The Coach had been making commencement addresses, delivering a speech he called "The Decline of Creative Profanity in American Life." He said it not only presented a challenge to youthful minds but also had proved to be highly portable; he could adjust it readily to the sophistication of his audiences and the size of his fees. "A tour de force, Scribe," he said, not getting up but motioning me into the booth with the tip of his unlit Don Diego Monarch. "Every stop I make, the etymologists cluster to thank me. High school and college coaches rush to pump my hand."
"Are they for or against the decline?" I said, squinting to adjust to the light.
The oasis the Coach favors when passing through Manhattan (a restaurant-lounge off Lexington in the mid-50s) affords him a certain anonymity, being as dark as a mine shaft. I had found him by trusting to instinct and the knowledge that he prefers corner tables where the vantage point is good but privacy is still possible.
"The curse word," he said, sliding a drink in my direction, "is a tool of communication only when it is, one, shocking, and two, incongruous. But nowadays a kid can hear all the shockwords at the neighborhood theater, or on ladies' day at the club. The expressions we used like jack-hammers on the practice field now flow like maple syrup from the mouths of the mothers in the C League."
September 10, 1978
I noticed that the waitress, a facsimile redhead with friendly buck teeth, was hovering nearby, staring at the Coach's familiar face. Tanned and more handsomely creased than ever, it had become prominent again since his agreement to shill for a line of small appliances on television.
He watched carefully as I took the first sip of the drink and smiled when I made a face.
"A split of Perrier water with a twist," he said. "Low in calories and a non-carcinogen. I commend it as the all-purpose drink." He slapped his own flat stomach.
"You said on the phone you had reached a startling conclusion about the state of college football," I said, sucking in. "Well, I certainly agree. If there's one thing college football needs today, it's more inspirational cussing, and I for one...."
"Don't be impertinent, Scribe," he said. "You have been a loyal if sluggish conduit, but I am on a tight schedule. What I am about to tell you may require more than the usual spelling-out, and I want to get on with it." The Coach took a long draft from his glass and counted the house with his steel-blue eyes.
"I was beginning to feel reassured about the upcoming season," he said. "Division I-A looks top-heavy now, but by this time next fall some of the little dreamer schools who opted to stay in I-A will realize that what Big Football achieved was a voting bloc that will shape the game's future—and its budget—for years to come. No doubt when the dreamers discover this reality they will be allowed an orderly exit from the crowd in I-A (139 members) to the freer air of I-AA (38), where the living will be easier.
"But while considering these things one night in Sheboygan, I suddenly found the gears shifting and my mind racing over the teams I had seen last spring. I began to realize that the best in the nation this year will again read like a Social Register: Alabama, USC, Penn State, Arkansas, Texas, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, UCLA, Oklahoma. And it hit me like a blindside block."
He looked squarely into my eyes. "The time has come," he said, "for the colleges to go back to real football. To the one-platoon."
A cacophony of rattling sounds made me realize I had jarred the table with my knees. "The one-platoon?" I said.
The Coach sighed ponderously. "Making a minor league prophet out of you is a tedious business," he said, glancing at his watch. "All right. A-B-C. What has prompted almost every major change college football has had to make in the last five years? What is the reason for the scholarship limit of 95, the freshman eligibility rules, the visit rules, the new redshirt rules, the sub-division of Division I?"
"Economics," I said. "So you're going to tell me one-platoon football is half as expensive as unlimited substitution because it requires only half the players and half the coaches. That Fritz Crisler took only 45 players to the 1948 Rose Bowl. That the great Blanchard-Davis teams at Army used about 35 men on the road, and that Earl Blaik had only three full-time assistants."
The Coach was calm in the eye of my storm.
"You're right, that's part of it," he said. "Unlimited substitution has come to mean unlimited expense. Coaches aren't satisfied with the 95-player limit. They want 105, or 125, and the extra dozen hotel rooms, airplane seats and wild-hair expenses that implies, not to mention a couple more coaches. I am consistently amazed at the willingness of hard-pressed college business managers to subsidize such skylarking."
"That's the price you pay for quality," I said. "Football is more sophisticated than when Blaik coached. And unlimited substitution gives more players a chance to play."
His reply took me aback; obviously he had come prepared.
" 'More sophisticated.' 'More players.' In the marketplace of American hokum, that one certainly attracts the rubes. The modern football player is, indeed, a highly efficient, beautifully packaged playing machine, but he does not play 'Football.' He plays 'Defensive Tackle,' or 'Offensive Guard,' or 'Outside Linebacker on Obvious Passing Downs.' "
The Coach caught the waitress' eye and waggled his forefinger over our glasses. Mine was virtually untouched, but I did not protest.
"Ain't football?" I said. "Ain't football?"
"You're repeating yourself. A defensive end plays defensive end, period. He learns the basic moves, repeats them over and over, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. He studies volumes of playbooks analyzing every inch of his broom-closet environment, and watches films until he's almost blind. That's all he knows.
"Administrators like to talk about the 'educational experience' of football. What a joke it is when the 'learning experience' is two steps across the line, pivot, watch the pitch, play the block, over and over again. No other sport constricts its athletes in such a manner."
I gulped some Perrier and said, "But the players like it this way. The NCAA took a poll, and the players preferred two-platoon 2 to 1."
"They don't know any better," said the Coach. "They've been brainwashed since they were eight years old, playing in those infernal little leagues, which, incidentally, should be limited by federal law to six-man teams, with everybody getting a chance to do the fun things—run the ball, pass it, catch it, kick it—before time and the vicissitudes of physical development channel them into a position. But no, they slap a piece of tape on a kid's helmet—'O.G.,' offensive guard—and the poor little sucker is branded for life. How'd you like to play football for 15 years and never touch the ball?"
"O.K., but isn't increased participation something to strive for?"
The Coach intercepted a bowl of popcorn the waitress had delivered and pushed it just out of my reach.
"I get that all the time from coaches, as if football were played just to keep potential delinquents off the street. Sure, more bodies tighten up the assembly line, allow for greater specialization. Bodies is the name of the game. NCAA figures show that football was played last year at 475 member institutions—with 41,500 participants. Compare that with baseball, which was played at 638 schools—but by only 19,000 athletes.
"Baseball is a game of nine to a side, of course, football 11. That's only a two-man difference. Baseball coaches must be doing something wrong. Maybe they should add three or four more fielders. There's plenty of room."
"You're being facetious," I said, and took another drag on the drink. It seemed to be going down easier.
"Not entirely. Who pushes the idea that more is better? Coaches. Coaches coaching two-platoon. Ask anybody who has done it both ways and they'll tell you—it's easier. You simply hire more assistants, delegate more authority and elevate yourself to chairman of the board. I'd hate to tell you how many times I've been on a practice field and heard a head coach yell down from his tower, 'Who made that tackle? Was that you, Smith?' 'No sir, Coach. I'm Brown.'
"But do coaches say 'Enough'? No. They say, 'Let's specialize some more.' When they finally eliminated all substitution restrictions in 1973, they had to go right back in '74 and write another rule because one coach had a guy who did nothing but run onto the field, give the quarterback the play and run off. The ultimate specialist."
He held up a restraining hand as I started to speak.
"And what has all this supersophistication done for the game? Well, the pros are the supreme specialists. They have two round pegs for every round hole. And they're so damn efficient they can't score any points; they had to rush through some relief rules for their starving pass receivers this year."
I drained my glass. "I suppose that's true," I said, nodding.
"Keep your line in the water, Scribe," said the Coach. "The best is yet to come. Consider this. As football is now played, the actual time the ball is moving and athletes are running into each other is 14 minutes a game. When coaches tell their players to 'go all out,' they don't mean for 60 minutes, they mean a 14-minute game. That's an average of seven minutes for an offensive player, seven for a defensive player, and less when you interject the goal-line teams, the third-down teams, etc.
"Now, here is the irony. Football practice is hard work. Today's players practice eight, nine months a year, including 'off-season' training. You almost never read about three-sport lettermen anymore. They're busy devoting all their time to supersophisticated football, day after day, week after week. And for what? At best, for seven minutes on Saturday afternoon.
"All right. You couple that injustice with the morale problems inherent in unlimited substitution..."
"Uh? Wait a minute," I said. "What morale problems?"
"Intramural rivalries. They've been known to separate entire coaching staffs, wives included. Offensive coaches griping about the lunkheads running the defense. Behind their backs, of course. Defensive players complaining about the inability of the offense to get out of its own shadow. Why? Because neither group has to answer for its mistakes. A guy fumbles on his five-yard line, he doesn't dig in to protect the goal, he trots off the field and says, 'You take it.' In real football, camaraderie is built in. Unity is a must. In real football, every position is a 'skilled position.' "
"I see what you mean," I said.
"No you don't. You've been brainwashed like everybody else. But here's the clincher, the argument that would fly in any budget meeting I've ever attended if they could keep coaches off the runway. I've been saving it for you."
He held a match to the cigar until the glow covered the end, and let the smoke from his first puff mingle with his words.
"Two-platoon football kills competitive balance. It is strictly a rich-get-richer proposition, and always has been. Unlimited substitution began as a spot on the X ray, three little words that appeared in the 1941 rules, to compensate for World War II manpower shortages. A player leaving the game did not have to wait till the next period but could return 'at any time.' Nobody did much about it for a couple of years, then Mr. Crisler platooned his Michigan team against Army and almost pulled a big upset. Pretty soon everybody was doing it, and it got worse and worse until, in 1953, Fritz and a posse of traditionalists voted those three words out again.
"And a funny thing happened. In the next 10 years, teams like Oregon State, Duke, Rice, Miami, TCU and even Utah State made the Top Ten. Auburn won a national championship, and so did LSU and Syracuse. Consecutively. Even the service academies were ranked.
"Well, you have to be dumb as a slug not to realize what had happened. With two-platoon you need 20 or 25 top players to turn a program around. In real football, with the accent on athletes, you can do it with half that. But second-echelon schools are not going to get 20 or 25. They're lucky to get sweepings after the big-budget guys breeze through, because the more you specialize, the more thoroughly you have to recruit.
"And, of course, the more you specialize the less likely you will be willing to try things, to be inventive. Coaches were so wrapped up in their Byzantine recruiting practices, and watching movies all night, and wiping the noses of 100 players, that they didn't have time to think up sleeper plays and hurry-up huddles and all the things that make football exciting, even at practice."
"Yes, I get it," I said, and waggled my finger over the glasses for the waitress, although the Coach's was only half empty. "One small point. What about protecting the more vulnerable athletes? You can't do that in one-platoon."
"You mean quarterbacks."
"Well, yeah. That's what got them chipping away at one-platoon football in the '50s, coaches trying to protect skinny-legged quarterbacks."
"That's right, Scribe, but times have changed. You can always write in escape clauses to get a player or two in and out of the game, but quarterbacks are not the splinter group they used to be. The colleges have gone to veers and wishbones and other triple options. Quarterbacks are back to being what the old tailbacks used to be—runners and passers. Rick Leach could probably play both ways at Michigan, Thomas Lott the same at Oklahoma. Some of the great college quarterbacks of all time played both ways—Johnny Lujack, Arnold Tucker, Sid Luckman, Benny Friedman. Paul Hornung was a running back in the pros. So was Tom Matte.
"The time has come to restore the whole game to the kids who play it. Give 'em a chance to strike back. Let them have the thrill of scoring as well as stopping the other guy. If you want to talk about 'educational experience,' talk to me about real football. If you want to promote equality of competition, and give the Northwesterns and Vanderbilts a shot, talk to me about real football. If you want to talk about balancing the budget, talk to me about real football."
"Hear, hear," I cried, raising my glass. The Coach tossed a bill on the table and slid to the end of the booth.
"But it won't happen," he said. "The rules makers don't have the guts to buck the pro lobby, which would scream if the farm system quit turning out all those lovely round pegs. Besides that, most coaches on the committee today have never even heard of real football."
The Coach put on his glasses and winked at the hovering waitress, who grinned toothily. "No, Scribe," he said, rising, "it's a joust at windmills. It won't happen until college football is down to 25 teams that can still afford it. No, don't get up, finish your drink. I've got to stop by Dunhill's for a humidor they've been holding for me, then on to the airport for Atlanta. I'm addressing a group of law enforcement people tomorrow, together with some sociologists and tenant-landlords."
"Give 'em heck," I said, watching the Coach move smartly through the door.