When Charlie Bradshaw became head coach at Kentucky last January he called his 88-man football squad together and said, "Men, you are in for a tremendous experience—you will be part of a winner. But the price of victory will come high—hard work, perhaps the hardest you have ever known, self-sacrifice, dedication and, most of all, discipline."
By mid-September, before Kentucky played its first game, 53 players had quit the squad. Bradshaw, a student and disciple of Paul (Bear) Bryant, head coach at Alabama, last year's national champions, had adopted Bryant's football philosophy. The Bryant idea is harsh and simple: get tough, aggressive players; impress upon them that the only thing that matters is victory, no matter what it costs; train them and train them and train them to an absolute peak of condition; teach them to hit—hit the opponent hard and keep on hitting him until inevitably he falters and makes a mistake; capitalize on that mistake.
This system worked for Bryant when he took over a mediocre team at Kentucky 16 years ago, and it worked again when he took over a declining team at Texas A&M in 1954; it worked again when he took over one of the worst teams in Alabama's history in 1958 (in 1961 Alabama was the No. 1 team in the country). Bryant football is rapidly becoming the principal style of play in the Southeastern Conference, and coaches who have played or worked under Bear Bryant are becoming as sought after as Bud Wilkinson's disciples were in the 1950s. They teach the game that Ralph Jordan, coach at Auburn, described recently as "the new hell-for-leather, helmet-busting, gang-tackling game they're playing here in the Southeastern Conference. Since Bear Bryant came back to Alabama, it's the only game that can win."
Charlie Bradshaw's introduction of this new order in football at Kentucky brought grudging praise from Johnny Vaught of Mississippi, whose perennially powerful team (an 18-point favorite) beat Kentucky 14-0 last Saturday night. Kentucky's hard-hitting tactics even in defeat bore out something Vaught had said weeks before: "This will be our toughest game with Kentucky in seven years. What used to hurt them was lack of physical conditioning. They had class, but they couldn't hold up in the second half. This year Bradshaw may not have many players in uniform, but—believe me—those he has will be fit."
Bradshaw's conditioning program began way last winter in a series of "informal" preseason workouts. The players expected them to be something like the loosely disciplined winter conditioning drills imposed by former Coach Blanton Collier. Instead they found a jam-packed schedule conducted at a high-speed, nonstop pace. They lifted weights in one room, had blocking drills in a second and wrestled and had agility drills in a third. They went outside the gym for more agility drills and to throw a football around. NCAA rules do not permit supervised preseason out-of-doors practice, but, as one player said, "The coaches never left the gym. They did happen to be watching through the window, though."
The exercises were rather more intensive than they sound. Quarterback Jerry Woolum, one of Kentucky's best players, said, "That preseason crash conditioning program was the hardest thing I've ever been through." Another player said, "The wrestling was more like brawling. Two of us fought until one of us dropped. Then the loser had to brawl with the next fellow. If he dropped again he stayed right there. Fifteen minutes of that was something to remember. I had to be helped to my feet after one session."
"I didn't mind the rough-and-tumble," said a player who quit three weeks after the sessions began, "but I sure objected to the rushing and the constant goading. The assistant coaches would yell and scream. They'd push us to get us hopping along to the next room. Some of the guys began to vomit. A couple of guys in my group began to look real weak while we were in roll drills one day, as if they might keel over. The coaches noticed, so they were excused—from roll drills—but they had to move right on to the next exercise line."
By the end of the first week four players had quit, and by the time the conditioning program was over, the total had risen to 15. But the players who stuck it out became excited over their improved fitness. "We thought we had begun to understand Coach Bradshaw's program," said one who quit the squad after spring practice. "He was a real leader, and that's what the team needed."
In April, as spring practice began, Bradshaw said, "We will be looking for the boys who love the game and are willing to pay the price for success. The work test we give them is going to be rough and tough. We want wild, aggressive, eager players who play the game up to the hilt in an effort to win."
The spring-practice drills were, indeed, rough and tough and demanding. The hangers-on who always gather along the sidelines to watch football practice were delighted. A retired postman said, grinning, "The name of the game is knock." His companion agreed: "Old Charlie reminds me of the Bear."
Bear Bryant is a legend at Kentucky. Stories about him abound. "If a man's going to quit," once said the Bear, "I want him to quit in practice, not in a game." The Bear was rough. If a player made a mistake in practice, the Bear was apt to knock him down, run right over him. He did it to Frank Fuller, a big tackle, and shook him up. (And he tried it on All-America Bob Gain, the old-timers giggle, but Gain saw him coming and it was the Bear who ended on the ground.) The Bear would set first-string guard against second-string guard in man-to-man scrimmage, the winner to be first-string in the next game. ("It teaches players desire.")
Charlie Bradshaw doesn't have the Bear's reputation for knocking players down, though when he demonstrates a play or a move to a man, he hits him as hard as though he were in a game. And he punishes players who aren't aggressive enough in practice by running them back and forth until they are exhausted. His assistant coaches are a bit more direct. The method of tackling taught by the Bryant-Bradshaw school requires the tackier, charging low, to hit the ballcarrier head on with his helmet and then with his shoulder and arm. When a player missed a tackle in practice, an assistant coach would run over shouting: "Butt him, damn you." Sometimes a critical assistant would bang his own head into a player's stomach, knock him down, pick him up by the jersey and shove him back in the direction of the huddle. Assistants would bang players in the head with a forearm to make a lesson clear.
There's hitting and hitting
"That's all right," a player who left the squad said. "Hitting is part of football, and I didn't mind that. But when coaches deny the hitting, how can you respect them?"
Several players said that Assistant Coach Bob Ford hit Quarterback Louis Owen in the mouth with his fist after Owen allowed a pass to be completed and then missed the tackle. Owen lost half of one tooth in this encounter.
"I know the stories," Ford said, "but I didn't hit him with my fist. It was an accident. I was demonstrating the proper execution and I guess my forearm must have caught him in the mouth. I was trying to help the boy, not hurt him, and that's the honest truth."
Louis Owen supported Ford. "I believe it was an accident," he said. "The tooth was crooked anyway."
"Some players don't realize that what we are doing is for their own good," Ford said. "They don't realize that football is a demanding game. It requires a bold spirit and a strong body. It's when a player is tired that he must play his best. You can't teach this. A boy learns it by the coach's example. Coaching is vigor and enthusiasm, and it's infectious. I believe in coaching. We teach the word of Christ. We try to give strength to the weak boy, strength in body and strength in character to resist temptations and to learn self-discipline. The poor boy we make rich, give him a chance to improve himself, to gain an education and become rich in useful experiences. This is his salvation."
There is an undeniable overtone of religion in big-time football today. Many, if not most, of the successful coaches lead their teams in prayer both before and after games. Charlie Bradshaw said to his players, "We are a family and we'll work together in harmony, as a family should. This means we want you to take pride in yourselves, to be good Christian men. Your studies will come first. The discipline we teach you on the football field will carry over into your studies and after you graduate." (But an assistant coach, coming across a player studying in the library one night, said, "Get to bed. We'll tell you when to study. Football comes first right now.")
Bradshaw also allayed the fears of those who were wary of the emphasis he placed on winning above everything else. "You can't win with dumb athletes," he explained. "We will recruit only intelligent boys, only those we know to be good students. We will be aggressive. We will play the game to the hilt with the kind of boys who are willing to pay the price for winning."
By the end of spring practice, 23 players had left the squad, some voicing extreme bitterness. Shelby Lee, a sophomore back, left because, his mother said, "He has too much character to want to get out and kill." Another said, "I'm sure Coach Bradshaw's methods are necessary to develop a winner, but I don't believe winning is worth the price." Dale Lindsey, an All-America high school halfback, said, "To me, football is a game. It's a rough game, and you expect the physical punishment, but it's supposed to be fun, too. When it gets to the point that it isn't any fun, why continue?" Another said, "The way I look at it, football is Coach Bradshaw's business. But to me it's a sport, not a business." One boy, a devout Baptist, said, "At first I was impressed with Coach's tie-in of Christianity and football. But now I'm convinced it's nothing but hypocrisy. Christ taught love. Charlie Bradshaw teaches us to punish, to destroy the other man."
(Bob Ford has two pictures on his wall, one of Robert E. Lee and the other of Stonewall Jackson. Pointing to Lee, the intensely serious Ford said to a visitor, "You see this man here? He was a real Christian gentleman. He taught a Sunday school. But he went out and killed, didn't he?")
Not all the players quit, and not all those who quit were bitter. "The practices were tough physically, but we all took the same knocks," said Tom Hutchinson, the All-America end who stayed on the squad. "I don't believe anyone was unequal to the butting and the banging. It was the mental stress and the day-after-day demands that wore a lot of guys down. I suspect that this thing just snowballed and got out of hand—sort of like mass hysteria."
Mike Minix, a pre-med student with an A average, agreed. "It was a form of contagion; one quit and the others followed. Football is an emotional game, and that's how Coach Bradshaw approaches it. I found him a stimulating coach and if I had an easier curriculum I'd still be out at practice."
One of the players who jumped the squad in spring training was Darrell Cox, a halfback and the team's best punter, who stated, "I refuse to be anyone's trained killer." Next day Cox tried to rejoin the team, but Bradshaw would not let him, at least not then. Instead, he phoned Bear Bryant in Alabama.
"What the hell are you calling me for?" roared the Bear. "You want to stiffen your guts so you can tell that Cox he can't come back? Let him sit it out for a while. He'll be just as anxious to come back in September as he is now."
Cox did rejoin the team in the fall and was a standout player both in Kentucky's opening game, an 0-0 tie against a superior Florida State team, and in the game with Mississippi. Critics of Bradshaw pointed out that of all the players who left the squad, only Cox and Center John Mutchler were expected to make the first two teams. The implication was that Bradshaw had deliberately cleared his squad of dead wood.
One Southeastern Conference coach said privately, "It's obvious that the practices were made so brutal that un-talented players were forced to quit. It's not a new pattern. It's an old one set by Bear Bryant. He did the same thing at Kentucky, at A&M and at Alabama. He made it so tough on players with little ability that they quit, leaving him plenty of scholarships to recruit more talented boys. It should be investigated."
Mississippi's John Vaught was more outspoken. In conversation with Earl Ruby, sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Vaught said with some heat, "Don't those boys who got chased off the squad know that under the rules they're entitled to four full years of room, board, tuition and books, whether they lay a hand on a football or not?"
Ruby suggested that the boys had quit, that they weren't chased.
"They can quit football and still keep their full scholarship," Vaught insisted, "as long as they maintain a good scholastic standing. That is the law as I understand it. What does Bradshaw know that the rest of us don't?"
Kentucky's football scholarships are grants-in-aid. The only way a boy can lose his grant-in-aid, aside from scholastic ineptitude or improper behavior, is to sign a waiver that releases the school from its obligation. The boys who quit Kentucky's squad all signed such waivers.
Charlie Bradshaw may have bullied them into quitting the squad but he did not bully them into signing the waivers. "Before you put your name on this thing," he would say, "think it over carefully. I'd like you to come back to the squad. I can't guarantee you anything. It'll still be just as rough and hard, and I can't promise you'll be rated any higher as a player. But remember, when you sign this thing, you're giving up your scholarship." The players who were determined to quit signed the waiver.
Bradshaw says now that he was not aware that a player did not have to sign a waiver and give up his scholarship when he quit the squad. "I should have known," he says, "but I didn't."
It is easy to assume that Bradshaw subtly conned the boys into signing, but the evidence is not all that way. Mike Minix had a two-hour chat with Bradshaw before signing. "The coach was pleasant throughout the interview," Minix said. "He wanted me to reconsider. He advised me to read the waiver carefully. I told him I wouldn't want the scholarship unless I was earning it. There was no pressure."
Nor is it justified to assume that all Bradshaw teaches is brutality. Jerry Woolum said, "I occasionally thought the coaches were overly enthusiastic. But eventually all these trials seemed to become irresistible challenges."
"Young people require a disciplined program," Bradshaw said. "If they don't have it, they bob around like so many wood chips in the ocean, marking time, living a day-to-day existence. They have to learn to be dedicated and to develop direction."
One of Bradshaw's basic ideas is to get the players to push beyond their psychic control. He worked with Dr. O. B. Murphy of the American Medical Association to develop an intensive routine calculated to improve the players' concentration, reaction and strength. Dr. Murphy said, "We know the limits of fatigue can be pushed back through concentration. A player must constantly exert greater force than he believes himself capable of." Dr. Murphy feels that this self-dedication is responsible for the Kentucky squad's impressive strength and stamina gains. Rusty Payne, the Kentucky trainer, said, "For the first time that I can remember, we haven't had a broken finger or a wrist, and sprains and strains have almost disappeared."
Yet despite this genuine physical improvement and implied moral improvement, the only real, obvious and immediate goal is winning football games. Field-position football, which is what Bryant and Bradshaw play, requires a perfectly disciplined and perfectly conditioned team. The ideal player is one trained to a physical peak and a reflexive refinement that makes him respond, almost like an automaton, to any situation that arises on the field. Because of this, the player is wholly dominated by the coach and wholly dedicated to football.
If it sounds a bit totalitarian, it is. It is Total Football. And it pays off—perhaps not so much for the player as it does for the school and for the coach, who, after all, is evaluated on a stark and simple basis: he's a success if he wins and a failure if he loses. As one man said, "In Kentucky they play football for God, for the State of Kentucky and for the University. And incidentally for Charlie Bradshaw."