The trouble with football? All the intrinsic and symbolic values have been overrated. The one real value of football is to teach a boy the desire to go out and win. That's the only carryover value that I can see. Good sportsmanship? You don't teach that in college football. If a boy isn't a good sport by the time we get him, probably his parents have failed somewhere along the line and we won't be able to correct him. No coach is going to be a builder of men. No coach can justifiably say, 'I'm making boys good sports.' Sure, you can temper 'em to a degree, but not much; it's always too late to make any deep personality changes in your players."
Forest Evashevski, the bland, muscular football coach who last year steered the University of Iowa to the Rose Bowl for the first time in that institution's history, spoke these heresies without batting an eye. Though hairs might curl from the Harvard Yard to the Stanford quad at such iconoclastic utterances, to him they were the simple statement of principles in which he believed. Football to Evashevski is a game played by two teams of 11 men each. The team that knocks down the other team wins. The players are muscled, healthy young men. They are not Greek gods or Horsemen of the Apocalypse (though many of them later become qualified for these descriptions in hazy strolls down Memory Lane). The object of a football game is to win, not to develop good sportsmanship, team spirit or healthy gums. Winning is fun, and fun is the only reason for football. When football stops being fun, it should be replaced by girls' hockey, Frisby or something that is fun.
Evashevski's scorn of what might be called the school of righteousness and virtue in college football does not stop short of his own colleagues. "Look at all these football coaches today," he said. "They have a little speech that they continually hand out. It goes like this: 'I like football. Football builds bodies. Football builds character. I like football. Thank you.' That's what coaches tell everybody. Nothing. Platitudes. The result is a lot of misconceptions about college football.
"The game," Evashevski said, lighting a Chesterfield and slumping his 218 well-distributed pounds into an easy chair, "has changed. The backs hit in there tougher than they've ever hit. When I was playing, a back would run behind his blocker, and an end could push the blocker down or play him and finally make the tackle. You don't get that situation any more. The blocker will sail in there and run and block harder. Nobody's gonna 'play' him.
September 22, 1957
"A lot of the improvement is because college boys are just bigger and tougher and healthier than they used to be. But also there's a new trend in college football since the days of Red Grange and those others. It was started by Fritz Crisler, and in my opinion he was the most lucid teacher the game has ever known. He set everything up the way you'd teach an English course or a math course. Everything was set up on principles. He was one of the first to do away with designations like 'between guard and tackle,' 'between tackle and end,' and so forth. Fritz came along and numbered over his offensive men, not over the defense. That was constant and you could control it. He got a different philosophy across where he didn't say to block a guard or block a tackle. He said you block in at the hole or out at the hole or you removed men from the hole. And the hole was numbered by your own men, and you always knew where your men were.
"This plan was way ahead of its time. And it's done a lot to improve football. But no matter how scientific or updated the system is, football must be fun or the team will fail." Evashevski sees to this by sometimes knocking off practice, setting up Cokes all around and showing fishing movies. "There has to be enough levity in football to make up for the grind and the hard work. I remember 1952. We had lost our first four ball games. Twice we were beaten real bad. We'd been using the same old multiple offense with the conventional unbalanced-T and the single wing. The boys weren't having any fun with it, you could see that. So we were coming up against Ohio State on a Saturday, and on the previous Wednesday I decided to give the team something to play with. We drew up a bastard formation—we took our unbalanced line and split it out about a yard and a half a man, and we ran a split-T version from our unbalanced single wing. We practiced the bastard formation for two days, and then we beat Ohio State 8-0 with it. Kept 'em out of the Rose Bowl. Point is, the boys got a kick out of the new formation—they were having fun, and it gave them confidence; so they won.
"To make football fun, we let our kids make their own training rules. We find they live up to their own rules better than if they were instructed. And we let our players run any formation they want to run, as long as we feel we know enough about it to coach it. Conversely, we've thrown out plenty of formations because our players didn't enjoy 'em."
"It's still a game"
If there's anything the normally mild-mannered Evy can't abide, it's the Monday morning All-America who takes football too seriously and castigates erring players. "I still think it's a game," he said, "and in any game people are going to make mistakes, and what the hell's the difference? Trouble with a lot of student bodies and alumni and close friends is they'll punish a player socially for dropping a ball. I don't have a great deal of sympathy for the coach when he's blamed, because he's getting paid. Like the way I cost us the Michigan game last year by anticipating that Michigan would do something they didn't. It was my own fault, and I should have been blamed. But it's sad to see a young kid, with all the frailties of being young, blamed by thousands for defeat."
Not that Evy likes to lose. "I certainly do not. Winning is important because it's the only criterion we have for measuring anything. When we have to pick an All-America team of the 11 best losers, I know I'll be finished with football." No poetry fan, Evashevski's blood boils when someone quotes the Grantland Rice classic to him. "That's just so much horse-radish: '...not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.' Now wouldn't that look lovely in a doctor's office. So you're violently ill and go to see the doctor and you see on the wall, 'For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he won't ask whether the patient lived or died, but how you made the cut.' You'd get the hell outa there.
"You've got to play to win. There's a very tricky shading of meaning here. When the game is over, it's not important whether you won. But during the game, it's vitally important that you win. Not to look good, but to win!
"And then if you've left your guts on the football field and you can say to yourself, 'I left everything I had out there, and if I had it to do tomorrow I couldn't do it any better,' then there's no disgrace in losing.
"If you can teach a boy to stay within the rules and yet go all-out and knock somebody down, and if he gets whipped set his jaw for next Saturday—if you can teach a kid that, you have provided him with the only carryover value of college football.
"And you can take a kid like that and send him out to be a real competitor in the world, and I don't care if he sells insurance or what he does. If he gets his foot in the door first and maybe kicks two other guys out ahead of him and makes the sale, or if he's a member of a church and he goes out and raises more money for the church than anybody else, if whatever he's doing he's doing it to win, then he's a better citizen for having played football. That's what's important about football, not being an All-America or having broad shoulders or a locomotive yell for old Harvard or good sportsmanship."
With a philosophy like this, it comes as no surprise that Evashevski's efforts during a football game are coolly aimed at making the best possible showing on the gridiron, squeezing the last ounce of effort out of his football team by the most direct means. Accordingly, half time is spent studying spotters' reports and discussing defects. "Sure," he agreed, "I don't go in for rah-rah talks and prayer meetings. Not that I knock Rockne and the fight-fight-fight coaches. It's just that I'm not that kind. There's room for all kinds of coaches. Rockne was the great motivator; Bernie Bierman was the cold calculator; he never talked to his players about anything except how to knock the other fellow down. We try to make the kids want to win but, as far as yelling and screaming at them is concerned, that went out with the '20s.
"The coach who tries to get his kids sky-high emotionally," the former dual major in psychology and sociology at Michigan went on, "is the coach who's always gonna have that big letdown during the season. He's the guy whose kids are gonna get knocked off by that last-place club. You keep giving the kids that needle every Saturday and that point's gonna get awfully dull. Anyway, all kids react differently. You can tell one kid something and you'll get him jumping right out of his shoes with enthusiasm, and you tell another guy the same thing and he'll look at you and say, 'Hell, you're a little balmy.' My own concentration is on football, not emotion."
And football, in the lexicon of the baby-faced, boom-voiced Evashevski, means "knocking men down. Hell, that's how intercollegiate football got started. They wanted to see who's the toughest. Kids at one school wanted to see who could knock each other down the hardest. Then kids at other schools wanted to test their skills against one another. Friends got together to watch, then there was a rematch, and more interest, and that's how intercollegiate football came about. It was born on the idea that one group ought to lick the other group. It wasn't that they wanted to go out and lead cheers or develop good sportsmanship. They simply wanted to see if they could whip a like number of men. And the lasting value is the fact that you learn to want to win, you learn to be a winner, and this you can use on all levels of life.
"In that respect, the essence of the game hasn't changed much over the years. You tackle and you block, and that's the guts of football. The people who have promoted football as a great spectator sport have been very, very clever. They've sold it on the idea of color and touchdown runs and field goals and glamour.
"I don't care what system you use; if you block hard enough and tackle hard enough you're gonna win. The end result of good blocking and tackling is good spectacular football. Poor tackling and blocking will lead to dull, unspectacular football no matter how many fancy backs you have.
"The people who sell football to the kids have always publicized the long touchdown run and the thousands cheering. They've never tried to publicize the 40 kids out there all week with their noses in the mud, grinding each other up in scrimmage to see who'll make the team. That's football. I try to make it fun for the boys, but believe me—it's not always easy.
"Sure, the ingredient of running is still there. But your blocking and tackling—by the whole 11 men—is basic. It's like making vegetable soup. You gotta start in with that soupbone and some vegetables; then you put in some bay leaves, some salt and pepper and other things to make it a tasty dish. In football, you start out with blocking and tackling, and then you add your quickness and your running and reading blocks and deception and stuff. You take a team like Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma team. The way those boys tackle and block they could run every play from punt formation and still have a great record."
"So what's wrong with college football nowadays?" Evashevski was asked. "What's wrong with it?" he repeated incredulously. "Why, nothing's wrong with it. Except that we need more of it."
Overemphasis on overemphasis
The visitor persisted: "There must be something wrong with it, Evy."
"Well, now that you pin me to the wall," the coach said, "I'll tell you what's wrong. Overemphasis is overemphasized. There is no overemphasis in college football; yet everybody talks as if there is. What we've got is underemphasis.
"When I went to college at Michigan, you used to hear about football players driving convertibles and wining and dining. Well, the only thing I ever got out of Michigan was a one-year National Youth Authority job at $15 a month. But all the fellows around my neighborhood kidded me. Whenever I bought a new suit, which was seldom, they would assume an alumnus bought it for me. That's the feeling that's permeated the thinking of the American people. And the result is that football has been wrongfully de-emphasized.
"The NCAA allows us 20 days of spring practice. Our season starts in September and we're through by December. So football lasts about three, four months in all. Now take your other sports in college. In track, they run cross-country in the fall, run indoors when it snows, then they go outside in the spring and they wind up with nine months of track, and some of them go to individual meets in the summer. This is fine—I'm all for it. But why should football take the rap? Football is a wonderful game. If a young man wants to play football he should be allowed to, whenever he wants to.
"We've become too stereotyped in our thinking about football. A few scattered evils and bad practices have caused too much of a curtailment by your faculty people. Why, we've had track teams in the Big Ten where the runners were from Australia, Finland and Canada. We have swimmers in the Big Ten from Hawaii and New Zealand, and there isn't anything said about it, because it's not football.
"But can you imagine what would happen if Notre Dame went out and got two kids from Australia and one from Hawaii and they got a Russian in there, and then they went out to play football for the Fighting Irish? They'd never hear the end of it. It's getting so you can't bring a ballplayer from any farther than your bordering states, or you're accused of buying talent."
The toughest job
"Recruiting is one of the big ills of football. Any coach will tell you that the toughest job he has is recruiting, making sure he gets the kids in. And there's plenty of pressure on the coach to recruit good men, take my word. I'm not talking about Iowa, now. But at most colleges the pressure is on the coach from the president on down. The coach enters into a tacit understanding with the president that he will recruit good ballplayers by any means short of larceny. And, if the coach doesn't come through with good recruits, out he goes.
"But what galls me the most—what makes me sick to my stomach—is when the coach gets caught in some aggressive recruiting practice and the college president throws his hands up in the air and says: 'My, my, I never dreamed that was going on here.' I tell you, that situation at Indiana [where Coach Phil Dickens last month got a year's suspension for violation of the Big Ten recruitment rule—ED.] just turned my stomach, the way that president turned on his coach. It's like spies—when they're caught, the mother country never heard of 'em. But the presidents are right in there pushing the rest of the time."
The discussion turned to the NCAA regulations. "The trouble there," said Evashevski, "is that some of them force an increasing reliance on extensive recruiting. Like the 20-day limitation on spring training. Here in Iowa we run into a lot of ballplayers who don't get much chance to play good, solid high school schedules. You expect a kid like that to develop a little later than the regular high school ballplayer. But we have only 20 days to develop a boy who's never played much. There's a good chance that we'll miss potential All-Americas because of the short period we can look 'em over. When you don't have a chance to work longer with the recruits in the spring, it puts a high premium on the blue-chip athlete. You've gotta go out and find the finished product. So by limiting the training period, the NCAA forces extensive recruiting on us."
Bed and board and $15
How about subsidization of football players? "I don't have any very definite ideas on that subject," Evashevski said. "But whatever the amount of subsidization, the same figures should be used all over. It's fine with me to subsidize ballplayers as long as you don't make professional athletes out of them. I don't think eating and sleeping make a pro out of a boy. In most schools eating and sleeping is about all you can give 'em, plus the $15 a month allowed by the NCAA. This seems all right to me. I don't think you should give a kid a ride to the point where he's going to get a lot of false values from playing football. The main thing is that it should be the same all over."
There was one more question before the visitor got up to go. Evashevski was once quoted as saying he would quit football if the Iowa fans soured on him. How did he feel about that now? What about his future?
"I don't expect to stay in football much longer," was his answer. "A couple more good seasons, and I'll have had it. I'm 39 now, and I hope I'm not in football after 45.1 think it's a young man's game. There's nothing more pathetic than seeing a coach hanging on when he's too old. I've seen some who get in a tight situation and start calling for kids who graduated two or three years before.
"I don't know what I'll do," he concluded. "Enter business, maybe. I can't retire. I haven't been in football for the money; there are quite a few more lucrative fields. But I've enjoyed what I've been doing. I have to admit it isn't as much fun as it was five or 10 years ago. And it'll never be as much fun as it was in my playing days. No, I guess I'd have to say that my enthusiasm is not as high. One thing I can promise you: I'll never be a Mr. Chips of football. There's nothing more pathetic."
The family group above is one of the reasons for Forest Evashevski's reputation as the iconoclast of college football. His wife Ruth, daughter of former U.S. Senator Prentiss Brown of Michigan, has blessed their union not only with six children (reading clockwise: young William, age 4 months; Tom Harmon, 4; Marion, 10; James, 13; John, 7; and Forest Jr., 15 years old) but also with a degree of independent wealth to which Evashevski frankly admits. Where others might worry about the consequences of outspokenness, Evashevski does not; says he: "I got a rich father-in-law."
He is unusual in other respects, too. Although a kick in the head put him out of high school football for good in his first year, he made All-America at Michigan as the famous blocking quarterback of the Evashevski-Tom Harmon combination; and in his final year, 1940, he was captain of the Wolverines. When he went into coaching at Hamilton College in 1941, he won five of seven games in his first season. The University of Pittsburgh then claimed him as a backfield coach, only to have the U.S. Navy claim him as a lieutenant. After three years' service, he got his discharge and returned to football with Clarence (Biggie) Munn, first for a year at Syracuse, then for three years at Michigan State. Washington State gave him a head coach's job in 1950, and in three seasons he reciprocated by bringing the Cougars up from last place in the Pacific Coast Conference to a respectable fifth. But it was Iowa which reaped the full benefit of his by now considerable powers. In 1952 he became head coach there, and by last year had brought the Hawkeyes their first Big Ten title in 34 years and their first Rose Bowl game—and victory, 35-19, over Oregon State—ever. His remarkable 1956 season won him an award as "Coach of the Year" from four of the nation's largest booster organizations and marked him as one of the most dangerous and versatile strategists in the college game today. Which is the rest of the reason why Forest Evashevski has no hesitation about speaking his mind on football, even if it means shattering a number of football concepts which have long been considered sacred.