By Dr. Ken 


One of the primary weapons that the University Of Utah had going for it was head coach, “Cactus” Jack Curtice. He had a uniquely intense attention to detail and was willing to put in whatever time was necessary to give his team an advantage. As the head coach of West Texas State in 1940 and ’41, he even wrote the school’s official fight song. From 1942 through ’49 he enhanced his reputation with his offensive tinkering at Texas Western University (later, UTEP). He came to Utah in 1950 and in an area already utilizing the forward pass more frequently than other parts of the nation, opened things up even more. As Curtice explained it, “We operate on the theory of always threatening a pass with the possibility of a run. Most Split-T teams threaten the run with a possibility of a pass. Football that way is not much fun.” The squad took to the new, fast paced attack but still had difficulties in his first season. One assistant noted that Curtice “did not like defense very much” and little time was spent on it during practices. With a newly installed, high flying offense, the defense found itself on the field relatively quickly after stopping the other teams they played, and getting but a brief rest as the offense quickly scored, or gave up the ball. Spending so much time playing defense, especially for what were primarily two-way performers, the Utes often ran out of steam late in games. Junior college transfer guard and kicker Charlie Kalani, who later starred in the wrestling ring and in both television and movies as Professor Tanaka, helped the ’51 turnaround to 7-4 with clutch kicking and the Indians offense was off and running. Utah football lucked out when chosen as one of the NCAA’s mandatory nationally televised teams. On November 26, 1953, the entire nation was treated to a barnburner as the Indians faced off against rival BYU. The 33-32 Utah victory was a see-saw battle that went down to the final second and it is believed that it was the excitement generated from that one game that earned Utah their big-break game against Army in ’57.


The Utes offense also earned them the attention of the University Of Washington’s freshman quarterback Lee Grosscup.  Caught in the middle of intra-staff squabbling that caused a player revolt at Washington and the departure of many of their California based players, Grosscup gained acclaim in his first season of eligibility at Utah in 1957. The team’s charged offense heightened the interest of fans for the Army game where Utah would make its first east coast appearance.  Curtice brought more than Grosscup with him as his backfield included 147 pound speedster Stuart Vaughan and future NFL great Larry Wilson. The 39-33 Utah loss was seen by most sportswriters as a powerful victory for the school, the Rockies, Grosscup, and Curtice.




To this day, older fans still consider this as a major “victory” for what was then a fledgling program relative to the national scene. They countered the Army’s powerful rushing attack with non-stop passing that brought scoring to the very last play of the game. That the wide open attack that garnered 316 yards through the air, so rarely seen in that era, could almost upset the grind-‘em-out Army approach was well appreciated by the nation’s press. A significant part of the Utah arsenal was their “Utah Pass.”        


Although he had utilized this play since taking over at Utah, and Grosscup in later years commented, “You’d think that I invented the play”, the truth was that Curtice lifted it from the 1920’s Stanford playbook of the illustrious Pop Warner.  The Utah Pass was an overhand pitch, frequently described during the 1957 and ’58 seasons as a “shot put” type of pass that was utilized as a cross between a delayed handoff and a screen pass. As Grosscup would fade back and one of the running backs would slip past the onrushing defensive linemen, he would “shovel” or “shot put” the football to the back who often had a wide open path ahead towards the opponent’s goal. The Utah Pass was one of the first components of what became the “West Coast Offense,” utilizing the pass as other teams would a handoff, to gain yardage.



Utah halfback Stu Vaughan and quarterback Lee Grosscup took aim at Army and almost completed the upset of the 1957 season


It also served the purpose of a screen pass, giving pause to the defensive line rush, an important counter measure for a pass oriented offense. Curtice had Grosscup utilize it often and effectively and the game against the mighty Army team brought it to national attention. Coincidentally, the modern renaissance of Utah football that occurred when Urban Meyer became the Utes’ head coach in 2003 was closely linked to the revival of his version of the Utah Pass. Meyer, Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year in 2003 and Eddie Robinson and Home Depot National Coach of the Year in 2004 after an undefeated season, utilized what was then an innovative spread offense featuring motion and what some referred to as “long handoffs” in the form of a short passing game. The Utah Pass, often thrown off of a run option, was a key component that served him at least as well as it did Jack Curtice and was widely copied. Of course, many sportswriters and broadcasters had forgotten or never realized that this was “old hat” and as noted in Part One of this article, to be expected within the context of the offensive plan!



The ’57 season was a bit of a disappointment for Utah. Grosscup always contended that the team “could have been 10 – 0” but suffered a psychological let down against Denver University while dropping non-conference games to Idaho and Colorado. Curtice took his offensive genius to Stanford in 1958 [see HELMET HUT

http://www.helmethut.com/College/Stanford/SUindex.html ]  and Grosscup would move on to the New York Giants as their number one draft pick in 1959. His professional career was a disappointment but Grosscup penned one of the first of the “insider’s look” books on his frustrating stay with the Giants and completed his career with the AFL New York Titans before becoming a broadcaster.  Utah football has had highs and lows which have included the development of numerous professional players and they remain competitive in the PAC 12 Conference. The Utah Pass, almost never referred to as anything but “The Shovel Pass,” lives on in the spread offenses utilized by the majority of teams from the high school through pro levels, but its origin and “true identity” lies with the University Of Utah.