In the foremost temple of American football, there is an event known as the Varsity-Oldtimers game, and it occurs, strangely enough, just before Easter. It was designed by that sage of Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, for the sole purpose of providing his players with a climax as well as a welcome break from the monotony of four weeks of violent spring drills. This year, as usual, the varsity thumped an assortment of former Notre Dame players bolstered with sophomores 49-14, and the whole thing proved, if anything, that the Fighting Irish are very likely on the way back, but still a year or so shy of their customary greatness.
Sitting among the light sprinkling of sportswriters inhabiting the big, drafty Notre Dame press box for this game was a big, thick-necked man with a face that might have been carved from granite with a blunt chisel. He sat quietly, staring thoughtfully at the field, his eyes following a Notre Dame varsity tackle with a big white 70 on the back of his green jersey.
"I wish he could move faster," the big man grunted. "If he had run like I wanted him to when he was a kid, probably he could move faster now." On the field, No. 70, banging straight ahead in a strong, thick-legged charge, moved the tackle opposite him out of the way. Aubrey Lewis, a thrillingly fast runner with the skittery, evasive tactics of a water bug, whisked through the wide hole for a long gain.
Even so, the big man was not entirely satisfied, for he was Bronko Nagurski, one of football's immortals—first as a tackle at the University of Minnesota, later as a tackle and fullback with the Chicago Bears—and No. 70 was his son, Bronko Jr., now a pudgy 18-year-old. Bronko Sr. hunched his shoulders against the cold and glared down at his son. "Sometimes he doesn't get his head outside his man when he's trying to move him in," he said. "He goes straight ahead into him and that way sometimes the guy can slip off and get away. Maybe that's the way they are teaching them to do it now."
April 22, 1957
Bronko Jr., on defense now, tossed a blocker aside and closed in on a ball carrier driving up the middle, hitting him with solid force. The father's face lit up. "Man, I feel great when he's going good," he said happily.
On the field, young Bronko Nagurski ran heavily to the sidelines as Notre Dame Coach Terry Brennan sent in the second unit. His father sat back, but his eyes moved now and again to the broad back of his son, huddled against the cold on the Notre Dame bench. The old Bronko, who looks as if he might play a pretty good game even now, was happy. Little Bronko had done well.
The young Nagurski is one of the reasons Notre Dame's subway alumni can look to the future with hope. "I think we'll be better than we were last season," Brennan said after the old-timers game. "We were hurt an awful lot by injuries last year and we had to replace sophomores with sophomores. The breaks can't go against you in injuries every season, can they?"
Elsewhere across the face of the land, other coaches struggled with other problems and found spring solutions that may or may not survive the acid tests of autumn. Remembering always that spring practice casts only a dim light on the probabilities of the coming season, here are some of the items from hither and yon that attracted attention before the thousands of hopeful young men packed away their mole-skins for another five months.
Woody Hayes, the coach whose favorite football adage has always been that "a yard on the ground is worth two in the air," says he will have to revise this philosophy to fit one of the lightest, greenest teams of his 7-year stint at Ohio State. Hayes, appearing for his first spring session simply clad in a T shirt and conventional nether garments while his assistants were bundled against the snarling 40° weather, unveiled a novel device designed to develop extra power in his halfbacks. It is known as a "Bucking Slingshot," and it promptly deposited a series of backs flat on their posteriors, tossing some of them roughly as far as a pro line can throw an unprotected rookie scatback. Thus, with a light hail of frustrated backs, began the air age at Ohio State.
In the Southwest a pair of new coaches—Bill Meek of SMU, transplanted from the University of Houston, and Darrell Royal of Texas, newly arrived from Washington—took over in an atmosphere of no-nonsense, devil-take-the-hindmost practice sessions. Meek, whose manner belies his name, shuffled the SMU lineup vigorously, worked the team into a lather and impressed the alumni tremendously. Royal, a recent graduate of the Bud Wilkinson-Oklahoma Institute of Applied Football Knowledge, discovered a halfback—Walter Fondren—who is "quick as a hiccup," promptly made him a T quarterback and observed sadly, "You don't take over a team that lost nine games and inherit a warm bed." Royal's split-T strategy ("four yards and a cloud of dust") brings to an end the era of razzle-dazzle football that has been the Texas trademark for a generation. "The ends used to come out loosening up their hands," said Royal. "Now they grab a blocking dummy."
In sharp contrast to the plodding style of the split-T teams is the wild-and-woolly, hell-for-leather offense new Coach Ed Doherty introduced to a bewildered but happy crowd at the University of Arizona spring game on March 31. It prompted Missouri Scout Jim McKenzie to whack the ledge in front of him and howl, "I have never seen anything like it!" What McKenzie had never seen was a maneuver in which the quarterback handed the ball to a halfback, then, a couple of hand-offs and a lateral or two later, wound up with the ball in his possession again, ready to pass or run while the defense watched in awed confusion. Doherty once said that he is teaching football now the way it will be played in 25 years; the Missouri scout, for one, agrees with him. Actually, the Arizona offense appears to be a series of variations on the slot-T offense used by many pro clubs, but that may be an understatement. Doherty's innovations usually take advantage of the tendency of a defense to move with the flow of the play; at Arizona, the flow is interrupted by a quick flip to a back moving in the other direction.
Out on the Pacific Coast, USC is trying a new coach (former assistant Don Clark), UCLA is sticking with Red Sanders and the Pacific Coast Conference is sticking with the rule which costs most of next year's most talented seniors at each of these colleges their final year of eligibility. Meanwhile, Oregon State, fresh from a PCC championship and a Rose Bowl game, is enjoying the perquisites of football distinction. A Portland bartender, commenting on the fact that the Los Angeles area had some 11 outstanding high school football players last fall, explained the new balance of strength this way: "UCLA got one, USC got one and Oregon State got the other nine." This may be a bit of a hyperbole, but Oregon State did pick a prize plum in Ron Miller, an All-City halfback in Los Angeles and one of the most sought-after players.