Billy Laval stood 5-foot-8. He weighed about 135 pounds, maybe 145 late in his coaching career. In his early days, he was known to most as "The Fox," which morphed into the "Ole Fox," and the "Ole Man," and finally "The Wiley Old Fox."
Despite his size, few in the coaching profession ever looked down on Laval. Nor did they call him any kind of name except out of respect. That's because over a 35-year period ending in 1950, Laval earned the right to be called the greatest collegiate coach in South Carolina athletics history.
Mind you, we're not talking just about USC history. We're talking about the entire state to include all the best coaches over the years at any level, from Erskine to Clemson, from Charleston Southern to College of Charleston.
Laval had no peer when he walked the sideline, whether it be football, basketball or his first love, baseball. He arguably was the best there ever was at Furman, USC and Newberry. At USC, he produced a record seven consecutive winning seasons in football, a game in which he never played a down. He still carries the highest winning percentage of any USC baseball coach. In his one season of coaching basketball, USC won the prestigious Southern Conference championship.
But the story of William L. Laval goes beyond wins and losses and championships. From his early days as a coach at age 18 to his death in 1957 at age 72, Laval was known to possess one of sports' most innovative minds. He invented plays the game of football had never before seen. He constantly tinkered with uniform colors and designs.
"They thought coach Laval was either cheating or crazy," Whitey Rawl, the quarterback on Furman teams from 1925-27 told the Columbia Record in 1961. "Nobody ever seemed to figure out which, but we beat 'em."
Laval was known most for carrying his "crazy quilt" offense in football wherever he coached, and at just about every stop there were some who believed the offense was actually named for its inventor. No doubt, Laval had a crazy side to him, and his life was much like a quilt, a mixed bag of sensible and nonsensical.
Hey, the guy won his wife on a bet over a baseball game he pitched for Furman against Clemson. He put targets on his Newberry players' jerseys to help his color-blind quarterback better spot receivers. He helped discover baseball great "Shoeless Joe" Jackson.
We will get to all those stories, but let's start at the beginning. Laval was born in Columbia before the turn of the previous century and apparently grew up to be a dandy baseball player.
As far as we can tell, Laval migrated to the Greenville area where he pitched on the Furman baseball team in 1904 and 1905. There is no record that Laval was enrolled in the school those two years, so we can only presume he was some sort of ringer on the diamond each spring. Rules of the day regarding participation in intercollegiate sports obviously were quite loose.
One year, before his baseball days at Furman, Laval served as the head coach at Erskine College. He was 18. The next year, he was the head coach at Sewanee. Then he apparently returned to Erskine, and during the summers he played professional baseball for various teams in the southeast. One newspaper account had Laval's Erskine baseball teams winning four state championships - against all schools, regardless of size - in five seasons.
Laval's professional days were non-descript, a career .253 batting average and a 42-37 record as a pitcher keeping him from advancing past the old Class D leagues. He also managed several of the teams while he played, and that must have been the catalyst for him to pursue a coaching career at the college level.
It was the fall of 1907 when Tommy Stouch, manager of the Greenville club in the Carolina Association saw Joe Jackson play for the Victor Mills team and signed him to play.
After the season, according to a 1911 account in The State, Stouch wanted a closer look at Jackson. So, Stouch got Laval, a left-handed pitcher and the manager of the Spartanburg club, to throw five days of batting practice to Jackson. Stouch sought Laval because of the pitcher's assortment of curves and spitballs.
"The first day Joe got three against the fence," Stouch said. "I framed up another series of curves to use the next day. The following day, Billy used a low curve and two long drives resulted. The third day of agony, Billy put his famous spitter in action and the batting maniac cracked one over the fence and two through the box, almost taking the pitcher's cap with 'em. The fourth day, Jackson slammed a couple through the box at Billy's feet and we gave up the ghost."
It is not known which was better: Joe Jackson's performance or the description of it by his manager.
A year later, Jackson was in the big leagues. Laval, meanwhile, had taken a liking to football. Sometime around 1912, Laval was asked by his friend, Clemson coach Frank Dobson, to sit on the Tigers' bench when the football team played at Georgia Tech. Laval returned from the game and began reading and studying all he could about the sport.
By this time, Laval was married and no doubt getting subtle hints from his wife to find job security. Laval first considered a career in textiles, but he kept a keen eye on his newest fascination: football.
Laval and Elizabeth began courting during the 1905 baseball season. Prior to Furman's game against Clemson that year, Laval proposed marriage to the young coed. Her response? "If you beat Clemson today, I will marry you." Laval went the distance in pitching Furman to a 2-1 victory and the two were married shortly thereafter, a union that lasted 51 years until her death in 1956.
For years to come, mostly at after-dinner speeches, Laval would draw laughter from the audience by saying of his wife: "She has hated Clemson ever since."
While it might have been good fortune - and outstanding pitching - that brought Laval and his wife together, it was blind luck that connected Laval to Furman football. In 1914, Furman hired W.B. Bible, the brother of famous football coach Dana X. Bible, as its head coach. The reality was that W.B. Bible was an English professor and knew a lot more about adverbs than football.
Bible led the varsity and Laval took charge of the Furman "B Squad," or junior varsity. It was not long before Laval's team was beating the stuffing out of the varsity in scrimmages. Laval's squad also humiliated a Mars Hill freshman team that season by the score of 100-0.
Perhaps figuring that Laval was soon to replace Bible as Furman's varsity coach, school officials sent Laval to the University of Illinois following the 1914 season. He was to learn football under legendary coach Robert Zuppke, whose 1914 team was crowned the national champion. Looking back, it is easy to figure where Laval found many of his ideas for football.
"Zuppke," according to the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia, "is remembered as one of football's most creative thinkers. He invented the huddle, the screen pass, the flea-flicker, spring practice and the spiral snap from center. Zuppke named his offensive plays Razzle Dazzle and the Flying Trapeze and once said his defense was 'on loan from Barnum and Bailey.' "
Early in the 1915 season, Laval assumed the head-coaching duties when Bible departed Furman in a huff. Laval already was coaching the baseball team and was considered an all-year coach at an annual salary of $1,100, which was about the national average at the time.
"The coaching staff was myself, all by my lonesome," Laval told the Greenville News that year. "The student body, which was very small then, must have felt sorry for me as they pounded me on each birthday with flour, meal, sugar, coffee, soap and sometimes a ham."
Laval immediately introduced the "crazy quilt" offense to Furman football. In this set, when the center stood over the ball, the guards were a yard deeper and faced out, with the tackles and ends facing the center at an angle. Two runners stood next to the quarterback in the backfield, and another back stationed himself behind the quarterback.
There were no rules to prevent motion and shifting prior to the center snap, and Laval's club would send as many as five players in motion. Ends moved to the backfield and running backs shifted to the line. Once the ball was snapped, the defense would face mass confusion as the offense went through a series of fake handoffs and feigned carries. Laval loved reverses, double reverses and even triple reverses. Laterals and backward passes were as common as straight handoffs.
"Sometimes we'd start with just five men on the line and six in the backfield, then we'd all shift like crazy - everybody going in a different direction," said Rawl, the Furman quarterback. "Why, we usually had already scored before the opponent figured out who had shifted where."
A 1927 Associated Press story described the offense this way: "This shift called for a spreading and changing of the whole team until the opposing eleven was in a quandary as to where the play would be run."
By 1929, Laval's second season as coach at USC, opposing coaches were calling for rules changes to eliminate the "crazy quilt." Florida's Charles Bachman screamed loudest even though his Gators held Laval's trickery to one touchdown in a 20-7 Florida win. By the end of Laval's USC tenure in 1934, the rules were beginning to change to limit shifts and men in motion.
One formation Laval instituted at Furman was the "Crap Shooters Shift," which really was a precursor to the no-huddle offense. Without a huddle, the quarterback would begin barking signals. Many times, the chatter was all about making the defense prepare for the unknown. More often than not, the quarterback then assembled his team and called a play.
Laval waited until the 1920 Furman game against Clemson to try out his "dive play." Laval asked his star running back, Speedy Speer, "If we got in a situation where we couldn't go around end, couldn't pass, or go through the line, what would you do?"
Laval then went to the chalkboard and drew a play for Speer, a play that called for the guard and tackle on one side of the line to kneel on all fours at the center snap. Speer then would run, plant his cleats in either the guard's or tackle's back and "dive" over the line of scrimmage.
Against Clemson, Speer stepped on the back of guard Lee Rhame and leaped the necessary yard for a first down.
An integral part of the "crazy quilt" offense and its deception was tied to the uniforms Laval designed. A target-like circle covered most of the front of the jersey, with odd-shaped lines and squares within the circle. The idea was that a football could easily be disguised within the jersey.
Uniforms, from the colors to the design, were somewhat of an obsession to Laval, even late in his coaching career. In his final stop, at Newberry, Laval encountered a color-blind quarterback, Hank Witt. This was before football telecasts when both teams wore dark-colored jerseys, which made it particularly difficult for Witt to pick out his receivers. So, Laval came up with jerseys that provided Witt a target - a circle around the numeral in front.
His most famous uniform change occurred at halftime - yes, halftime - of USC's game against Clemson in 1931. Locked in a scoreless tie, Laval had his players discard their gray jerseys and don their "lucky reds." USC outscored Clemson 21-0 in the second half.
Laval broke out his "lucky reds" on several occasions at USC, and he believed luck played a big role in the outcome of contests he coached. That's why he was superstitious to the point of absurdity.
When Furman ran off seven consecutive wins to conclude the 1927 season, Laval wore the same clothing on game days throughout the streak without washing any of it. He sported the same suit - and same underwear - on Jan. 2 when his team won at Miami that he did on Oct. 22 when Furman defeated Erskine.
On the baseball field, his players were not allowed to wash their socks during a winning streak. Doing so meant washing away the good luck. He did not allow crossed bats on a field. He also encouraged his players to rub their bats on the bald head of a trainer throughout his seven years at USC.
There was much more to Laval than crazy formations and silly superstitions. He believed in regiment. Players were well-disciplined if they followed his schedules and bought in to his training habits.
His preseason schedule for workouts was nearly the same from his first year at Furman to his last at Newberry: Rise at 6 a.m., breakfast at 6:15, discussion of rules from 7 to 7:30, field work from 8 to 10, lunch at 1 p.m., field work from 4 to 6:30, and to bed at 10.
He coached before players participated in off-season training. So, prior to every season, Laval wrote letters to each of his players. This was his standard letter:
"I would suggest that you begin now to get in condition, as it will be of great help to you especially during the first two weeks. I would cut out smoking, get at least eight hours sleep (ten would be better) two of which before midnight, eat lots of good simple food, get your legs and wind in shape, let up on hard steady work, in order to store up some reserve strength, and above all report with lots of determination and desire to have one of the best seasons Carolina has had certainly since I have been here."
Laval was a man of few words. He rarely screamed at players and did not believe in the boisterous halftime talk. Rather, he relied on his teaching and communication skills. When he spoke, everyone knew who was in charge of the team.
Yet Laval, with his rough-edged face and large elephant ears, was a welcome sight to his players on campus. Most days, as players strolled from class to class, they could count on Laval to be sitting on the steps to the gymnasium, eating peanuts and ready to engage in the conversation of the day.
Laval had a terrific sense of humor and loved chiding players about their girlfriends or their hometowns. Late in his career, while coaching at Newberry, Laval spoke to the Columbia Touchdown Club and concluded by saying: "If you don't like what I have said here today, you will notice as I leave the room that I have mistletoe tied to my coattails."
That was off the field. On the field, he was all business. Two things he would not tolerate - fumbles and poor quarterback play.
Throughout his coaching career, the punishment for a player fumbling during a game was to tote a football the entire week, 24 hours a day. Laval also had a little Steve Spurrier in him. During the 1930 season at USC, Laval used Bru Boineau at quarterback for three games. Then over the final seven games he used Happy Edens, went back to Boineau, called on Monk Shand and finally used Astor Fleming.
What Laval did more than anything else was win. At Furman, he won big. His Furman football teams won seven South Carolina championships in nine seasons, and that is when the state title might as well have been the national title. His 1927 team went 10-1 with wins over Duke, N.C. State, Wake Forest, USC, Clemson and Miami. The win over Miami was in the Orange Bowl, and was a precursor to that New Year's Day bowl game.
Laval's Furman teams were 7-3 against USC and 6-4-2 against Clemson. Having defeated Clemson four consecutive times and running a streak of five wins against USC, the folks in Columbia had had enough.
At a mid-December banquet to honor his 1927 Furman team, Laval announced he had signed a three-year contract to coach at USC. He was to be the highest paid coach in the state at $8,000 annually, which is equivalent to $97,000 in today's dollars.
Laval immediately was thrown into the fire at USC. After a season-opening win over Erskine before 4,000 fans at Melton Field, Laval took his team north to play mighty Chicago of the Big Ten Conference before 35,000 fans. Chicago was coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Students gathered on Wednesday at the Columbia train station to send their boys off, and a Columbia wholesale house provided boxes of apples for the players. Wearing green uniforms - maybe Laval was seeking Irish good luck? - USC scored in the second quarter on an 8-yard run by Eddie Zobel.
The touchdown held up in USC's 6-0 victory, a stunning showing that the Greenville News touted as a "tremendous help to the prestige of South Carolina football all the way around."
USC celebrated by attending a musical comedy that night, then boarded the 11:30 train back home. When the team arrived in Columbia Monday afternoon, it hit the practice field two hours later.
USC was on its way to a 6-2-2 season, the first of seven consecutive winning seasons for Laval. The Gamecocks won state championships in 1931 and 1933. At the same time, Laval was directing the baseball team to six consecutive winning seasons, although that sport was merely a means for his football players to stay in shape during the off-season.
In the summer of 1932, through connections with a friend in the Lone Star state, Laval helped recruit four members of the Athens, Texas, national high school basketball championship team of 1930. Dana Henderson, Bennie Thompkins, John Rowland and Freddie Thompkins brought the one-hand set shot and fast-paced basketball to Columbia.
While basketball coach Rock Norman liked the idea of having better players on his squad, he did not cotton to moving his own players to the bench. So, Laval had a suggestion: he would coach the team.
Of course, Laval knew little or nothing about basketball. He immediately told one of the holdovers, team captain Buck Smith, that Smith was unlikely to play much. Laval needed Smith's services more on the bench and he was required to sit next to the coach at all times. Smith knew more of the game's strategies than Laval.
Between Smith and Laval, the Texas boys received enough guidance to carry them through a 15-game win streak to conclude the season. The winning streak culminated with victories over Maryland, North Carolina and Duke, and USC claimed the Southern Conference tournament title.
The championship stood as the greatest accomplishment in program history until USC won the 1971 ACC title. A recent re-creation of polls by ESPN and Jeff Sagarin ranked the 1933 Gamecocks as the third best team in the country.
Following the season, Laval returned the head-coaching duties to Norman. Frankly, Laval had more pressing issues with his football program. There was much unrest within the USC athletics department, although most of the turmoil went unnoticed by fans.
The widely held belief over the years is that Laval's stay at USC was short-circuited by his inability to defeat Clemson. The fact is, after losing to Clemson each of his first three tries Laval rebounded to win three straight and finished 3-4 against the Tigers. When USC broke through with a 21-0 win over Clemson in 1931, players carried Laval off the field on their shoulders.
Through a search of documents and letters from the USC Archives, a different picture emerges concerning Laval's departure. It is a story of financial problems within the athletics department that eventually cost it one of its finest coaches.
The department's financial woes began to surface near the conclusion of the 1932 season when USC begged out of its home game against national-power Auburn, which was 9-0 at the time. Based on previous gate receipts that season, USC figured it would lose $5,000 - $4,000 in expenses and $1,000 in guaranteed money to the visitor - by hosting Auburn.
Auburn proposed that the game be played in Birmingham, Ala., and USC would receive a guarantee of $4,000, which is equivalent to $57,000 today. A major uproar followed with USC fans and members of the athletic board screaming that the athletics department was selling out for a payday.
In the end, USC accepted the cash and the game was played in Alabama. As fate would have it, USC tied Auburn and prevented the Tigers from playing in the Rose Bowl. Nevertheless, it was the first sign to Laval that trouble loomed.
Laval's initial contract as coach was renewed for four more years at the same $8,000 annual salary to carry him through the 1933 season. But in the winter of 1933, the athletics department reported an operating deficit of $15,200 and asked Laval to take a pay cut for the 1934 season to $5,000. Laval reluctantly accepted.
At about the same time, the athletics department borrowed $5,000 from the Lower Main Street Bank to cover pressing debts. The department also said it could not pay coaches' salaries after Oct. 1.
Late the following season, the athletics department said the only way to clear a still-standing $15,000 debt was for Laval to accept another pay cut to $3,600 a year. This time, Laval balked, and the school announced on Dec. 20, 1934, that his contract would not be renewed.
Laval headed to Emory and Henry College in Virginia where he coached football, basketball and baseball for two seasons. Then he returned to South Carolina and remained at Newberry until his retirement in 1950. He did not attain near the success at Newberry as at other schools, but he remained one of the most revered coaches in the state.
In retirement from coaching, Laval operated a series of sporting goods stores around the state and worked in the front office of minor-league baseball teams in Rock Hill and Greenwood. Along with his wife, he raised a family of two sons and one daughter. The couple eventually had seven grandchildren.
On May 13, 1955, a $10-a-plate dinner was staged at the Columbia Country Club to honor Laval. More than 300 former players and their wives attended. Among the gifts bestowed on Laval was a lifetime membership to the Greenville Elks Lodge, a television set, a $100 gift certificate for clothing to Grayson's Men Shop in Columbia, an envelope of cash and a football bearing the signatures of those who attended.
There also was the promise of $100 a month to Laval for the next three years. Due to his wife's prolonged illness, Laval had fallen into severe financial straits. Elizabeth Laval died on Nov. 22, 1956. Two months later, on Jan. 20, 1957, Laval died of a heart attack at the Columbia home of his son, Harry Laval.
Laval was buried alongside his wife, the one he won in a bet, at Greenlawn Memorial Park off Leesburg Road. The single gravestone for the couple has the words "together forever" etched on it.
Sprigs of grass now grow over parts of the gravestone. Few of those who played for Laval are still alive. Occasionally, a couple will stroll by in search of a nearby gravestone. There is little reason for any passersby to know that William L. Laval probably touched the lives of thousands of young men in his 35-year coaching career.
To many of those players at Furman, USC and Newberry, Billy Laval served as a second father. To nearly every one who played for him over the years, Laval most certainly was remembered as the greatest coach in the history of South Carolina athletics.