That was fun.
Bob Stitt had become sort of an Internet Bigfoot, someone about whom we'd frequently talk but never see. We knew his general offensive philosophy, and we knew he's famous for spread funkiness, but since his Colorado School of Mines squad is in Division II, we never actually got to watch it for ourselves.
On Thursday night, however, we caught a glimpse. For the first time since 2011, Stitt's Orediggers played on national television; CBS Sports Network cameras were on hand in Durango as Mines played Fort Lewis, John L. Smith's team. Smith's Skyhawks had just ended Colorado State-Pueblo's 42-game regular season winning streak, but they had no answers whatsoever for the Mines attack. The Orediggers gained 662 yards, scored touchdowns on each of the first four possessions, and cruised to a 56-14 win. Fort Lewis probably should have scheduled Homecoming for last week.
Okay, so Stitt's offense had a good evening in Durango. What is Stitt's offense? You can find old highlights on YouTube, but that's typically only for the good plays. What about the run-of-the-mill five-yarders on first down? What does the Stitt offense actually do from snap to snap?
The short answer: everything.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed Stitt for my book, Study Hall. Both because it's a good question to get coaches talking and because I mostly had no idea, I asked him what made his offense different than anybody else's.
"I'm not sure how my stuff differs from some spread guys. It's my stuff, and I came up with it.
"This system is so quarterback-friendly, I think it would thrive at any level. I try to take the responsibility of the protections and checking plays away from the QB -- he just has to make a good decision based on what the defense is doing. He may have four options based on one run play.
"Our passing game, and our run game -- it works against everything. Some teams will ask, 'What's your favorite cover 3 beater?' Well how the heck would I know they're gonna run a cover 3 and call this certain pass play?' My plays have a man route, a zone route, shallow, deep. It's the QB's job to recognize the coverage and go after it. I'm not really that into what the defenses are doing. The script accounts for all possibilities."
Fourth downs are offensive plays
On Mines' second drive on Thursday night, the Orediggers elected to go for it on fourth-and-2 from their 41. The odds are in an offense's favor on fourth-and-short, and Stitt simply trusts his personnel to make short gains when it needs to. With Fort Lewis blitzing and covering short routes, Justin Dvorak lobbed the ball to a wide-open Cole Spurgeon for a 53-yard gain. Mines scored two plays later.
Mines went four-for-five on fourth down on Thursday night and is now 19-for-25 for the season. Only three FBS teams have attempted even 20 fourth downs this year -- two are coached by Art Briles and Mike Leach (Baylor and Washington State, respectively), and one has done so out of sheer desperation (SMU).
"I treat fourth-down conversions as a turnover," Stitt told me in 2012. "We were 58 percent on fourth down [in 2012], went for 36 of them. Our opponents went for 18. We’re a lot higher percentage than 58 when it’s fourth-and-5 or less. I’ll even go for it on fourth-and-8 when it’s a situation where we’re on the 50 or their 40.
"That’s a turnover! If you get it, it’s like the defense just got you the ball on their 50-yard line. We’ve got to be able to have confidence as an offense that -– hey, when we get around the 50, Coach is gonna go for it – and the defense has to have it in their head that, hey, they’re gonna go for it, and if they don’t get it, we have to get excited and make sure the opponent doesn’t get points out of it.
"Man oh man, it’s horrible for the opponent’s defense to get you on third down, and they’re all cheering, and then they stay out there. ‘Oh no, we’ve gotta stop them again.’ And then you get the first down. If it’s third-and-long, the QB knows to take what the defense gives them because Coach is probably going for it on fourth."
A little bit of everything
Creating an offense that is all things to everyone -- a Cheesecake Factory offense, of sorts -- seems too good to be true. But damned if the Mines attack didn't actually seem to account for all possibilities, and in a not-particularly gimmicky way.
This isn't an offense full of trick plays. Mines utilizes a variety of spread formations (all of them, basically) and employs motion as a way to both identify a defense's coverage and get the defense to over-think. A given play might establish a receiver screen set up on one side (with one receiver taking a step backwards to receive a ball and another preparing to block the closest man), another deeper route combination on the other side, and a run option up the middle. The quarterback's job is simply to identify what the defense is giving him and take it. If that means handing to the running back 20 times, so be it. If it means passing 60 times, that's fine too. The options allow for you to call the same play countless times, and it allows the quarterback to read and react.
This offense is efficient with opportunities for explosiveness. It is complicated and packed with simple decisions. It is delicious.
It helps that Mines' receivers were better than Fort Lewis' defensive backs. Lewis was able to clog running lanes and attack the line of scrimmage at times, but the elusiveness of quarterback Dvorak and the ability of receivers like Diamond Gillis, Spurgeon, and Jimmy Ellis to make reasonably difficult catches helped him out. You hear "Xs and Os vs. Jimmies and Joes" a lot, but you need both to make this stuff work.
He might not always have this much confidence in his personnel, and he might not always have Dvorak's level of play-making ability at quarterback (Dvorak, by the way: only a sophomore). But he's got it right now, and he's taking full advantage.
Bob Stitt has it pretty good at the moment. Mines is healthy, deep, experienced, and 7-0. The Orediggers are on the brink of the Division II top 10 again and are clearly on another upswing. His 15 years at Mines have seen ups and downs based on the quality of the personnel, injuries, etc. -- 32-14 from 2001-04, 17-17 from 2005-07, 33-13 from 2008-11, 6-5 in 2012 -- and since the start of 2013, they're now 15-3.
At a school with absurdly rigorous academic demands (both in terms of admissions standards and classwork), his recruiting opportunities are limited, but he has figured out ways to recruit as well as possible.
And in a tough Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, he's managed to win or share two conference titles (the Oregdiggers' first since 1958) and finish second four times. If he stays in Golden for the rest of his career, he'll end up with the stadium named after him. The school's athletic facilities are improving, in part because of the wins and interest he has generated, and he's always got scenery on his side.
Stitt has the look of a man content with life.
"People ask me why I've stayed here so long," he said. "I tell them, 'Why don't you come up here and see me?'"
With that, Stitt spreads his arms to frame a panoramic snapshot of the breathtaking foothills, the ones surrounding tons of metal and concrete that soon will turn into a football office with one heck of a view.
So yeah, he doesn't have to go anywhere. But I think curiosity will get to him at some point. As he told me two years ago, "I really wouldn't want to retire someday having not coached at that [FBS] level and seen if my stuff would continue to thrive. It has at every other level. I think it would be fun to get some kids who can really run and see what we can do."
Stitt grew up in Tecumseh, Nebraska, about two and a half hours from Lawrence, Kansas. If you pick up the phone, KU, he might answer it.