50 years later, 1968 team remembers championship season

Members of the 1968 Troy State Red Wave national championship football team recently reunited at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Members of the 1968 Troy State Red Wave national championship football team recently reunited at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Long before the days of Madden NFL video games, Sim Byrd and the Troy State Red Wave were lighting up score boards across the southeast with numbers that defied logic in route to the school’s first national championship.

As members of that 1968 NAIA championship team gathered for a reunion at Veterans Memorial Stadium the night before TROY’s victory over Florida A&M, they reflected back on the innovative approach that led them to their historic achievement.

Along with a turnover-hungry defense, the Red Wave made their mark with a blistering offensive attack, scoring 30 or more points in 11 of 12 games that season.

Quarterback Sim Byrd set the record books ablaze by throwing for more than 3,500 yards and an unbelievable 41 touchdowns in an era more known for smash-mouth running attacks.

For comparison, the NCAA’s top passer that year was Cincinnati’s Greg Cook, who threw for just 25 touchdowns.

That ahead-of-its-time offensive approach came from the mind of Head Coach Billy Atkins, a former NFL player who brought to Troy State passing concepts he’d learned in the professional ranks.

“I was very fortunate,” said Byrd, who still holds the TROY record for touchdown passes in a season. “We played an offense where we were so far ahead of everybody else, Coach Atkins brought a whole new atmosphere. We were running a style of what would be known as the West Coast Offense.”

Offensive Coordinator Max Howell was a 25-year-old assistant at the time and played a key role in implementing a system that was unusually sophisticated for the Southeast at the time.

“Billy Atkins brought that from the NFL,” Howell said. “I got caught on the sidelines a half dozen times in ‘68 with opposing coaches and officials saying we were running illegal plays. They just had never seen that before. We’d be running two backs out the backside, we’d throw to the wheel route — boom! — touchdown. It was really fun.”

Much of the system’s success hinged on the abilities of Byrd to orchestrate it and his playmaking receivers to attack the ball.

“I don’t know of anybody in this area that ran an offense like that,” said Tommy Brewer, who served as a student scout team coach. “It was pretty much what the San Francisco 49ers were running at the time.  A lot of it was short, drop-back passes. Sim was a magician in getting rid of the ball really quick, which was key. Our receivers, if they went up with someone else to get the ball, they came down with it. They were fighters, just like Coach Atkins.”

Byrd and many of his Red Wave teammates had prior experience at Southeastern Conference programs like Georgia, Alabama and Auburn, but it was at TROY that they were exposed to many of these advanced concepts.

“We did a pretty good job cherry picking some of the best talent around the Southeast,” Howell said. “We took the playbook from the NFL and narrowed it down to about 10 pages. It might have been 200 to start with. These kids gave their heart and soul and bought into the program. The innovation that took place was impressive. Once they caught onto the system, they could change plays in the huddle or change plays on the sideline.”

That freewheeling approach appealed to Byrd’s backup, Al Head, who was a freshman in the championship season.

“It was a pro-style offense, and it took other teams and defenses a pretty long time to figure out what we were doing,” said Head, who threw for seven touchdowns that season. “Coach Atkins’ biggest strength was preparation. We put a lot of points on the board. We basically called our own plays. Coach Atkins drilled in the situations to us so much that I’d guess 80 to 90 percent of the plays we called, which was a really fun situation to have there.”

That preparation included seven-on-seven drills, which are common today but were less known in the 1960s, another advancement Atkins introduced that the players latched onto.

“We threw the ball a lot, and I was fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of great athletes to make that possible,” Byrd said. “We were so far advanced. Nowadays they have seven-on-seven tournaments and games. Well, we were doing seven-on-sevens in 1966. They talk West Coast Offense, well, we were running a style of the West Coast Offense.”

Fifty years later, the bond forged by the teammates during those practices and games remains as strong as ever.

“The ability to get all these guys together going in the same direction, it was like a steamroller and something I’ll always remember,” Byrd said. “It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. It seems like it was just yesterday. I think we were part of laying the foundation of what we’re seeing today. I speak for each and every one of these guys when I say we’re so proud to be a part of that. We put the cement floor down, and we’re thankful to be part of that.”