A question so good it deserves a full-post response. From reader Tom:
Q: "[D]id [Randy] Walker run the zone-read at Miami (OH), like when he upset the Wildcats their Rose Bowl year, or was it something he introduced in Evanston?"
The short answer is no, he didn't become a "spread guy" until he was at Northwestern. But the details are the fun part. Rodriguez invented the zone-read. Some others have said they dabbled in it before he did, but all signs point to his having invented it while at Glenville State. Rodriguez had been a four-wide spread guy with the zone run game, and it just kind of happened.
Walker, by contrast, had run traditional offenses at Miami of Ohio and early in his tenure at NW. In 1999, Walker's first year with the Wildcats, the offense was bad and the team went 3-8. He, along with his longtime assistant Kevin Wilson, who is now the offensive coordinator for Oklahoma under Bob Stoops, visited Rodriguez and Tommy Bowden at Clemson and Mike Martz at the Rams. I believe they got a little bit from Martz in terms of general theory, protections, and the like, but the lasting impact was Rodriguez.
This was because what Rodriguez showed them was less a new way to attack the problem of good defenses but more just a new way to think about attacking the problem. Rodriguez showed them the shotgun and the zone read stuff they were doing at Clemson and had done at Tulane, but the reason it clicked for Wilson and Walker is that they realized that they could run all their old stuff -- the zones, the power, counter, option, etc -- all from spread sets.
And this was probably the great leap forward for the spread. Indeed, if you look at what Rodriguez was doing at Clemson, a lot of it is there in terms of the zone read, but a lot of it too was just Woody Dantzler running around. It was Walker that took the idea of "spread-to-run" and "zone-read" and systemized it. Again, Rodriguez had been a spread-to-pass guy originally, who just had this one really big idea for the run game. Walker and Wilson brought to it the traditionalist tinkerer mindset, as guys who had been coaching power, run-first football for years and were experts at blocking schemes, defensive fronts, and the like.
It was this marriage of the grand-new spread ideas with an old school attention to detail that helped Northwestern go 8-4 and beat Michigan in 2000, and it is this that guys like Urban Meyer and half the high school coaches in the country learned the bread and butter from. And Rodriguez's sharing with Walker had a kind of pay-it-forward effect to him, as he then began seeing how he could improve his spread-to-run offense, which became more solidified and systematic while he was at Clemson and particularly when he was at West Virginia, with Rick Trickett as his line coach.
This is why Walker deserves as much credit as Rodriguez for taking the spread mainstream. He showed how coaches could pretty much do what they already did -- and apply the lessons they'd already learned -- to a new environment, and to new success.