When the NCAA Rules Committee voted a return to two-platoon football last month, one of the least surprised men in the country—and one of the most pleased—was Fritz Crisler, athletic director of the University of Michigan. Crisler is a life member of the Rules Committee. Seldom celebrated in headlines as a mover and shaker in college football circles, he has, in his quiet, behind-the-scenes way, exerted a profound influence on the game. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the deep thinkers of the committee saw the error of their ways and came, at last, almost full circle to the free-substitution rule of the late '40s, in the background, as insistent as ever, was the voice of Fritz Crisler.
Crisler has always been thinking a little ahead of his colleagues. He urged the adoption of the first unlimited-substitution rule as a wartime measure in 1941. He had been the first to suggest the conversion option that gave a team the choice of kicking for one point after a touchdown or running or passing for two. He had championed wider goal posts to encourage more tries for field goals.
Some little time before leaving Ann Arbor for this year's rules meeting, Crisler had gone on record as favoring the return to unlimited substitution. He had gone on record with some other ideas in response to a suggestion that he observe his 25th anniversary at Michigan (and his 65th birthday) by taking a look back over the years and into the future of the game to which he has devoted his life.
I met Crisler in his ground-floor office in the Michigan athletic administration building. He stood near his desk, tall, broad of shoulder, trim of waist. When he walked to a window and back again, as he occasionally did, he was quick and sure in every movement. His eyes were clear and cool, his face unsmiling, as he considered how he would begin.
February 3, 1964
Behind him was one of the greatest coaching careers in the history of college football. He had started as an assistant to the incomparable Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago; he had moved on his own to Minnesota, Princeton and Michigan. As head coach, he had a lifetime record of 116 victories, 32 defeats, nine ties. His magnificent 1947 team had gone through the season undefeated and then had scored a 49-0 victory over Southern California in the Rose Bowl. It was the last team he coached before he retired, as Coach of the Year, to devote all his time to the athletic directorship, a new career during which Michigan Stadium was twice expanded, until it became the largest college-owned bowl in the country, with a seating capacity of 101,001.
He sat down at his desk, leaned forward and rested his elbows on it. "Now," he said, "about the substitution rule. Let's go back and review the circumstances that made platooning possible. World War II had created a tremendous drain on manpower, and in the 1941 meeting of the Football Rules Committee many people felt that football schedules should be scrapped entirely. But the services urged that the colleges continue all athletic programs as best they could, pointing to their importance in conditioning the boys who would eventually be called up and to the morale and leadership factors involved.
"With this directive from the services, the Rules Committee met to ponder the question—the staggering question—of how we were to continue with our ranks so depleted. I attended that meeting in my capacity as president of the American Football Coaches Association, along with Matty Bell of Southern Methodist, who was to succeed me in that office. We had no vote, but we could have the floor at any time and state our views.
"Since the problem was obviously a matter of depth, Matty and I came to the conclusion that the answer might be found in a relaxation of the substitution rule. The rule at the time said that if a boy started a quarter and was taken out he could not return to the game during the same quarter. So if you had only a limited number of men, a narrow bench, and you had to make substitutions for reasons of injury or fatigue, and one thing and another, you might very well run out of men altogether. But if a boy—with a minor injury or the wind knocked out of him—could be taken out and returned as soon as he was able to play again, why, that would be most helpful. The Rules Committee found the answer in three little words. Instead of having the rule say that a substitute could enter the game only once in a quarter, the committee approved a rule permitting a substitute to enter the game 'at any time.' Just those three little words."
And those three little words made platooning possible?
Actually," said Crisler, "they did. But at the time our concern was for the single boy. We were thinking of the single boy who might have to be taken out briefly. We wanted to be able to put this boy back in the game as soon as he was ready and needed. I don't think anybody at the 1941 meeting of the Rules Committee visualized platooning as it was later developed."
What made him decide to go to platooning in 1945?
"Sheer necessity. You see, almost all colleges were playing freshmen at the time, because the older boys were in the service. Now, before the Michigan-Army game I figured that I would have to start nine freshmen against Red Blaik's great Blanchard-Davis team. By comparison with Michigan, Army had a team of mature men. I asked myself, 'How are our poor, spindly-legged freshmen going to stand up against these West Pointers all afternoon?' I knew I would have to spell them off during the game. So I picked our best defensive men and said, 'When we lose the ball, you fellows automatically go in.' Then I got my best offensive men and ball handlers together and said, 'When we regain possession, you fellows automatically go in.' As it turned out, I only platooned the lines, and the linebackers on defense. We lost the game 28-7, but it should have been much, much worse.
"I remember very well that after the game my telephone rang constantly. Coaches were asking me, 'What's it all about? What are you up to?' A few coaches tried platooning that very season, next year Army went to it and practically everybody else followed suit."
By 1953, did he consider that platooning had gone too far? Did he lead the move to kill it entirely?
"No, I did not lead it," said Crisler. "That's an erroneous thing. The fact is that as chairman of the Rules Committee in 1953 I had two concerns. One, 50 colleges had given up football in 1952, on the ground that they could not afford the cost of recruiting so many men. Two, I had been getting protests from young men who had gone into coaching. They told me they knew how to coach only one kind of football—offensive or defensive. One young man said, 'I don't know what to do on offense because I never played it.'
"So, taking these two points into consideration, I went into the meeting feeling that we should not go any further in relaxing the substitution rule. As a matter of fact, there was only one further step you could take and that would be to permit free and unlimited substitution any time, the clock running or the clock dead, as in the professional game. I felt that we should either hold the line or tighten up a bit. But then, to my utter amazement, there was a strong sentiment in favor of going back all the way, essentially to the rule as it was before 1941. This body of opinion was led by General Bob Neyland of Tennessee. He felt most strongly about it. He thought the game was being hurt. He was most sincere, I am sure, in his conviction. I took the position that since we had evolved by steps, we should go back by steps. For one thing, we had all these coaches who had not played under the old rules. But, strangely enough, the committee went all the way with General Neyland and those who shared his opinion. The free-substitution rule was killed, and the platoon with it."
What did Fritz Crisler think the Rules Committee should do about the substitution rule this year? On the eve of the annual meeting, he leaned back and thought a moment.
"Of course, as a life member of the committee I have no vote. But I might say that I think the 1946 rule was a very good rule. I think there might be real merit in considering a return to that rule. Period."
(The 1946 rule permitted free and unlimited substitution whenever the clock was dead for any reason. It also put a limit on time-outs. The recently adopted new rule permits unlimited substitution with one restriction: a team must sacrifice a time-out when it sends in a platoon during the progress of a period when the clock is running. Coaches say that this restriction will mean that they will have to continue development of some "two-way, multitalented" players rather than depend entirely on offensive and defensive specialists.)
Crisler did not agree with people who believe the college and professional games should be exactly the same. "There are a number of differences between the college and professional games. In addition to the substitution rules, there are also the width and position of the goal posts and, in the NFL, the try for points after touchdowns. Obviously there are differences in the ages, the weights and the quality of players. Oh, there are many areas of difference, and I am not disturbed, because there should be a professional image of the game and a collegiate image of the game. No reason why they should be the same.
"As for the college game, I would like to see a lot of different formations and a wide variety of plays. The great difficulty is that, with the exchange of game films and the vast exposure of games on television, it's difficult for a coach to be inventive and hold on to whatever it is that he has developed. For instance, when Don Faurot developed the split T at the University of Missouri he was widely copied. Bud Wilkinson developed it with great success at Oklahoma. Then the little variations came in, with split end and slot back and so on. Today we have a climate, an atmosphere, of copying rather than inventing. Of course, with all the recruiting they have to do, coaches just don't have time to be as inventive as they were before television came in and the exchange of game films began."
He was silent. In a moment he went on: "I remember the old plays. The hurry-up huddle, the sideline and talking plays. The sleeper." He smiled. "Our defense against the sleeper was rather celebrated. The sleeper was banned by the Rules Committee, but when the play was legal a man could hide out over where there were substitutes standing or where there was a crowd on the sidelines. You would tell your halfbacks, 'Scan your sides of the field after every play to look for that sleeper.' You would say to your safety, 'You scan both sides.' Despite their vigilance, the boys would frequently miss a sleeper hiding out. Finally we thought of adding a bugler to our defense."
A bugler? The kind of bugler who blows a horn?
"That kind of bugler. We would put a bugler up on top of the press box with instructions to watch for that sleeper, and when he spotted one to blast out reveille with all the fervor and wind that was in him. It worked, but we could only use him at home games. There was a limit on the number of men we could take on a trip. One time we went to Illinois, and Zup [Coach Bob Zuppke] laid a sleeper out there and beat us with the play. If we had had our bugler I don't think Zup would have beat us."
The scene shifted to the den in Crisler's home. The walls were filled with photographs of his teams at Minnesota, Princeton and Michigan. There were several photographs and sketches of "the Old Man," as Crisler affectionately refers to Amos Alonzo Stagg, his patron at the University of Chicago, now in Stockton, Calif. in his 101st year.
Crisler's eyes lingered on the pictures of Stagg.
"It is a strange feeling," he said quietly, "to look back and see where some trivial incident changed the whole course of your life."
He sat back in his chair, the memories crowding in on him.
"I was born," he said, "on a farm in Earlville, a village about 70 miles west of Chicago. I was christened Herbert Orin Crisler. [Coach Stagg fastened the nickname of 'Fritz' on him after he had fumbled three times in a row. Stagg made the sarcastic point that there was a violinist, a great artist, who spelled his name Kreisler. He said he was naming Crisler Fritz because he bore absolutely no resemblance to Fritz Kreisler, the artist.] I was a skinny kid. I didn't weigh more than 100 pounds when I entered high school. I concentrated on my studies and, with an average of 93.4, I applied for an academic scholarship at the University of Chicago and I was awarded one on the basis of my scholastic record. I enrolled as a pre-med, and it was during my freshman year that this trifling incident occurred that changed the course of my life. Before the incident I have in mind I had stopped one day to watch football practice. A play headed in my direction. Mr. Stagg, back-pedaling away from the play, bumped into me and we both went down. As we picked ourselves up, he saw, by my cap, that I was a freshman and so he said, 'Why aren't you out for freshman football?' I had gained some weight by that time, but I told Mr. Stagg I had never played football. He said, 'You ought to be out anyway with the rest of your classmates.' So I reported next afternoon, got a uniform, and Pat Page, the freshman coach, put me in scrimmage. I took a terrible pounding. That evening I turned in my uniform. About 10 days later I was crossing the quadrangle and I saw Mr. Stagg coming along on his bicycle. I ducked my head, but he spotted me and stopped. He said, 'Weren't you out for football?' I said I had been, but I had quit because I didn't know anything about the game. I'll never forget the look of scorn Mr. Stagg gave me. 'Well,' he said, I never thought you'd be a quitter!' "
Crisler shook his head and smiled.
"Of course," he went on, "I said to myself, 'I'll show you.' I went back out the next day and I was off on an athletic career that brought me nine letters at Chicago. I was a pitcher in baseball, a standing guard in basketball, an end in football. But if the Old Man hadn't come riding by on his bike at that precise moment that day, I wouldn't be sitting here now with all these pictures and souvenirs and mementos on the walls."
The walls reflected a career that is the Great American Dream as it is cherished by young men who enter the profession of football coaching. Forced to drop out of medical school for lack of money, Crisler became Stagg's first assistant. At 25 he was offered the head coaching job at Minnesota. He asked his mentor for counsel, and Stagg said, "Fritz, you're not ready to fly." When Minnesota came after him again six years later and this time wanted him to be athletic director as well as head coach, the Old Man said, "Now you're ready to fly, Fritz. Go to it." And go to it he did. At Minnesota, Crisler won 10, lost seven and tied one. When he moved to Princeton, as the first non-alumnus ever to coach in the Big Three, he ran up a record of 35-9-5. At Michigan, from 1938 to 1948, Crisler-coached teams won 71 games, lost 16 and tied three.
"In every move I made," said Crisler, "there was only one way you could go—up. Minnesota had had bad seasons. Princeton and Michigan as well."
He got up and looked at the photograph of his 1947 undefeated Michigan team, the 49-0 Rose Bowl victors.
"They were a marvelous bunch of kids. A coach gets a group like that every once in a lifetime. Some never get one. Greatest bunch of ball handlers I ever saw. The offensive line averaged only 188. Today they don't recruit tackles unless they weigh 230."
Was it true that the lighter teams were not as injury-prone as those of today?
"I don't know," said Crisler, "if that was because they were light or not. I am one who is concerned about the equipment we're using today. I have the feeling that it is contributing to injuries. The equipment was supposed to protect the wearer from injury, and now I'm wondering if it isn't causing injuries.
"I would like to see a rule on the subject of equipment—the face mask, the headgear, this unyielding armor we're putting these kids into. I've declared myself. I am convinced that we ought to take off the face mask and review the helmet. You see, you get the depth of this unyielding plastic in the back of the neck and you get this face mask out front. A blow of some sort underneath the mask can cause a whiplash in the back of the neck, in the area of the cervical vertebrae. A blow of this kind could be fatal. It has been fatal. There is also the danger that, with grasping the mask itself, you will get a sharp head rotation and a disabling injury.
"There is another serious point to be made in this same connection. The face mask and headgear are changing the mechanics of football, and blocking in particular. Now they're blocking with the head. The shoulder blocks and side body blocks are gradually disappearing. This use of the headgear as a weapon is called spearing. They have spearing drills. Some call it goring. Now, if you took the face mask off, it isn't likely that they would be able to do that sort of thing."
The 1964 Rules Committee meeting voted to make it a personal foul for a player to ram an opponent in the head, face or neck with his helmet or neck. Nothing was said about changing the helmet or removing the mask, as Crisler so strongly recommends. Was anything being done about that problem?
"There are a number of studies going on," said Crisler. "Here at Michigan, Bennie Oosterbaan [Michigan's famous All-America end and former coach] and I have been assisting Dr. Richard Schneider, a great neurosurgeon, by getting films together for his study of football fatalities. There is conclusive evidence that with today's helmet and face mask you get that whiplash I mentioned."
Without the face mask, wouldn't there be some teeth knocked out, some noses broken?
Crisler looked around the walls, his eyes lingering a moment on one of the portraits of Stagg.
"I would rather have that," he said quietly, "than to see a boy on a slab in the morgue."
Later on, Fritz Crisler conducted a tour of Michigan Stadium. Outside the great bowl there is a sign that reads simply, "Michigan Stadium. Capacity 101,001." Under Fielding Yost, whom Crisler succeeded as athletic director, the stadium's capacity was 79,000.
Crisler is obviously proud that the University of Michigan has the largest college-owned stadium in the U.S. He would not concede that it is his personal monument, although that is what many people consider it to be. One question that all Crisler's guests ask him is, "How did you arrive at a seating capacity of 101,001? Was it pure coincidence? Was there a reason for the additional seat?"
Crisler smiles at the question. "Let us put it this way. It makes a great conversation piece at cocktail parties."
That extra seat had no significance of any kind? It was not any special seat in any special spot?
"It has its spot," said Crisler. "And I am the only man who knows where that spot is."
And he would not tell?
Fritz Crisler leaned back against a goal post and gazed around the stadium and down the snow-covered field. He smiled and shook his head.
It was his secret. But anyone is entitled to guess, and one guess might be that somewhere in that vast stadium there is this one seat, and perhaps it is never sold. Perhaps it is reserved, now and forever, for someone who taught Fritz Crisler a way of coaching football and a way of life. For the Old Man, Amos Alonzo Stagg.