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What Does the Multiflex Mean?

Behind the Scenes With Harvard's Much-Heralded But Little-Understood Offense

By Jeffrey R. Toobin

The man slices the air with his hands as he talks, shaping some invisible sculpture of an idea, one that he sees with absolute clarity. His head does not move, nor his eyes. Joe Restic is talking about his Multiflex offense, a subject he attacks with the fervor of a zealot.

"The defense doesn't make any difference. We control it. It's a guessing game with the defense," he sighs, and almost chuckles. "It's not a guessing game with us. We always have the advantage." No uncertainty squeezes into his voice--Joe Restic, now in his tenth year as Harvard football coach, has found what he is looking for.

What he has found is an offensive system that has alternately exhilirated, frustrated but most often confused nearly a generation of Harvard football fans. Fans mock the Multiflex when Harvard loses, hail Restic as the great innovator when Harvard wins. Whatever the outcome, however, everyone has an opinion about the Multiflex--even though no one seems to know what it is, or even what the word means.

The system was born before the word. Restic had been at Harvard five years when, in preparation for an ABC regional broadcast, he was explaining his offensive philosophy to announcer Lee Grosscup. "He asked me to describe what we're doing," Restic recalls now, "and I said we're talking about being flexible and we're multiple. He said, 'It's multiple and it's flexible,' so I said, 'Yeah, it's multiflex,' and he said it was a good name."

So, after a lifetime of total immersion in football, Restic not only had a system but a name for it, too. Multiflex had the requisite crypto-military football sound, and it stuck. To understand--or, more realistically, to begin to understand--what that union of multiple and flexible means, one must consider Restic's football background.

After two years as an end, halfback and punter with the Philadelphia Eagles, Restic worked as an assistant coach at a variety of Eastern colleges until, in 1962, he went north to take over as offensive coach of the Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger Cats. The Canadian game etched itself in Restic's football mind. A peculiar, high-scoring hybrid, the CFL employs a set of rules distinct from either the pro or college game. The field is longer and wider, 110 by 75 yards, as opposed to 100 by 55 yards here; each team gets only three downs; more than one man in motion is allowed before the snap. In short, razzledazzle. Remember that word. Restic did.

"The three-down system means one thing," Restic says. "You have to put the ball in the air to control it. I saw the possibilities."

In 1970, John Yovicsin quit after rejuvenating the Crimson in his 16-year tenure. Harvard went coach hunting, and eventually settled on this complete unknown from the North, whom one member of the search committee called the "best football mind in North America." Since then, Restic says, the Multiflex has changed little. But despite his repeated protestations that the system, at its core, is "very simple," neither Restic nor his top quarterbacks has ever been able to tie it up in a neat one-sentence package.

Essentially, this is the Multiflex: Restic believes he can convert the best instincts of a defense--instincts that normally serve a defense well--into advantage for his offense. By changing formations on every play, by setting several men in motion before the snap, he forces the defense to react to several changes before the play has even started, leaving the opponents confused and vulnerable. The coach's favorite phrase for the effect of the Multiflex is that it "negates defensive ability." And, Restic says, "The better the football player, the more the ability is negated." He explains: "Because when you take good people who instinctively play the game well, they never want to make a mistake. They see our offensive set, they read it well and react to it."

But they don't get what they think they see. At the core of the Multiflex is the assumption that an offense can take an unstoppable advantage in a play before the ball is snapped. And the way to do that is with men in motion. Men in motion have become so much a part of Harvard football-indeed all football-that it's easy to forget how revolutionary an idea this was not too long ago. A 1972 article on Restic in Harvard Magazine reflects a widely-shared amazement: "Against Princeton, Restic had an end in motion. In the Brown game, the backs and ends began shifting before each play." Men in motion were news in those days.

The absence of a standard "look" from play to play renders the Multiflex difficult to define or even see on a given play, but the myriad variety of combinations is the whole point: Restic will borrow sets or even entire plays from a veer, or Wishbone or Power I offenses, but will never stay with one formation long enough to allow the defense to know what to expect. As he talks about it, Restic grows animated, actually improvising a play-by-play analysis of the havoc wreaked on a defense: "The ball's coming, they don't know where. You're running the football, they're running for coverage. We set in motion, we change the set, they're running, they're scrambling," As Carm Cozza, Yale's coach for 16 years and a man who has burned and been burned by the Multiflex, says, "When we play Harvard, we have to be ready to defend the United States."

And when it works, the system can glide and accelerate like a Ferrari. The Multiflex at its best can be elegant football. Plays like Harvard's second touchdown in the 1971 35-16 victory over Yale still warm hearts. With the ball on the Yale 29, Restic put his quarterback, Eric "End Zone" Crone, at tailback while Rod Foster called signals. But Foster backed off the ball at the line of scrimmage and the snap went back to Crone, who rolled out and found Dennis Sullivan deep in the endzone for a score. Or, for a more contemporary example, Brian Buckley's 67-yd touchdown run against Army last Saturday, a perfect combination of the right runner and the right blocks-in short, the right play.

However, Restic marks Nov. 15, 1975 as the system's finest day, when, en route to its one and only undisputed Ivy League championship, Harvard defeated Brown, 45-26 Quarterback Jim Kubacki completed 15 out of 18 passes for 289 yds., two yds. short of Jim Stoeckel' snow-broken single-game passing record. The team had everything--a great quarterback, a flashy wide receiver-Jim Curry-and a superb interior lineman, Danny Jiggets, now with the Chicago Bears. But for all the fine performances, it was the quarterback's day and Restic's selection of it as the Multiflex's finest hour illustrates that his is a quarterback's offense.

The Multiflex lives or dies with the quarterback. Restic says solemnly, "The quarterback has to understand what we're trying to accomplish." Though Restic calls many plays, the final decision about what will happen to the ball rests with the quarterback. Restic uses what he calls "playomatics," two plays selected together in the huddle, narrowed to one by the quarterback calling signals at the line of scrimmage. For example, one current playomatic calls for a sweep to a halfback. If the quarterback reads a zone defense and yells out "zone" while calling signals, then the halfback continues around right end. But if he sees the defense is playing man-to-man, the quarterback will call out "man" and the halfback will know that he is supposed to throw a forward pass back to the quarterback in the flat. "Only two possibilities," Restic says, "what could be simpler?"

And therein, perhaps, is the problem. While the play sounds simple, it is enormously difficult to execute. Few disparage the logic behind the Multiflex, but in an area where success and failure can be measured with perfect accuracy--i.e. wins and losses--the system has proved only a moderate success, and, for the past three years, not very successful at all. Since 1976, Harvard football is 11-15-1; Restic steadfastly maintains the system is not at fault. The coach says all of the system's problems stem from personnel fallibility: "The only time it [the Multiflex] doesn't go is when we negate it." And Restic has seen his system negated in a staggering variety of ways.

There are the simple, obvious mistakes: "You negate it if you jump offside--if you're offside, it doesn't matter what you do." (In fact, penalties have plagued Restic's Harvard teams since he arrived. The complicated plays and formations tend always to see Harvard receive much more than its share of delay-of-game, offside and, of course, man-in-motion penalties.) There are the less obvious mistakes: "Every time I look at the game films I see the receivers we missed and the plays we could have made." Of course injuries have occasionally crippled Restic teams, most notably last year, when Harvard lost four quarterbacks during one six-game losing stretch. Perhaps the bitter experience of last year prompted Restic to add to his list of potential disasters for the Multiflex, "You can't have disruption at the quarterback position; I don't care what system you're using."

For all the mixed results he has seen, Restic maintains an almost eerie confidence in the Multiflex. He says definitively, "When it doesn't work, I say to you we have negated it--it's not because we don't have a tremendous advantage." He sprinkles the phrase "tremendous advantage" liberally through his description of the offense. The confidence is so absolute that it seems natural to ask whether he has ever wondered how the Multiflex might work with the best players in the country. He replies quickly, eagerly: "Unbelievable. No doubt in my mind." So does he want to go big time? "I never close my eyes to anything. But I never look beyond where I am at the moment." He has refused to comment on the possibility that he might be asked to succeed Dan Devine at Notre Dame.

Yet despite Restic's innovations and their considerable concomitant publicity, the word Multiflex became truly well-known in the spring of 1979, when a certain Kirkland House independent study seminar debuted. Called "Fundamentals of the Multiflex," and taught by Larry Brown '79, then a senior and still Harvard's all-time passing leader, the course became something of a symbol of the less-than-substantial intellectual rigor associated with independent work courses. (The rules were tightened shortly after the course was reported in the national press, but Dean Rosovsky still manages to throw a mispronounced dig at the course in his annual speech to freshman.) And for all the negative publicity the course received, that there even was a course gave the Multiflex a little intellectual cachet--it really must be complicated if someone could get credit for it.

So the word of the Multiflex spread, and as Brown, disciple of the word according to Restic, says, "What coach has been doing for ten years, they've only been going in the NFL for about two or three years. Teams like the Cowboys don't use the Multiflex, but they use the same principals he's used." Indeed the Multiflex may not seem as radical as it once did, not because Restic has grown conservative in his 54th year, but because other teams, both college and pro, have started to see some of the same things. Still a long way from an orthodoxy--Restic's occasionally empty backfields and triple slots still cause heads to shake in wonder--the Multiflex has become a standard, a given.

Restic knows the best possible publicity his system could receive would be an Ivy championship, and his chances this year seem as good as they have been since 1976. Even if the Crimson doesn't come up with the title, the loss will not shake the coach's faith in his system. Joe Restic believes in the Multiflex with the intensity of a professor's committment to a pet theory. If others remain mystified by the relentless scamperings of 11 red jerseys on the turf of Harvard Stadium, Restic will try to explain once more--and maybe offer a little sympathy. After all, of Professor Brown's course, coach Restic said, "You won't begin to cover the Multiflex in one semester."

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