Flanked on his left by Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson and on his right by Ohio State's Woody Hayes, a former third-string end from Whittier College named Dick Nixon arose one day last week to make a speech.
"Intercollegiate athletics," said the Vice-President of the United States, "are being more critically examined today than in any period in the last 25 years. I would like to state some of my personal views on the subject.
"I believe that competitive sports are good for America's young men. Americans need the fighting spirit, the determination, the teamwork, the discipline which competitive athletics invariably instills.
"My only objection to competitive athletics is that there is not enough of it."
January 20, 1958
As good as two halfbacks
This being a luncheon of the American Football Coaches Association, the Vice-President could hardly have endeared himself more to the voters present by passing out 200-pound halfbacks. Nothing makes athletic coaches happier than talk of more athletics. Yet among the throng assembled in Philadelphia's Bellevue-Stratford ballroom, there were a few hard put to repress a shudder. Guests of the coaches on this occasion, they were in town for a more important function than to eat baked chicken and listen to speeches. They were the athletic directors, deans and department heads of the nation's colleges and universities who had gathered as delegates to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual convention. It had taken them 52 years to get this business of intercollegiate athletics under control in the first place and they sure didn't want anyone—even a Vice-President of the United States—to come along now with talk of more emphasis and upset the whole apple cart.
As it turned out, there was no cause for worry. Mr. Nixon was really just winding up to pitch for President Eisenhower's youth fitness program, a project which the NCAA itself recognizes to be of such vast importance that much of the organization's own future planning revolves around the subject. So the delegates merely nodded happily and that afternoon, at the end of six quiet but not insignificant days, packed up and headed home.
NCAA members, down to the smallest college representative, can hardly be blamed for the feeling of pride they share today over their organization. After almost half a century of stumbling along in the darkness, in the past five years it has become an effective watchdog over the nation's college athletic program. From a small, almost totally ineffective group in the first decade of the century, and later an amorphous mass of colleges which seemed to be bound together only by the fact that they were colleges, the NCAA has developed into a tight-functioning unit with arms and legs, a healthy body and, most important of all, a brain. Since 1952 the NCAA has also grown two big hard fists and it is this, perhaps more than anything else, which has earned for it universal respect and so much recent success.
Problems remain to be solved, of course, problems less acute than in the past but still big enough to prevent the NCAA from feeling that perfection is just around the corner. Captain Tom Hamilton, for example, head of the U.S. Navy's wartime preflight physical training program and now athletic director at Pitt, is, like President Eisenhower, frankly alarmed at the state of fitness of the nation's youth.
"Incoming college students," he told a round table during the convention, "are progressively in worse shape. More and more they lack the basic skills. I think it is mainly a problem of administration. Kids are normally active if things are available for them to do."
"Despite the success of our Committee on Infractions," said NCAA President Frank N. Gardner, a big, graymaned man with a high-pitched voice who once played tackle for Cotner College and now heads the Department of Christian Thought at Drake University, "there is still too much emphasis on recruiting and subsidization. And we know that the television program is far from perfect."
A solution to red-shirting
The ethically questionable practice of red-shirting, which holds an athlete out of competition one season so that he may stretch his competitive career over five years, could be abolished if other conferences were to follow the lead of the Big Ten in adopting an eight-semester limit, said the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce of Notre Dame.
And George Young, of the Wisconsin Law School, reminded the convention that it had still other tough, if relatively minor, nuts to crack.
He noted that although excessive aid to athletes has been sharply curtailed, certain "fringe benefits," in the form of high-paid summer jobs, still exist. "I hope," said Young, "that the NCAA and its member institutions become highly inquisitive about the wage scale in relation to the competence of the boy to handle his job."
He also warned member schools that they should not relax their own enforcement program just because the NCAA will now do the job for them. And Young was frankly worried about the excessive pressure on coaches to turn out a winner, thereby depriving them of any chance for a philosophical approach to their jobs. "Assembly-line athletic programs," says Young, "are no good. Coaches should treat boys as individuals, not as parts of a machine." What he was talking about was building character.
Of most concern to Young, however, was the current hot issue of contract-jumping by coaches in order to accept fatter salaries at other schools.
"Something must be done," he said, "about migratory coaches who seem to regard contracts as unilateral agreements binding only upon the colleges. One solution has been suggested whereby the school would withhold part of the coach's salary each year until he completes his full contract. I also heard another idea this morning: coaches who jump contracts would be declared ineligible for one year and be forced to sit out the season without salary. Sort of a red-shirting of coaches. The suggestion was offered facetiously, I suppose, but the implications are rather intriguing."
While the NCAA delegates were meeting on the 18th floor of the hotel to discuss the building of character and jumping of contracts, the character builders and contract-jumpers themselves were gathering below. The fact that the National Collegiate Athletic Association and American Football Coaches Association were both convening in the same city at the same time was no coincidence. The NCAA owes its very existence to a black eye and a bloody nose in the first place, and it has never been far away from the football field in all the years since. In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt became so concerned with the rash of head and facial injuries brought on by the flying wedge that he ordered the competing colleges to get together and modify their rules for safety's sake or else. From that day forward, the NCAA and the football coaches have enjoyed a close, if sometimes heated, alliance.
At Philadelphia, the only heat which arose came from that business of contracts, and the coaches were defended by Bud Wilkinson. "Perhaps the college which entices the coach away should share the blame," suggested Wilkinson softly, and left it at that.
The arrival of the coaches was first discovered one morning when, down low in the corner of a big blackboard placed in the lobby to announce an important NCAA meeting scheduled for that day, there suddenly appeared the chalked diagram of a single-wing play with an unbalanced line to the right and the ends split wide.
Coaches, coaches everywhere
Within hours the coaches had taken over the ballroom and spilled out into the surrounding conference and banquet rooms as well. Equipment manufacturers appeared as if by magic, setting up their jerseys and blocking pads and plastic face guards in adjoining stalls and waiting to waylay any coach who might wander through. Endless lectures filled the air. Projectors showing films of the past season's games began to whir. The lobby became so jammed with big burly guys talking about who was going to fill the coaching vacancies at Stanford and Texas A&M that the hotel's regular customers had to enter by way of the back door. And strange hieroglyphics, of such complexity as to lead the uninitiated to suppose that a convention of atomic physicists had missed the last train to Princeton, began to appear on the tablecloths in the dining room. Actually there wasn't anything really top-secret about them. They were just more football plays.
In three days it would have been possible for a visitor from another planet to absorb a sound working knowledge of the game of American football. Up on the big stage in the ballroom there were lectures by Jack Curtice of Utah (Pass Offense), Bob Blackman of Dartmouth (Over-all Team Defense and Adjustments), Dan Devine of Arizona State (Multiple Offense), Terry Brennan of Notre Dame (Using the Slot Offense with the T Formation) and half a dozen others. Frank Broyles of Arkansas even punctuated his lecture on Pass Defense with actual physical demonstrations—and almost fell off the stage during one especially heroic effort to intercept a potential scoring pass thrown from out of the audience by one of his assistants.
But it was generally conceded that the real star of the coaching clinic was C. F. Lappenbusch of Western Washington College, a man so far advanced in his tactical approach to the game that he was able to confuse even his fellow coaches. Lappenbusch's lecture was on the Rock and Roll Out Series ("If they throw up a five-man line, give 'em the old Rump and Go," and "Remember to establish a pennate angle on the linebacker. Pennate angle? Has something to do with the way feathers grow on a bird. Very efficient").
There were also the films. The coaches thoughtfully scheduled such plums as Michigan State-Wisconsin, Auburn-Georgia Tech, Oklahoma-Colorado, Princeton-Yale, Iowa-Michigan (wide screen), Rice-Texas and Ohio State vs. Oregon in the Rose Bowl, a reel for which Woody Hayes, honored at the annual luncheon as Scripps-Howard Coach of the Year, modestly supplied the narration himself.
The coaches did discuss prospective rule changes, including the possibility of returning to the old unlimited-substitution days ("I'm against it," said Fritz Crisler. "I think boys should learn to play both ways") and the advisability of returning the goalposts to the goal line ("Personally, I like to see those three points go up there," said Lou Little). In fact, they talked about a lot of rule changes—but not a whisper was heard of the truly revolutionary one on extra points to be passed only a few days later by the NCAA rules committee down in Fort Lauderdale.
Fortunes of the game
The coaches also joked with Mr. Nixon and discovered, to their pleasant surprise, that the Vice-President was an observing fan. "If you had lost that Iowa game," he told Woody Hayes, "instead of being Coach of the Year today, you would probably be just another candidate for that job at A&M."
If the coaches supplied most of the levity, however, the NCAA delegates were just as happy in their own more dignified way. After all, it was a nice feeling to face only limited problems, when once upon a time, not so many years ago, the problems which they faced were infinite and immense. Frequently reviled by its own members, the few edicts which the NCAA dared to hand down were contemptuously ignored. And the annual convention more often than not appeared to be on the verge of deteriorating into a real Pier 6 brawl.
Today the atmosphere is almost serene. The convention, supreme governing body of the organization, is conducted in a firm, efficient manner. The council, an 18-man group which functions as the policy-making body between conventions, works with a crisp assurance that its decisions will be observed. And the office of the executive director, presided over by a very able young man named Walter Byers, goes about its task with a minimum of back talk and a maximum of cooperation.
Neither Byers nor President Gardner will accept much credit for the NCAA's success. "We serve only in an administrative capacity," says the former. "The NCAA, through its member institutions, runs itself." Actually, the NCAA is run by committees. There is a television committee, an infractions committee, an Olympic committee and an advertising committee. There are committees on eligibility, insurance, publications and youth fitness. There are committees on rules and committees on tournaments. There is even a committee on committees.
In some ways, the best thing that ever happened to the NCAA was the abortive Sanity Code. In its early years the association managed to formulate a few rules to standardize football and other sports and to conduct championships and tournaments on a national level. It was also aware as early as 1925 that something was going to have to be done about overemphasis of college football, and in 1933 it began to study the problem of those twin terrors, overzealous recruiting and subsidization.
A time for action
But unlike the AAU, which is frequently criticized for blundering blindly into the midst of every controversial situation, the NCAA always had a tendency to sit on its hands and wait. In this case, sitting and waiting just wasn't enough.
So in 1951, the NCAA decided to put its legislative functions, backed up by new and stronger investigative and judicial proceedings, to the test. The result was a complete failure. In a vote from the floor, the NCAA failed to suspend seven admittedly guilty member institutions for flagrant violations of the recently passed Sanity Code, a regulatory device aimed at saving college athletics, particularly football, from toppling off the cliff top of pure amateurism into the void of professionalism down below. As things were going in those days, it wouldn't have been much of a fall.
"The Sanity Code was killed," says Gardner now, "because too many schools felt that enforcement should be left up to the institutions themselves or at least to their conferences. But after we somehow survived for another year without any code whatsoever, we knew something had to be done. It was a pretty dark hour—there were the basketball scandals and a rash of unsavory football incidents—and even schools that had opposed our program began to see the light. We simply decided that if our organization was to serve a useful purpose, we had to get tough."
So with the specter of the Sinful Seven before them and dozens of other schools about ready to join the nose-thumbing act, the NCAA got tough. The council, instead of the unwieldy convention, was given power to act upon violations. The Committee on Infractions was set up, with Gardner as chairman, to study reports and recommend disciplinary action. And Byers was named to the new post of executive director and charged with the duty of supplying the committee with all the information it might need in order to act both wisely and very well.
In its first six years, the infractions committee officially examined some 119 cases, establishing guilt and meting out punishment to 41 institutions. In 13 other violations, aware of the dagger pointed at their mid-section, member institutions or conferences took quick corrective measures of their own. As a result the 1958 convention was happy to announce only two cases requiring punitive action.
"The committee," said Kentucky's A. D. Kirwan, the current chairman, "thinks it is significant that this past summer has been the quietest since the inauguration of the present enforcement program. We have the feeling that there has been a growing desire by member universities and colleges to make certain that their athletic programs are operated in accordance with the rules and regulations the institutions have pledged themselves to observe."
Clarence P. Houston of Tufts, who preceded Gardner as president, once said of the NCAA, "We have progressed by disaster." It was a statement at once humble and filled with pride. For beyond all else remains the fact that the National Collegiate Athletic Association has progressed and should continue to progress and this is the most important fact of all.