Years and years ago, South Natchez and Hattiesburg were playing football at Natchez. I was in the press box to report what happened. Hattiesburg coaches were in the booth next door. A thin wall separated the press box from the coaches. South Natchez, running the old Notre Dame Box offense, was going up and down the field.
This went on and on. At times, Hattiesburg players were tackling guys who didn’t have the football, while the Natchez player with the football was running free. Finally, from the other side of the wall I heard a crash and this shouted epithet: “#*#%#%, who the hell has got the %*^&)E$ed football?”
I long ago forgot the score, but I will always remember the architect of that offense. He was Ed Reed, and he was a Mississippi coaching legend. He died early Sunday morning in Biloxi at the age of 89. He will be buried Thursday in Natchez.
Reed won 276 games while losing only 86 as a high school coach. He would be a long chapter in any book about the history of Mississippi high school football. Try these two achievements for starters: He was the last coach to win the championship of the storied, old Big Eight Conference. He was the first coach to win the overall state championship in the largest classification of Mississippi schools, then Class AA. Reed’s South Natchez team routed Greenville 37-7 for the last Big Eight title in 1980. In 1981, South Natchez clipped Starkville 21-6 to cap a 14-0 season and win the state championship.
Furthermore, Reed won before integration and after it. He won at small schools and large schools. He won championships in Mississippi – and then he won in Alabama. He was a winner, pure and simple.
The one constant: He never deviated from the Notre Dame Box, an offense that had been put in mothballs decades before he had such success with it.
The Notre Dame Box, a variation of the old single wing, goes back to football’s earliest days. Knute Rockne made it famous after learning it from Jesse Harper, who learned it from Amos Alonzo Stagg, who invented it in 1905, after he had already invented the huddle in 1896. Curly Lambeau ran the Box with the Green Bay Packers. Long after all those legends had died, Reed still ran it. And ran it. And ran it some more. And in so doing, he drove other coaches, like those Hattiesburg coaches, crazy.
The Box is – or was – an offense based on deception and precision. Reed’s teams practiced it and practiced it until it became almost like an art form. Since nobody else ran it, Reed’s opponents had only a few days to prepare for what Reed’s players knew by heart. In retrospect, the results were predictable.
Watch Army, Navy or Air Force play today, and you will get an inkling of an idea of what the Box was about. The service academy teams aren’t as big or fast as many of the teams they play. Their offensive system is often the great equalizer.
Mississippi High School Activities Association director Don Hinton was a young coach at Murrah in Jackson when Reed was running the Box in Natchez.
“It was a nightmare to prepare for,” Hinton says. “We knew what they were going to do, but we still couldn’t stop it. Half the time, we couldn’t figure out who had the ball.”
I last talked to Ed Reed two years ago when he was about to be honored by his former players with an Ed Reed Tribute celebration in Natchez. When I asked him the secret to all his success, he responded, softly: “Well, I was blessed to have some really good athletes.”
Those athletes were blessed to have a coach who stuck with what he knew best, an offense he learned as a high school player in Booneville. It worked if you practiced it with diligence and paid attention to every last detail. Reed did. He never saw any reason to switch. Besides the x’s and o’s, Reed had what all great coaches have: the ability to get players to practice and play with grit and great effort.
Two years ago I asked him: Given all your success, why do you think nobody runs the Notre Dame Box today?
“I really don’t know,” Reed answered. “If I was still coaching, I sure would.”