IBM Machines Make the Tiger Roar

A vast array of electronic computers has refined Princeton football to the nth degree
October 15, 1961

Princeton's public image suffers from a peculiar double focus: atop the old stereotype of "the pleasantest country club in America" stands the new vision of a great rural scientific laboratory where atomic bombs are conceived and thermonuclear energy harnessed. Around the golf links are strewn structures housing synchrotrons, accelerators, stellarators and silently whirring computers. The representative Princetonian appears to be not the trim F. Scott Fitzgerald in his Norfolk jacket but Albert Einstein in his long hair and sweat shirt.

The classroom has invaded the club room and even the locker room. The scientific spirit of theoretical physics has captured that emotional and irrational phenomenon, the cult of intercollegiate football. Princeton plays scientific football—which means that it always knows what it's doing, even if it oughtn't to be doing it. The game is played under a complex system of mathematical analysis that has just celebrated its 13th anniversary. It has become a ritual with the coaching staff and, as in most rituals, its origins are hazy in memory—especially since the death of its principal architect, Head Coach Charlie Caldwell, of cancer in 1957.

In the cafeteria of the student center, oddball specialists and eggheads rub shoulders and take coffee breaks; here football science was first formulated in a series of speculative bull sessions. The pioneers of the science were Caldwell; John Stiegman, then freshman line coach and now head coach at Penn; Paul Busse, an end coach who was also assistant to the chairman of the physics department; a mathematics professor; and the director of research administration at the university, who happened to have played football for Caldwell at Williams. In the language of physics, they convinced themselves that a football game is nothing more than approximately 150 "explosions" (plays) triggered by the snapping of the ball and hurling of 22 "electrons" (players) into various high-speed tracks and random collisions. A scientific mode of analysis is to translate motion into the symbols of science—that is, mathematics—and to "measure" each action by assigning it a numerical value; by coding these "bits" of information onto punch cards and running the cards through a computer, it is possible to discover patterns, regularities, repetitions among the various explosions that render the particular phenomenon comprehensible to the human mind. The scientist deduces a theory that explains the process and makes it possible to manipulate it and to predict the results of future experiments.

In a football game the violent confusions, extreme speed and bewildering interactions of 22 different players all over the field combine to defy all but the most elementary comprehension (I can't even follow the ball). But if each separate action is assigned a numerical value and reduced to a common denominator, and if the electronic intelligence of an IBM machine is used as a Monday-morning quarterback to recombine them into meaningful patterns and regularities, then the game can be vivisected.

The mathematics professor offered a key parallel out of his own research into "explosions," having made a survey of antisubmarine warfare for the Navy with the Office of Scientific Research in World War II. The admirals were using exactly the tactics of 1918: when a submarine was detected, a run was made over it and a single big depth charge (ash can) dropped. The professor suggested that other plans of attack be tried, especially shooting out a simultaneous pattern of small bombs (mousetraps). A theoretical study justified designing and building the requisite hardware, and it was tried in action. After an attack on a sub the destroyer commander or bomber pilot was ordered to fill out a detailed and standardized questionnaire relating all the different settings, angles, factors and results. The data from several hundred of these questionnaires were punched onto IBM cards and statistically analyzed. It proved to the gold braid that more "fish" were being "mousetrapped" than "ash-canned," by a factor of 10, as the academic phrase goes.

Why couldn't similar analysis of football "explosions'* be performed, to discover which formations were most effective, what tactics most efficient, what factors most crucial? The solution was a complicated operation: three spotters are posted in the press box who note on each play the down and distance, the yardage gained, position on the field, sequences, penalties, and the number of every Princeton player in the game. This information in tabular form is presented to the coaches when they gather Sunday morning to view the movies and complete the statistics on each play: on offense—the number of the play, type of defense and the tackier; on defense—the hole hit, offensive formation, flankers, split ends, man in motion and the tackier. In an eight-hour grind they run each play back and forth, reversing the film hundreds of times, each coach watching not the ball but his own group of players, calling out to a stenographer grades on the Princeton academic marking system for each player on every play—from 1 (excellent) to 6 (flunk) or 7 (horrible).

Now the game has been completely reduced to numbers and symbols, and on Monday morning the figures are punched onto IBM cards—one card for each play, with up to 94 pieces of information on it—by two operators in the registrar's office, who suspend their usual task of compiling academic statistics for a time. Then the university statistician heads for his machines, which look something like home freezers. On 16-inch paper ruled in 94 columns he prepares 13 running feet of statistics in triplicate, and for about two hours the machines shuffle and combine and recombine the cards to group, compare and average the various types of plays: end runs, tackle smashes, guard traps, wedges, deep passes, short passes. What plays were working, in what part of the field, in what situations, and with which players? What went right, and what went wrong? Who was doing his job, on what plays, and who was goofing off? On defense, what hole yielded the most yardage, who was making the most tackles, what types of plays was Princeton most vulnerable to? All these analytical tabulations in a foolproof mathematical index are studied by the coaches before practice on Monday afternoon, at which time the players are given their grades and urged to review their mistakes and correct them before the next game.

This Monday-morning autopsy also provides a chance to second-guess the quarterback: Is he calling the right plays? Is he mixing his calls? Is he running too much to one side? Does he always run the same play in the same situation? The same mind reading can be done on the opposition quarterbacks. Some quarterbacks never pass inside the five-yard line, others never throw the ball when they are ahead.

A few years back Brown had on its team a halfback named Tommy Thompson, who was an exceptionally strong receiver of short, passes; but the statistics showed that the pass was being thrown only to the far side of the field, enabling Princeton to bring up an extra defender there and check at least some of Thompson's effectiveness.

After the season is over the 1,000-plus cards for the whole fall are run through the machines, and a complete comparative history of each formation, offensive and defensive, is compiled and bound into giant black ledgers. Here is all the information necessary for a part-by-part analysis of the Princeton football machinery. The grades on the players provide the key: if the short-side guard on the deep reverse always got a 5, then perhaps he is being given too much to do and there should be two men on that block. On a breakaway run against Princeton, if one player got a bad grade, then it was his fault; but if the entire line got average grades, then the formation wasn't any good, and the fault was the coaches'. Gains against each of the defensive formations—the Oklahoma 5, the Eagle 5, the Syracuse 6-2, along with their accompanying stunts and red-dogging—are averaged and compared.

Many of the Princeton scientists go to the games and take an avuncular pride in their little system. Like all scientists, they want to tinker, to update and re-program it. One engineer who works on the stellarator (Princeton's program to harness thermonuclear energy, supported by $35 million of Atomic Energy Commission funds) has the idea of making the system even more scientific, able to predict as well as perform post-mortems. This would be accomplished by having 22 expert spotters in the press box, each watching a single player and assigning him numerical grades on each play. At half time the data would be fed into a locker-room computer, and out would come not a fight talk but a tape analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of both teams.

For those cradled in the tradition of Bill Roper, Princeton's star at the turn of the century and colorful coach during the '20s, football at Old Nassau has become just another science course. The coaches are professors, the players scholars, with the weekly exams coming on Saturday afternoons; academic credit for a passing average, courtesy of IBM, takes the form of a varsity P. It would be interesting to know what Roper would have thought. Even his admirers concede that in any modern sense he didn't know much more about football than, to quote one of his favorite figures of speech, "a whore about Sunday." He thought "the talk of system and involved plays was 90% bunk" and liked to negotiate nonscouting agreements with his Ivy League rivals; scouting smacked of espionage, and there wasn't much to spy on anyway. His favorite piece of "strategy" was to teach his players not to fall on a loose ball but to run with it (permitted in those days), to take advantage in lightning judgment of an opponent's error and snatch victory from the very jaws of defeat in a startling reversal of fortune.

Bill Roper wasn't much for science but hard to match in rhetoric. He coined evangelical phrases, such as, "a team that won't be beat can't be beat!" and, "a certain flame of the spirit can overcome every obstacle." He said: "Those people who think football is a game are crazy. Football is war!" In his locker-room orations—he never used the word Harvard, only "red-bellied bastards"—he could inspire the team's spirit as if he were a hypnotist. Once when he sent the team out, the captain tore the door from its hinges and the manager blindly ran on the field too.

These vaudeville antics of the romantic age of football would be considered juvenile today. About the only thing that Bill Roper would recognize around the place, besides Palmer Stadium, would be the single wing, which Princeton, almost alone among the universities of the country, continues to stick with. At that he might have trouble, since his oldtime star, Charlie Caldwell, refurbished n with newfangled features like buck laterals, flankers, men in motion and split ends. In fact, so complex has the single wing become that Caldwell had to write a book to explain it fully (Modern Single Wing Football, J. B. Lippincott). Players have to be smart to understand their complex assignments; practice runs only from 4:45 to 6:30, and during the season there is a total of only 65 hours of practice and 15 hours of blackboard drill. Princeton feels especially grieved over the Ivy ban on spring practice, since almost all secondary schools, where the new generations of "hard-nosed boys with desire" learn their football, teach the more glamorous T formation.

Old Nassau continues in its faith that with two evenly matched teams the single wing will beat the T four times out of five. Single wing is percentage football, featuring ball control, short gains, long marches; gaining twice as much on the ground as through the air. Plays are intricate and slow to open up; on a deep reverse the wingback covers 15 yards before hitting the line, giving the linemen at the hole the odd problem of "holding" the defensive tackier a few seconds before moving him out of there. On some plays only one lineman will charge straight ahead, the rest pulling out or moving sideways in all sorts of complicated two-man blocks. When it is working right, the single wing is a formidable machine; when it is not, it needs electronic analysis to locate the monkey wrench in the complex machinery.

After Charlie Caldwell's death, Dick Colman took over. At 42, Col man had been Caldwell's line coach, collaborator on the book, and one of his finest football players during Charlie's tenure at Williams in the '30s. Looking like a husky associate professor, he holds a master's degree and is a veteran councilman of the Borough of Princeton. The keystone to his philosophy of coaching is this system of mathematical analysis, which a dozen years ago was Old Nassau's top war secret but is now common knowledge along the gridiron grapevine.

"If your system is so good," I asked, "why don't other universities use it?"

"As a matter of fact," Colman explained, "one does, or rather did. Several years ago we set it up for Purdue, but after a season they gave it up. It was just too much work—three spotters during the game, one stenographer all day Sunday, more secretarial work on Monday, plus the services of the statistician and of the machines. Toughest of all is to take the coaches on their one day off and run them through an eight-hour movie ordeal. But we believe this fantastic expenditure in time and energy is a good investment, because it enables us to give the best coaching that's in us. Besides, it pays other dividends—each of the specialist coaches is forced to defend his grades to the rest of us. It builds an esprit de corps, a staff of dedicated professionals and perfectionists; we become a team, just as the boys do. Our players are bright, intelligent boys, and they like to know that some of Princeton's faculty polish has rubbed off on the coaches, that we're applying to the game of football some of the same principles of analysis they are learning in the classrooms."

I told him the electronic analysis somehow reminded me of a fallen David mournfully examining his sling while the football Goliaths of the South and West stood over him. Princeton can win consistently only by sticking to what are called her "natural rivals"—which some would call hiding in a patsy league and never, never going out. Princeton used to play Army, Navy, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and over the years gave about as good as-it got, or close to it. How would today's Princeton football teams, IBM machines and all, fare against the fine Tiger teams of the past?

"You don't understand," Colman said earnestly, "any good team of the modern era would murder one from a generation back. The difference lies in the revolution in coaching. Bill Roper never saw a football game: human memory is no good and the bench is the worst seat in the stadium. I never know what has happened in a game until Sunday morning when we see the movies—it's the movies that have revolutionized the game. It's only by running and rerunning them that you can see what's going on, figure out ways to correct mistakes, think up new plays and maneuvers. For instance, that murderous weapon called blind-side blocking is strictly a movie invention. Defensively we're probably not much better, but offensively there is simply no comparison. Offensive coaching is constant innovation; it's exciting, incredibly complicated. Any coach who quit the business for three years would never catch up."

"Well," I asked, "if 'scientific football' is so good, why doesn't Princeton win the Ivy League championship every year?"

"You don't understand," answered Dick Colman wearily. "All it does is make it possible for us to give the boys the finest training in our power. Coaches don't win football games, and computers don't play in them. The whole darn system isn't worth as much as one good 205-pound halfback."