Minutes after his Alabama team had lost to Georgia Tech 7-6 last Saturday, in just about the biggest football upset of the year, Alabama Head Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant appeared in the winning team's dressing room, smiling and completely unbearlike, despite the hurt of having been beaten for the first time in 27 games. But after an exchange of compliments with Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Dodd, Bryant's affability was suddenly dampened by Dodd's offhand comment, "I believe that was the cleanest game I've ever seen. What do you think. Coach?" Bryant, looking down at his shoes, muttered, "Huh? Oh, yeah. It certainly was. But I didn't expect anything different."
Most of the 53,000 spectators who jammed into the 52,000-seat stadium did. Last year an Alabama player, Darwin Holt, had smashed Georgia Tech's Chick Graning in the face with his left elbow and forearm, in an unnecessary block when an Alabama teammate signaled for a fair catch on a punt. After the catch, though possibly before the referee's whistle had sounded. Holt hit Graning, rising off his feet as he drove his arm up under the taller Tech player's face guard. Graning was helped off the field with injuries diagnosed later as 1) fracture of the alveolar process (facial bones), 2) five missing upper front teeth, 3) fracture of the nasal bone, 4) fracture of the right maxillary sinus and the sinus filled with blood, 5) fracture of the right zygomatic process (bone beneath the right eye), 6) cerebral concussion and 7) possible fracture of the base of the skull.
The injury to Graning, an extremely popular boy who has been described as "basically too gentle to be a truly great football player," infuriated Georgia Tech fans, faculty and alumni, who argued that it was the result of a deliberate and brutal foul. More significantly, it was called characteristic of Alabama football—and just about the last straw.
The annual game between Tech and Alabama had become extremely rough and difficult, and it was common knowledge that Coach Bobby Dodd had been wanting for some time to drop Alabama from the Georgia Tech schedule. The Holt-Graning incident brought things to a head, and in January it was announced that the two schools were severing football relations when the current contract runs out after the 1964 game.
November 26, 1962
Saturday's game, therefore, was expected by a lot of people to be a bloodbath—Tech would be out to avenge Graning, and Alabama would be out to avenge the insult implicit in Tech's decision to end the old rivalry. Instead, it was a startlingly clean game and, even more surprising, it was comparatively wide open. Bryant completely abandoned the close-to-the-vest, conservative game he is famous for and had his sophomore quarterback, Joe Namath, throw 38 passes. On Alabama's first play from scrimmage, on its own 23, Namath stood eight yards behind the line of scrimmage in a shotgun formation and threw a pass. A professional football scout in the press box laughed out loud. "Who is he trying to kid?" he said. "Bear's teams don't pass on the first play from scrimmage. They don't pass from the 23-yard line, and they haven't run from a shotgun once this year."
But it was just the beginning. Bryant's team never stopped doing the unexpected. In the first quarter Bryant had them go for the first down with fourth and one on the 50. Alabama missed by inches, and that failure contributed to the poor field position that plagued the team throughout the first half. Later in the game they faked a kick from their own end zone and completed a successful screen pass that brought them way up the field. No one knew the last time a Bryant team passed from the end zone.
But all in all, the gambles misfired. Georgia Tech intercepted four passes, and the first led to Tech's only touchdown. Mike McNames intercepted on the Alabama 40 and ran the ball back to the 16. Two plays later he rammed over for the score, and a successful kick for the extra point made it 7-0. Alabama scored its only touchdown in the fourth period, after a Georgia Tech misplay on a punt try gave Alabama the ball on the Tech nine. On the extra point Bryant gambled again, disdaining a kick for one point and a tie and electing instead to rush for a two-pointer. It failed. Later Bryant said, "There was no question; we had to go for the two points. It was my call and I'll take the blame, but when you're number one in the country you don't play for the tie."
With little over a minute left, Alabama drove down to the Tech 14, within field-goal distance. But in an attempt to get just a little closer, Namath bounced a pass out of a receiver's hands and it was intercepted by Tech's Don Toner. That was the end, for the clock soon ran out. Dodd said, "This is the greatest victory I've ever been associated with." The spectators, most of them Georgia Tech fans, left the stadium still tingling with the excitement of the game.
Despite the close score and the fact of the upset and the stunning switch in Alabama's strategy, the most significant statistics to come out of the game were the yards lost to penalties. Georgia Tech was penalized exactly 20 yards. Alabama was penalized exactly 10. Repeat: 10.
This gentle note almost certainly was the result of the Holt-Graning incident, which last year shocked the Southeastern Conference into awareness of a trend that is still spreading elsewhere in the nation: the degeneration of college football into a primitive battle of raw strength and attrition instead of a contest of athletic skills. Before the 1962 season began, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Bernie Moore had warned conference coaches and officials to crack down on rough play. His concern reflected that of other curators of college football—that the game was getting dirtier and dirtier and that rough play was being excused because it came under the guise of "hard-nosed football." But the incidence of serious injury was way up (one clinical survey showed that head and neck injuries had increased 82.5% in four years, and deaths in high school and college ball seemed to be in the headlines almost every week). Even the nomenclature of football tactics—"spearing" and "goring" and "shivering" and "gang-tackling"—was beginning to sound like something out of a West Side Story rumble. Not all of these tactics (right) are specifically authorized by the rule book but not all are clear and evident violations of the rules, and even Woody Hayes of Ohio State, renowned as a football purist, is an advocate of some of them.
"We teach our boys to spear and gore," Woody told a group of sports-writers this fall. "We want them to plant that helmet right under a guy's chin. A boy who blocks with his head down gets hurt. I want them to stick that mask right in the opponent's neck."
However, Hayes is against shivering. "There's nothing worse than forearm blows to the head," he said. Woody is particularly irked by the practice because of a broken jaw suffered by his best offensive end, Bob Middleton, in Ohio State's game with UCLA in October. "He got it from a blow on the head," Hayes said. "I know the officials can't always see these things, but some day a boy is going to die from one of those flagrant blows, and there's going to be real trouble. It could even be manslaughter, if somebody wanted to press charges." (Irv Wisniewski, assistant coach at Delaware, says of the forearm smash: "Pro scouts watching a college game can't understand how the players get away with it.")
Coaches and athletic directors are critical of other practices, too. Biggie Munn of Michigan State dislikes piling on. "I cringe every time I see half a dozen linemen crashing clown on some little, back," he says. And Clyde Smith of Arizona State complains, "Players are grabbing face masks and slamming the helmet back against the neck."
Despite such concern, there is no unanimity of opinion. For instance, Jess Neely, veteran head coach at Rice, disagrees with Hayes on certain aspects of spearing and goring ("The only reason a player sticks his helmet in another boy's face," says Neely, "is to intimidate or injure him"). But, on the other hand, he sees nothing wrong with a player driving his helmet into another man's midriff. And George Nash, assistant coach at Minnesota, says, "The head block has pretty well taken the place of the shoulder block, and I can't see anything particularly wrong with it."
Yet a report in the June 9, 1962 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association says, "Head-on blocking and tackling are dangerous football tactics and should be eliminated. No head protection of any kind is adequate to prevent injuries from occurring when these two tactics are employed." In other words, the man goring or spearing is liable to hurt himself as well as his opponent. These, and blatantly illegal tactics like grabbing an opponent's face mask, contribute to serious injuries. Neurosurgeon Richard Schneider of Michigan analyzed the 18 football fatalities that occurred in 1959 and discovered that 14 of them were the result of head and spinal injuries. "A football player is in great danger any time his head is thrown forcibly backwards by a blow," Dr. Schneider reported. In New England, a high school trainer said, "Whiplash neck injuries have become almost commonplace. It may be a 15-yard penalty for illegal use of the hands if the player is caught, but that doesn't make it up to the kid with the wry neck."
Blame for the increasing incidence of injuries has often been placed on modern equipment, such as the face guard and the rock-hard plastic helmet that have come into universal use in the last decade. But medical research indicates that the face guard and the helmet actually have helped to prevent an even greater number of injuries. Knocked-out teeth, jaw fractures, broken noses and other facial injuries have been substantially reduced, primarily because of the face guards, and the American Medical Association has approved the plastic helmet.
Blame has also been put on officials, who have been charged with being lax and permissive. Mike Lude, coach at Colorado State, grants that the highspeed, fast-charging game played nowadays makes it difficult for an official to see and call all infractions of the rules, but he adds, "Even so, failure to call unnecessary roughness leaves the kids with the impression that officials condone it." One referee conceded that the game had gotten out of control. "The blame is 50% ours, but it's 50% the coaches", too," he argued. "Coaches are forever harassing officials with demands not to slow down the game with penalties. Officials really ought to ignore the coaches, but they're afraid they'll be blacklisted if they antagonize them."
Despite these attempts to indict the officiating or the equipment, it is increasingly evident that the responsibility for football's roughness and football's injuries lies in football's tactics and, therefore, on football's coaches. Ernie McCoy, athletic director at Penn State and chairman of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's committee on injuries and safety, said recently, "From all the reports I get gang-tackling, helmet spearing and similar tactics are still on the rise. The tactics have come from the coaches, and they are the ones who will have to take the blame. Last spring I read one athletic journal that actually taught the use of these tactics. It even had X's marking the spot on the opponent that the boy should hit." Jack Curtice, head coach at Stanford, feels much the same way. "This is a matter for coaches," he says. "We've got to clean up this thing ourselves. You can't blame the kids as much as their instructors."
And, of course, last Saturday's Georgia Tech-Alabama game bore out that theory. Paul Bryant is famed as a teacher of rough, hard football, of football that doesn't break the rules but which stretches them to the legal limit. Bryant has written that football is a contest of "outmeaning" the other guy and physically whipping him down into defeat. But Bryant, who is proud of his reputation as a teacher of football, has become sensitive about the increasing criticism directed at him and at the style of play he has done so much to popularize. He was acutely aware that his Alabama team would be under close and critical observation in the Georgia Tech game (indeed, there were 26 photographers on the field Saturday, the most anyone has ever seen at a Southeastern Conference game). It is obvious that he wanted his team to play hard football against Georgia Tech, but equally obvious that he wanted to win both cleanly and spectacularly. Well, he lost, but the loss was clean and it was spectacular, and it should bring more credit to Paul Bryant as a man—and as a coach—than all his victories. Bryant may not feet that way after he has reflected on the ruin of his undefeated season.—and Alabama may be hard-nosed or hard-helmeted again a week from Saturday when it meets old rival Auburn—but perhaps Old Bear will be big enough to appreciate himself and what he has done. And perhaps other coaches will follow his lead, remembering that football is properly a game of skill rather than of savagery.
FOOTBALL'S DUBIOUS TECHNIQUES
The rising incidence of injuries, particularly to the neck and spine, is attributed primarily to the tactics, legal and illegal, shown below
Blocking with the forearm, known as "shivering," requires the blocker to smash his elbow and forearm against the helmet or face guard or into the neck or throat of the rushing player. Often the helmet is forced up, back and down against the nape of the neck.
A flagrantly illegal tactic, grabbing the face mask is an effective (and neck-breaking) way of stopping a ballcarrier or a would-be tackier. Linemen are the worst offenders, since outlawed maneuvers can more readily be hidden in the tangled fury of interior line play.
"Spearing" and "goring" describe head-on blocking and tackling, which are legal but frowned on by doctors. In the head-on block, the helmet is driven into the opponent's chest or belly. In the tackle, the ballcarrier is hit with helmet or face guard—in the head or neck or ribs—to induce fumbling.