would be a question of who should be left unblocked.
Reynolds said at times over the years offensive lineman would get frustrated because they weren’t sure who to block. Current Olympia Head Coach and part of the 1977 T-Bird team Bill Beattie was quoted as saying he never knew who he was supposed to block half time. Beattie was an all-state defensive tackle in 1977 and a starting offensive tackle. He would go on to play 4 years at Central Washington as a starting Offensive Tackle.
Blocking the veer option was also more man-on-man where you had to physically beat your opponent to open the hole. You may have to reach block which is extremely difficult to do and then turn the man away from where he wants to go. The Wing T offered alternatives to this style simplifying and creating easier opportunities for lineman to make their blocks and not have to hold them as long.
Reynolds also said one of the issues was Tumwater’s defense. Not in a bad way, but the defense had carved out quite a niche as this big physical, hard hitting unit that took no prisoners. The defense had and has a real identity that is still alive and well today. Expectations were much higher early on for the defense. Reynolds said he and Coach Otton wanted to create the same thing for the offense. They needed an identity.
Reynolds said there was great debate over how to take that next step and get to the final goal, playing for a State Title. He and Coach Otton were aware of the Wing T and both were intrigued with the offense and did some homework. They both studied up on the finer points of the offense, the pros and cons. When they were finished they presented their findings to the rest of the coaching staff.
Coach Otton was also sold on the fact that they needed to change how they coached and played their players. The concept was quite radical and frankly daring after just finishing with your best ever record and a top 4 finish. Coach Otton was going to institute the platoon system and assign coaches to coach only their area of expertise. Coaches forever were expected to coach both offense and defense. So Coach Alexander and Coach Shoun who were defensive minded were also expected to coach on the offensive side and Coach Reynolds and Weeks who were offensive minded coached defense as well.
Coach Otton thought why make coaches coach outside of their passion and expertise and divided up the coaching staff with their focus only on their area. This combined with platooning made sense. Coach Otton says the thought behind platooning was the same as with the coaches. If you have a better athlete that can go both ways, that athlete still likely prefers one side.
The theory behind the platoon is to allow a player who may be behind that 2-way starter, is to let him start and get the reps in practice and in games and he will get better especially with a coaching staff also now dedicated to the one area.
So this whole plan was laid out to the entire coaching staff and there was 100% buy in. Coach Otton says that was the first step. The 2nd was the final decision to completely scrap the twin veer offense and bring in the Wing T. Reynolds says he still had concerns and knew the huge task ahead of them. Reynolds says it was Coach Alexander who finally told him to make a decision and know that everyone of them (coaches) is behind the decision you guys make. This was enough for Otton and Reynolds to pull the trigger and this massive change in offense, player personnel and coaching philosophy was underway.
Otton and Reynolds were first introduced to the Wing T at a coaching clinic but now it was time to dig in and figure this whole system out. They reached out to the University of Nevada coaching staff in Reno who ran the Wing T and they were invited to come down and ask questions, go through their film and study what the Wing T does and how it works. They spent a full week learning the ins and outs of the Wing T.
Once they had everything in place between the 2 of them, it was now time to implement the system. They had to coach the coaches and remember this was a time where there was no spring ball and no big summer camp. They couldn’t get much of a head start on getting in the new system to the coaches and most of all the players.
It wouldn’t be until summer camp actually began before they could really put in the offense. It was a complete overhaul. Reynolds says they tried to keep some things in place like the hole numbering system but even that didn’t make sense with the new system. So they modified and simplified, tried not to overwhelm players who had grown up with the veer option.
They were able to get this in place because of the change in coaching philosophy and platoon system. Guys who had no interest in playing the offensive line were told ok but you see who is in front of you on the defense so it’s your choice, do you want to play or not? This occurred for every position and the T-Birds literally had 22 starters.
There was certainly going to be a learning curve but the timing was right to make this move. The Senior class was smaller after a losing a ton of players to graduation the season before and their run to the Semi’s. No one would go on record but it was certainly thought that 1987 would be a year of transition but 1988 had the look of a serious contender and with the new offense in place and a year under their belts, 1988 would be the year this all paid off.
Those who believed this forgot to let the Senior’s of 87 know this plan. This is where we are going to stop for this week. Originally we planned to cover 1987 in this part as well but as the details of 1986 and this journey from the Twin Veer to the Wing T emerged it really turned into a much bigger story than first anticipated. Next week will be focused on 1987 another bench mark season of the Otton legacy and no question the most unexpected result from this scrappy group of T-Birds.