In hindsight, proponents of college football's controversial and now-tabled 10-second defensive substitution proposal really could have used the services of Frank Underwood, the conniving, power-hungry congressman-turned-vice president on House of Cards. Or, perhaps they could have retained a high-paid Washington campaign consultant. Because the frenzy that both overtook the sport's coaching fraternity and riled up its constituencies these past few weeks had all the elements of a heated political election -- complete with Arizona's amusing version of an attack ad.
From the beginning, the NCAA Football Rules Committee's proposal was indisputably clunky -- A delay of game for moving too fast? -- and inevitably figured to be unpopular among a viewing public transfixed by flashy, high-scoring offenses. But purported player-safety champions Nick Saban and Bret Bielema did not necessarily commit their biggest misstep inside the Indianapolis meeting room where coaches and officials crafted the proposal. That came immediately afterward, when they unwittingly allowed their opponents to frame the narrative.
No sooner had the press release gone out than reporters like me were calling coaches for responses. Rarely have coaches returned reporters' calls more quickly than hurry-up proponents did in the subsequent 48 hours. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, Baylor's Art Briles, Washington State's Mike Leach, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury and Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze, among others, were quick to go on the offensive upon learning that a proposal threatening their modus operandi was not only real, but also already one step from approval. While not a coordinated effort, these coaches generally trotted out variations of the following common talking points.
• We were blindsided by this.
• The coaches pushing this proposal have an agenda.
• Where's the data?
Many of those same reporters also reached out to Saban and Bielema, the lone high-profile coaches to previously raise concerns about the issue publicly. Both chose to remain quiet, as is their prerogative. But for more than a week the lone spokesmen on behalf of the proposal were Air Force coach and committee chairman Troy Calhoun and Louisiana-Monroe coach and committee member Todd Berry, both mid-major coaches with far less cachet than those speaking out against it. In interviews, Calhoun largely echoed the statement from the original press release about player safety, but even he had to admit that there was no quantitative research driving the proposal.
So, emboldened by a slew of unusually blunt accusations from hurry-up coaches, fans and media alike took up conspiracy theories and ran with them. Don't you see? Saban, Bielema and company don't give a hoot about player safety. They're scared. Saban doesn't want to be outmaneuvered by Gus Malzahn's Auburn offense again. Bielema's a curmudgeon who hands off 50 times a game. The only thing missing was Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow to fan the flames.
By the time the two old-school SEC coaches finally did speak, their villainous motives had widely been accepted as fact. Their critics were waiting to pounce. And Bielema played right into their hands when, while speaking at an Arkansas booster function, he invoked Cal player Ted Agu's recent death during an offseason workout and brusquely declared "death certificates" as the only proof he needed that a rule change was in order. The tweets of his comments quickly went viral. Call it college football's version of Mitt Romney's leaked "47 percent" comment during the 2012 presidential campaign.
When Saban finally broke his silence to reporters, he did so in typical Saban fashion -- with smart, thought-out responses indicating he'd clearly done his research on pace-of-play. But he also distanced himself from what Steve Spurrier had dubbed "The Saban Rule." He stated: "I had nothing to do with the idea of the 10-second rule."
As it turns out, that may in fact be true. Rogers Redding, the NCAA's coordinator of officiating, has said in multiple interviews that the committee had already crafted the proposal by the time Saban -- as an interested observer -- addressed the group. But the mere fact that he, of all coaches, made an appearance had long since fueled the conspiracy flames.
Which brings us to another strategic fail by these purportedly noted strategists: The player-safety advocates failed to demonstrate a consistent message as to what they're trying to prevent. Bielema and Calhoun's primary concern seemed to be the inability to substitute for a potentially distressed player, with Bielema emphasizing his experiences coaching players with sickle cell trait. Saban seemed more concerned about "exposures," the arguably common-sense notion that a higher number plays per game produces more opportunities for injury. Bielema made the more specific case for why there should be a defensive substitution period, but his alarmist streak came off as manipulative. Saban did a better job channeling concerns from many in the medical community about the increased risk of head injuries that may result from exposure to more plays, but he never attempted to explain why this particular proposal was the proper solution. As many have noted, one could achieve the same goal by shortening the length of quarters, or by letting the clock run after first downs.
Just like in politics, those on both sides of the debate could tailor just about anything to fit their point. Hurry-up proponents like Rodriguez latched on to a study by CFB Matrix showing that conferences with teams that ran more plays actually lost fewer starts to injuries. While admirable research, it does not establish causation either way, yet that did not stop various Twitter users from positing that, hey, maybe faster offenses lead to better-conditioned players, thereby resulting in fewer injuries. By contrast, there is at least one published study that tracked two contrasting high school teams over the course of a season and found that the traditional "run-first" team sustained more head injuries than the modern "pass-first" team. But you're not likely to hear about that from the Saban and Bielema camp.
Now that it's out in the public domain, this hurry-up/player-safety debate isn't likely to go away, even after this particular proposal didn't make it to the floor. On the contrary, all parties involved now have a year to prepare their ammunition for next year's rules-change cycle, should they choose to pursue the issue. The next logical study, should someone opt to commission it, would be for medical experts to spend a season embedded with both a hurry-up team (say, Arizona) and a slower-paced team (say, Stanford). They could track not only the teams' total number of head injuries, but also those of the opposing defenses, and note the amount of game time without a break that elapsed before each occurred. That way, we'd have more definitive evidence in determining whether a rule change is in order.
In the meantime, just as the members of a losing election campaign go back and assess what went wrong, the slow-down proponents have a year to learn from their mistakes. This race may be over, but the party lines that emerged aren't likely to fade unless more defenses finally start solving these offenses on the field.