Watching Jerry Rice's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame reminded me of a story about the fabled passing attack that enabled him to catch more passes, for more yards and more touchdowns, than any pass receiver in the history of the National Football League.
I heard it from W.C. Gorden, the retired Jackson State football coach who is, himself, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, while sitting in his kitchen in Jackson, Mississippi, late one afternoon in November, 2008.
I had driven from Ruston, Louisiana, arriving in a heavy thunderstorm as night descended on the evening rush hour. My purpose: to ask him about a comment he had made upon learning that Grambling legend Eddie Robinson, the most famous black football coach of all time, had died.
"To me, he was the Martin Luther King of football," Gorden said in April, 2007.
I was beginning work on a biography of Robinson, and Gorden's quote was a working theme that I wanted to either adopt or discard. It suggested that Robinson's life story might best be told by placing it in the context of Jim Crow segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, which his 57-year coaching career encompassed.
Before telling me about the coaching rival he admired more than any other figure in sports, however, Gorden, who is an exceptional storyteller, launched into an animated recollection of his relationship with another great coach, Bill Walsh, who revolutionized NFL offenses with a dynamic new passing game built around Jerry Rice.
"In the early '80s," Gorden began, "the NFL took a real interest in the coaching that was taking place in the historically black institutions because they were getting so many football players from the South."
The Southwestern Athletic Conference, which included Eddie Robinson's Grambling Tigers, Gorden's Jackson State Tigers, Marino Casem's Alcorn State Braves, and the Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State, produced an impressive list of stars that included Walter Payton, Willie Davis, Charlie Joiner, Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Mel Blount, Steve McNair and Jerry Rice during the heyday of black college football.
"People in the North, where the pro games were played, hadn't seen those kinds of athletes," Gorden said. "As a result, the pro scouts who were trying to improve their ball clubs chose to come to the African American schools.
"The NFL started a program where they invited the coaching staffs from African American schools to spend a week at a pro camp.," Gorden continued "In 1980, I had been to San Francisco and spent time with the 49ers. Bill Walsh was such a personable person. We developed a good relationship."
"As a result," Gorden continued, "we continued to communicate after that week. A few years later, he called me about Jerry Rice. He said, 'W.C., do you have any film on Mississippi Valley that you could exchange with me?'"
Gorden said he told Walsh he had some game film, but it was of poor quality. Any film was good enough for Walsh, Gorden said, so he sent what he had.
"In the process of watching that film," W.C. recalled, "he got interested in the formations and the plays that were being utilized in Valley's offense. He calls me and says, 'W.C., I like what I see in Jerry Rice. But I really like this offense that Valley is using. Could you get me some more film on it?' So I did."
The offense devised by Mississippi Valley State coach Archie Cooley produced 628 points in the 1984 season -- an average of 59 per game. With quarterback Willie Totten calling plays at the line of scrimmage, Rice set National Collegiate Athletic Association records with 112 catches for 1,845 yards and 27 touchdowns.
"Valley would use a no-back offense," Gorden explained. "They would stack the receivers 1-2-3 behind each other. The first two would go out and run roll blocks, and Jerry Rice would break off of that. Bill Walsh put these formations and some of Valley's plays into the 49ers offense."
Research "West Coast Offense" and you'll find several differing accounts of its origin. San Diego's famous "Air Coryell" attack featuring quarterback Dan Fouts was the West Coast Offense by another name in the 1970s; it really originated in college, at Brigham Young University or the University of Washington, also in the '70s; or Walsh conceived it while he was an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals under Paul Brown.
Here is Gorden's version:
The media got interested after San Francisco won another Super Bowl with it. They said, 'This is kind of a new offense, and we have just nicknamed it the West Coast Offense because that's where it originated. You were the first to use it, Bill. What do you call it?'
And Bill said, 'That's the Magnolia Offense.' The media, of course, wanted to know what he meant by that. So he said, 'When I was scouting Jerry Rice and watching film from Mississippi Valley, I copied a lot of formations and instituted it.'
He said, 'I call it the Magnolia Offense because I stole it out of Mississippi.'