Buzz Bissinger’s book about the 1988 Odessa Permian high school football team is one of the greatest sports books ever written. That’s high praise that I’m personally poorly qualified to give but the breadth of subjects and characters he’s able to cover are stunning. Many of you may not have read the book but enjoyed the movie based on it, or the TV series inspired by the success of the stories and the feel of the work.
Last offseason I spent some time breaking down the actual football strategy and tactics in “Remember the Titans” which was super amusing for me and also for at least some of you. “Remember the Titans” did a great job tying football tactics together with the characters and plots in the story to bring them together so that the football scenes served the story arcs. At least up until the big moment when they changed up their defense to stop a shotgun spread passing team and the script degenerated into nonsense.
Buzz Bissinger did a solid job tying the tactics of the Permian Panthers to the story arcs of the main characters and the social commentary narratives he was weaving throughout the work but he missed or ignored a few things I found interesting about that team. Here’s a broad view of some of the strategy and tactics at play and how they played into this story of pressure and glory in Texas high school football.
The Permian machine
A significant portion of the book’s appeal was in capturing how vulnerable these young teenage boys were out there on Friday nights carrying the weight for an entire West Texan community. The Saudis were cranking out oil and landing some crushing blows to the West Texas economy, which for Odessa was nearly entirely centered around drilling the Permian basin, and even when things were booming the communities had nothing to rally them or serve as an extension of themselves to the greater state or region. Nothing except football, which served as a mascot much in the same way that Notre Dame football embodied some of the success of Irish immigrants in the US.
The result was a community that put insane resources and attention towards grooming and fashioning their boys into a dominant high school squad. From their breakthrough 1965 season to the 1995 campaign the Permian Panthers won their district 22 times, went to the state finals 11 times, won six state championships, and won two “mythical national championships” (1972, 1989). To their opponents they were hardly vulnerable and overstressed young boys, they were an unstoppable machine.
The 1988 team that Buzz lived among, as well as most of the other teams I’m aware of from that period, were a Wing-T squad. The Wing-T is still a favorite amongst high school football coaches and is the inspiration for the Gus Malzahn offense.
Here’s how the 88 Panthers tended to line up on offense and defense:
And the players lined up in these various positions, some of which are no doubt familiar to modern eyes and some of which are less so:
I underlined the players who had prominent roles in the book but left out senior James “Boobie” Miles on this chart, who was a main character in the book and was going to be the starting fullback until he tore up his knee in a preseason scrimmage. He was big by Permian standards, about 6-1, 200, and we’ll come back to him in a moment. First, here’s a quick glossary of some of these positions and alignments.
The Wing-T offense Permian used is philosophically similar to a lot of modern smashmouth spreads despite the under center alignment and lack of spacing. The fullback is the featured runner and the tailback more of a lead blocker although he also gets some action in the run game, particularly on their tosses.
The split end moves around and is similar to the modern H-back/Percy Harvin type save that he does a good deal more blocking (everyone did) compared to modern offenses that rely on spacing rather than concerts of blocks. The TE is mostly a blocking position and it’s the flanker and split end that do much of the pass catching, them or the main backs. Split end Lloyd Hill was the main man for Permian when they wanted to throw the ball and it was by a considerable margin as he was the recipient of 68% of QB Mike Winchell’s completed passes.
The QB is much the same as in modern offenses, he ran the show at the line of scrimmage with checks and audibles but he also did some lead blocking in addition to make the hand-offs, pitches, and and occasional dropback passes. Also of note, Permian seemed to keep their guard/tackle tandems intact but played them “strong” and “weak” rather than left and right with the TE always working with the ST and SG, who in 1988 were Jerrod Mcdougall and Jeff Garrett.
The defense was a sort of primitive 4-3 that had very different alignments. For instance, they used 2i-technique defensive tackles with the middle linebacker about two yards off the center. Back then your middle linebacker was a guy who could beat base blocks from the center or down blocks from the guard and be in position to clean up all of the FB dives that were common to the offenses of those times. Nowadays you’d stick that guy in a different position, probably defensive end.
The name of the game back then was precision within a world of well orchestrated violence. Permian was small, even by the standards of the times, but they were well drilled and precise in making the right checks to create the right double teams, angles, and calls to spring their talented runners loose. There was just no beating them in the hard fought, yard by yard battles that characterized the game as their discipline and precise tactics would take a serious toll over the course of a game.
Here’s a glimpse into the Mojo magic that dominated the era, albeit in the big loss to Midland Lee that served as the turning point in the season and story.
You see Winchell audibling to the dreaded FB toss sweep play and then leading upfield to help secure a cutback. Billingsley gets a good cut block on the perimeter for speedy Chris Comer around the edge. Overall there are lots of cut blocks and angles at play as Permian looks to outflank the defense with the best athlete on their team.
Roles and themes on the 1988 team
Race is a major theme in Friday Night Lights, sometimes drowning out everything else in the story, but the strategies of the Panthers’ offense and defense regularly played into the story arcs for the main characters and even the narratives.
Mike Winchell: The senior quarterback had been a starter on the 1987 team that failed to go to state despite boasting star FB Shawn Crow, who ran for a Permian all-time record 2288 yards, and also with Boobie Miles playing tailback and adding another 1385 rushing yards.
Winchell was like the Greg McElroy or A.J. McCarron of the Permian 80s machine. He didn’t throw the ball much in 1988, there was little need with Crow and Miles, but the coaches clearly loved him for his focus and ability to get Permian into the right calls at the line. There’s a passing note in “Friday Night Lights” about Winchell being woozy in the locker room at halftime against Midland Lee and you wonder if he was concussed and unable to make checks as well in the second half but the actual game film doesn’t suggest that such is the case.
The other big defeat for the 88 Permian Panthers was of course against big, bad Dallas Carter in the state semi-final. What isn’t portrayed in the movie but comes up in the book was that the game was played in horrible conditions:
Little Winchell had an uncharacteristically bad game as he couldn’t grip the ball well in these conditions. Permian lost the game 14-9 and probably win in better conditions, although surely Carter’s team speed also surely impacted his performance. Personally I think 1988 Carter’s reputation as one of the all-time greats was based more on the talent and drama around that team than their actual play on the field. Carter had 21 players on a 60-man roster that received D1 scholarships, they were absurdly loaded with talent, but they didn’t do the little things to win like Permian did and their margins of victory aren’t terribly impressive. Of course they were also dealing with court drama that distracted them but even their regular season wasn’t breathtakingly dominant. I may talk about them more in the future but ESPN’s 30 for 30 on that team is worth your time:
Anyways, Winchell was the stereotypical “coach on the field” undersized white guy who leads the team with savvy and grit but has a limited ceiling. The movie somewhat maintains that characterization of him.
“Boobie” Miles: serves as the focal point of the racial narrative that is woven throughout the book. Miles comes from a broken home, he’s charming in school and well liked by all but not particularly successful in the class room, and is generally without any support or direction in life save for from his Uncle or the coaches who all want to profit from his athletic abilities on the football field. Once he loses his athletic ability, the coaches relegate him to the dustbin of history with one even joking that he should just be taken out somewhere and shot like a horse with a broken leg.
Chris Comer is largely overlooked in the story despite having an all-time great season for Permian and he’s never quoted in the book. In the book’s telling of that season’s story, Comer serves to illustrate how disposable Miles is in a world dominated by HS football.
Don Billingsley notes with frustration in the story that even after Miles is gone he doesn’t get a chance to become the featured runner but instead they just find “another n*****” to run the ball in Comer. The coaches also relish how Comer tends to run through or past defenders where Miles loved to execute spin moves and jukes.
The underlying suggestion that is made is that Miles tends to run from challenges rather than taking them on directly because he lacks the necessary guidance and his running style simply illustrates what is also true of him in life. He gives up on football and class after the coaches don’t play him in the Midland game and it’s clear that his days as a Permian hero are over. The movie nails the drama and tragedy of Miles’ aborted football career and also features Comer as a “oh wow, now this guy gets a chance and it turns out he’s really good” foil that demonstrates what patience and humility can offer an athlete. It’s a bit unfair to Miles, really. The book doesn’t have that redemptive angle but focuses more on the cruelty of a world where a young black man is regarded as useless if he can’t run the football.
An interesting theme the book explores that the movie doesn’t touch is the forced integration of the Odessa schools in the 80s and how it caused grimaces across the Texas HS football landscape because while the Panthers had always been a model of precision they had lacked the athleticism of some other teams because they’d been an all-white team. With integration came the Boobie Miles’ and Chris Comers’ of the southside of Odessa who could serve as explosive fullbacks that took their toss plays in the Wing-T to another level.
But it also brought guys like Lloyd Hill who isn’t mentioned much in “Friday Night Lights” (which focused on seniors) save for in all of the mentions of Winchell’s passes that tended to include him. He’s also entirely absent from the film.
2288 yards, and also with Boobie Miles playing tailback and adding another 1385 rushing yard
Winchell threw for 1938 yards in 1988 and Hill had 1317 receiving yards as Permian essentially found an answer not for replacing the presumed production of Boobie Miles at fullback but the downgrade they were enduring going from Miles to Billingsley at tailback. The answer? Throw the ball more, particularly to the split end.
Then another fascinating element of the 1988 Permian Panthers is that after the senior class Bissinger highlighted departed, the junior class took over and produced a team that is regarded by some as the greatest team in Texas HS history, the state-winning 1989 Permian Panthers who were also crowned national champs.
They replaced Winchell with senior QB Stoney Case, who threw for 2029 yards (with one extra game, the state final) 1519 of them directed at Lloyd Hill. They tended to flex Hill out more that year…
…and became an even greater part of the modern trend away from precise orchestrations of violent blocks and towards finesse and skill. Case was a senior in 1989 and ended up serving as a four-year starter at New Mexico and then a third round pick in the NFL draft. At 6-3, 200 he was a bigger, stronger talent than Winchell whom he sat behind for a year. He seemed to have been treated in recruiting like another “Permian product” given where he went to school (New Mexico wasn’t a power back then, were they?) but he must have changed minds with his performance in college and was then drafted to the NFL. His brother Stormy Case would later be recruited from Permian to play QB at Texas A&M.
It doesn’t seem that Lloyd Hill necessarily “made” Winchell but he certainly wasn’t an inconsiderable part of the Permian machine back then. He ended up going to Texas Tech, along with head coach Gary Gaines after the 89 championship.
Fun facts about Lloyd Hill and Boobie Miles, Hill is the older brother of late 90s Permian star Roy Williams. You probably don’t know Williams from his battles with Midland Lee and their star running back Cedric Benson but you may remember him from his time with Benson on the Texas Longhorns, or perhaps the Detroit Lions, or the Dallas Cowboys. Similarly, Boobie Miles had a younger cousin named Von Miller who went to DeSoto, then Texas A&M, and now is still a major player with the Denver Broncos.
Don Billingsley, as you see glimpses of above, was a speedy multi-purpose back that spent most of his time catching tosses or throwing lead cut blocks for the fullbacks. The book doesn’t talk as much about his playing style as much as highlight his reckless lifestyle and tumultuous home life. He’s not a villain in the book, despite that quote above, but presented as more of a rough and tumble product of the culture around him.
The movie captures those same home life issues with some chilling scenes that nail the familial pressure these athletes feel as well as the tragedy of a man’s glory all stemming from what he does in high school before his life even begins. The movie also transforms Billingsley from the pretty boy who’s simultaneously a scrappy little kid who can’t wait to take on guys twice his size either on the field or in a bar into a pretty boy who’s simultaneously a hulking, blocking fullback who breaks like five tackles from the big Carter defenders in the title game.
Brian Chavez is a fun character within the story for the way he demolishes stereotypes. He’s hispanic but rather than being less intelligent or smaller than the white kids like most Odessa residents tended to assume of their increasingly common neighbors from south of the border, he was instead the brightest, strongest, and most successful player on the team. He goes on to Harvard, gets a law degree, and then came back to practice law in Odessa where he found that he could do exceptionally well representing the quickly growing hispanic population.
As a TE he had a crucial role on the team to secure the edge or the backside of plays so that Permian’s tosses and runs could break free on the edge and so that edge blitzes couldn’t blow up inside runs from the side. The movie curiously makes him into a fiery safety and loyal friend that is scarcely involved in any major scene save for in the background or occasional game highlights. It’s just hard to cover as much ground in a movie as you can in a book but Chavez is a fascinating character in the book who addresses some of the changes to the Texas landscape occurring as a result of immigration from Mexico.
Ivory Christian was essentially the fullback of the defense, as you see in the diagrams above. In an era where defending the A-gaps from dives and lead runs was the key to playing great defense, the middle linebacker was the most important piece of the puzzle.
In the book he’s praised as a great athlete but a rewatch of their games shows that he (#62) spent most of his time fighting centers to control the A-gaps and only occasionally showed off the athleticism that made him the most sought after senior recruit on the team after Miles went down.
He basically added the ability to pursue ballcarriers out of the box to the necessary skill of owning the A-gaps. The movie maintains Christian’s character as a picture of quiet intensity but they move him to DE rather than MLB which makes sense in the modern game but I’m not sure why they did it for the movie. Perhaps they thought it’d be weird if the biggest guy on defense wasn’t a DL, obviously Permian tended to put their biggest guys at the focal points though (fullback and middle linebacker) because those guys often happened to also be their best athletes.
Finally there’s Jerrod McDougal, who really epitomizes Texas HS football and the Permian “Mojo” culture. Every big school will have the athletic and gritty Mike Winchells to lead the team and at least the occasional Chris Comers or Boobie Miles’ on their roster. What they won’t have are the Jerrod McDougals. Not because he’s a rare talent, the book makes plain that even the 5-9, 180 pound offensive linemen lives much of his life with the understanding that he’ll never have a shot at greater football glory than winning a state title for the Permian Panthers.
What other schools don’t often have is this kind of every day athlete who will sacrifice, focus, and work with all he has in order to play a thankless and demanding role like offensive tackle. Permian regularly had these guys that were willing to be maxed out so that the program’s well drilled offensive and defensive systems could work with greater efficiency than their opponents.
While Boobie Miles is a victim in the story, in some ways he was also a benefactor. Because Permian had tons of guys like McDougal that believed that the greatest thing they could do in life was bring another state championship to Odessa, there were open lanes and opportunities for Miles to showcase his talents on the biggest stages. Tragically it wasn’t enough to give him the loving direction and support in life he needed, but it wasn’t nothing.
The programs that generate champions are the ones in which the community puts a high enough value on winning to demand the attention and effort of every player on the roster. The book is mostly dubious on the wisdom of McDougal’s sacrifices, which include knocking out key courses he needed to graduate before his senior year so he could focus on football and other moves that prioritized his big football season. On the one hand, the book ends and he’s 18 with his whole life ahead of him but the greatest chance for fame and glory dead and gone, up in smoke when the Panthers narrowly lose to the Carter Cowboys. On the other hand, he’s got his whole life to figure out what’s next and in the meantime was connected to something universal and resonant across an entire community that he’ll never lose. He also learned to sacrifice for a collective effort, which probably wasn’t a useless skill provided he could translate it to other realms of life.
They don’t use McDougal’s character in the movie save for the shots of random Permian players here and there with a broken finger on the sideline or weeping in agony when they lose the final game. It’s not a flaw to the film, which still communicates his story, but he’s the underpinning of the whole book. There’s no more pure version of either football or perhaps even team sports in general than Texas HS football and it’s nowhere better captured than in the 5-9, 180 pound offensive tackle that only gets one senior year to make the most of his big shot in life.