A Word from the Coach: Football Through the Past 60 Years

In 1956, football was bunched up compared to the wide-open styles and formations the game is played out today. The formations were wide open in the sense that most teams had a split end, although many like USC came out in two tight ends as a general rule. There were usually three men in the backfield: a quarterback, halfback and fullback with the other back split out as a flanker or a wingback, just behind and outside the tight end. The single wing was still flourishing and teams like UCLA and Tennessee ran the formation roughshod over their opponents. It was power against power, and incidentally, players lined up on both sides of the ball, playing offense and defense. In some cases the most valuable player, the quarterback would be substituted for, but in others, that quarterback might also be the starting safety. The Heisman Trophy winner was usually a two-way player who starred as an offensive player.

In the early 60’s pro football began to attract spectators in numbers, but still took a backseat to the college game, which featured mostly running offenses complemented by a passing game that was growing in competency and crowd appeal. The rules allowed blocking below the waist and up to and sometimes after the whistle. College linemen on both sides of the ball might weigh in less than 210 pounds; a player weighing 230 or more was a novelty; players could not afford to be heavy as they played both ways on offense and defense. Most defensive players learned to tackle using their head in the helmet to “face up” with the ball carrier. There was heavy emphasis on building up the neck to protect the tackler and you could tell a defensive player from an offensive player by the scar across the bridge of his nose and the indentation on his forehead. Tackling techniques then had the defender drive his helmet (with his head up) into the sternum of the ball carrier, stopping his momentum and standing him up so his teammates could “clean up” with a “gang tackle.”

There was only one black player in the Southwest Conference: Prentice Gaut of Oklahoma and there were no black players in the Southeast Conference, where a large population of African Americans reside. Syracuse, with the great Ernie Davis and a couple other black players, was invited to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl, but the invitation stopped there as Davis and his teammates were prevented from staying at the same hotel as the white players in Dallas. Football seemed to be a stage where the pain of integration was played for all to see.

In the 70’s television began to influence the game with big money payouts, mostly to the top-tier teams that commanded the attention of sponsors and networks. The rich got richer and the small-market teams lacking national prominence stayed in the background as the Big 10 and Southwest Conference dominated on and off the field. In 1970 John McKay hooked up with another Hall-of-Fame coach, Bear Bryant, to arrange a home and home series between USC and Alabama with the first game to be played on the Crimson Tide’s home turf. Bryant explained to McKay that he knew the time had come for integration and that a football game featuring a powerful team from the west coast that was populated with a number of outstanding black football players might get the attention of the fans and his school’s administration that things needed to change. McKay agreed to the game and the Trojans went to Birmingham where they ran all over the Crimson Tide. As Bryant expected, with a humiliating defeat to a team with many black players, folks in Alabama (everyone except Governor George Wallace) realized that if they wanted to continue winning football games it wasn’t going to be with all-white teams. From then on, Bryant was able to recruit more and more black student-athletes and competition being what it is, the rest of the conference soon followed suit. As an aside, the following year in Los Angeles, Bryant surprised McKay and the Trojans with the unveiling of the wishbone formation in an upset win over USC.

Pro football was also gaining in popularity, mostly because of colorful players and the increasing development of the passing game. Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Joe Namath and other quarterbacks torched enemy secondaries that often featured all-white defensive backs. The speed and skills of players was evolving at a fast rate and were made more so by the influx of super athletes who were now getting a chance to play college football for schools that had never allowed African Americans to play, let alone attend school.

Teams featured multiple formations, utilizing men in motion to force defenses to adjust and cover receivers and backs that were lined up the whole width of the football field. Blocking was beginning to change as well, moving from a shoulder blocking game to more with the use of the hands, which caused an increase in holding calls by officials and headaches for coaches.

In the 1980’s, option offenses, featuring a running quarterback who could also pass effectively, ran up big numbers in the college game; but the pros, with heavy investments in their quarterbacks, kept them passing and handing off. Injuries to pro quarterbacks could pretty much eliminate a team for the season. Coaches like Don Coryell at San Diego and Bill Walsh at San Francisco had their teams throwing the ball a majority of the time, stretching defenses to the limit with their ability to match up a wide variety of receivers, including running backs, on defenders that seemingly could not defend both the run and pass to the degree necessary. Defenses began to use more than four defensive backs in passing situations and featured bizarre blitzes designed to quick strike and confuse the offense.

In the next two decades the rules regarding holding on blocking and defender’s use of their hands on the receivers in pass situations were relaxed and the result was a dramatic increase in offensive productivity and statistics—both of which delighted television sponsors and viewers who enjoyed higher scores and more dramatic games. As the scores went up, so did the salaries of everyone involved except the college players, who were constrained by an ever-increasing NCAA rulebook that seemed to grow like the IRS tax code. As college presidents and alumni enjoyed the fruits of victory such as gate receipts, television income and alumni donations, there were more cases of cheating in recruiting, attracting, and retaining star players. It came to pass, that there was so very much to be gained by winning and coaches began to make good to outlandish money putting their charges through their paces.

College freshman became eligible to play varsity football in the early 70’s and the days of freshman teams went by the wayside, eliminating the class loyalty and structure of an incoming group of players who would all graduate together, hopefully, four or five years later. Now, highly rated high school players finish high school in the winter of their senior year so they can go to their college team in time for spring football. The most talented come to school without the deep attachments freshman football players used to develop; instead, they have the dream of “leaving early for the NFL, it’s all about me.”

Lately their have been major rules changes, most coming from a realization that bigger, stronger, and faster athletes were hitting each other too hard, incurring too many serious injuries, especially concussions to the head. The rules now protect a player from being targeted while in a “defenseless position” while catching a pass or chasing a ball carrier. Pro football has been confronted with many lawsuits by former players who have suffered dementia, Parkinson’s and other brain-related conditions, most likely brought on by playing when injured or having severe blows to the head and neck while playing the game. It is to the point that at many levels, the numbers of young people going out to play football are diminishing because of the concerns of parents and players who fear the long-term effects of concussions.

The formation of rage in college football currently is the spread offense that features a quarterback in a shotgun position with one or less running backs next to him while four wide receivers (and more, if tight ends are substituted) force the defense to spread to cover the passing possibilities. Spreading the defense means that there are fewer players to defend the running game that needs only one back and a quarterback who can run the zone read option to run up yards and touchdowns in a big hurry. Nothing in football is completely new—the spread was first run in the 1930’s by a small high school in Texas that featured undersized orphans playing against teams with bigger and better players. After a year or two, the orphans were playing for the state championship backed by an offense that could open the field and set up opportunities for quick little guys to get the better of big guys who lacked the discipline and skill to defend the wide-open spread.

Money rules football now, the first “Super Bowl” (called the World Championship between the NFL and the original American Football League) was played to a smaller crowd in the Los Angeles Coliseum who paid ten dollars a head to get in the game. Today, tickets to the Super Bowl can cost thousands of dollars and a 30-second television commercial commands four million dollars because it is the top-rated televised program of the year.

There are pressures at the college level too, as schools compete to have “world class” facilities, which at the University of Oregon, features heated toilet seats in the football training complex. The jury is still out as to whether that helps the Ducks play better defense or not. Games are televised at all times of the day and not just on Saturday. Some conferences have their teams play on Thursday, Friday, nights, and some holidays just to “feed the pig” with television money earned for providing some relatively inexpensive drama for the network’s television buffet. Sports bars love it as do millions of football junkies who now can see the entire college football world from sea to shining sea every weekend of the season, as long as they can stay awake that long.

Look for more of the same in the season and years ahead. Some predict that a bubble is growing to the point that there will be a financial cliff football may face as competing sports, excessive costs with diminishing rewards and fewer kids wanting to play the game will curtail the growth we see today. You might see a return to one platoon football in order to cut costs, players might get paid for their services or colleges will put the brakes on the outrageous costs that the current sport demands. As long as colleges have homecoming rallies and bonfires, and the pros have betting, football will remain the popular vehicle for tradition and excitement. When those events begin to be curtailed, watch out, that bell tolls for thee.

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