"College football's costly two-platoon era, which introduced the gridiron specialist and bankrupted the football programs of many small colleges, came to a sudden end today."
—ASSOCIATED PRESS, JAN. 15, 1953
This is an article from the Sept. 3, 1990 issue
Wouldn't it be wonderful to pick up the morning paper, nearly 38 years after those words were written, and see that news reported once again? Except things have gotten so much worse that today the word small would have to be deleted. Imagine a return to iron-man football, a time when men were men and football players played real football. Which is to say, a time when the same guys played offense, then defense, then offense. All afternoon.
Remember Chuck Bednarik, possibly the best linebacker ever and among the best centers? In four years at the University of Pennsylvania he practically never left the field, and he didn't let up when he arrived in the NFL, either. Bednarik played on both sides of scrimmage during nearly all of his 14 years, 1949-62, with the Philadelphia Eagles. He put the New York Giants' Frank Gifford out for a year with a world-class hit, and he stopped the Green Bay Packers' Jim Taylor, one-on-one, to preserve the Eagles' NFL championship in 1960. And he hardly ever flubbed a center snap to such greats as Norm Van Brocklin and Sonny Jurgensen. It's time for another Bednarik. That was down and dirty football, before prissy wide receivers started streaking onto the field as play-carrying messengers and myriad other substitution travesties multiplied.
"They couldn't do it. They'd run out of gas," Bednarik, now 65 and a sales rep for a corrugated box company, says of today's athletes. "Before the half, they'd be suckin' and huffin' and puffin'. We keep hearing how great they are. One-platoon football would let us really find out how great they are."
"If it were up to me," says Penn State coach Joe Paterno, "I'd love to go back to one-platoon football right now. It would get us back to a lot of basic values." He falls silent, then says, "Wouldn't that be great? "
Former University of Pittsburgh coach Mike Gottfried says, "It would get college football back to where college football was." Glory be and hallelujah.
Sadly, those marvelous days lasted only through 1964, when unlimited substitution—otherwise known as the two-platoon system, so named by Colonel Red Blaik, the Army coach who naturally thought in military terms—was again foisted upon us. Just as sadly, almost nobody today is seriously talking about a return to the good old days. But they should be, for seven quite sensible reasons:
1) Expenses would be cut. Dramatically. Kansas State president Jon Wefald thinks one-platoon football could result in at least a 40% savings. And that is directly in line with the sentiments of the NCAA Presidents Commission, which, says Wefald, "is in favor of cost reduction in all sports. But football is the sport most associated with overemphasis. We've got to bring this thing under control, because football has become the tail that wags the dog."
Dave Nelson, the secretary-editor of the NCAA Rules Committee since 1961, suggests that if one-platoon rules were reinstated, the NCAA's current limit of 95 scholarships per school could easily be reduced to 60. As things stand, the 106 Division I-A schools can award a total of 10,070 scholarships, at an average cost of $10,000 each, which is $100.7 million a year. The reintroduction of one-platoon football would mean that schools could cut their scholarships back to 6,360, at a cost of $63.6 million. Bingo, a savings of $37.1 million. Nelson estimates that the average major school would save about $350,000 a year in scholarships. Stanford, where a football scholarship is valued at $20,805 a year, would save $728,175. And that's in scholarships alone. There would be additional savings in uniforms, transportation, recruiting and so on.
And to those who express concern for those 3,710 players who would lose out under a new 60-scholarship rule, Iowa State coach Jim Walden says, "Nobody promised we'd have trees to cut down forever or that people would burn coal forever or that we'd have 95 scholarships forever." Even at Iowa State, where a scholarship for an in-state player is valued at only $4,900, that would represent an annual savings of $171,500.
At least one athletic director at a major university has run the figures for his entire program and concludes that one-platoon football would save his school nearly $1.5 million a year all told (chart, page 35). There would be savings at smaller schools, too. John Gagliardi, coach at Division III St. John's in Collegeville, Minn., for the past 37 years, estimates that total savings for his school would amount to "at least 50 percent."
2) The players would love it. Former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler and former LSU coach Paul Dietzel, among others, allow that this would be the case. Both Schembechler and Dietzel choose the exact same words for their thoughts: "Well, the players would enjoy it more." That might sadden these two old drill sergeants, because most coaches hate anything that makes the coach less important and the player more important, and one-platoon football would make the player more important.
It's instructive to recall why football was started in the first place—as a nice diversion for male college students who happened to like knocking each other around for a few hours on pleasant Saturday afternoons in the fall. Ask any college football player if he would like to play both offense and defense and, without exception, every one lights up at the prospect. Even quarterbacks.
3) The game would bring out the best in players. Says Paterno, "Players would have to work hard to make themselves good at something they were not good at." For instance, a star running back would need to learn how to cover a receiver in order to be able to play cornerback. Or a linebacker would have to learn to pass block. Ron Schipper, the coach at Central College in Pella, Iowa for the past 29 years, says, "They would be able to get down in the trenches, play after play, and just go after it. And it would get rid of some of these prima donnas. Players would have to be great, great competitors." Walden agrees and says, "It would broaden the players' horizons."
Players who have played both ways get misty-eyed at the memories. Leroy Keyes, who played halfback and cornerback for Purdue from 1966 to '68—even though two-platoon football had just been made legal—says, "To play both ways gave me the highest degree of confidence. It was an honor. I believed in my ability to do it all."
Four years ago, another Purdue player, Rod Woodson, played in 137 plays as the Boilermakers whipped Indiana 17-15. "Apparently," says Woodson, now a defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, "God gave me the ability to play offense and defense." Apparently. He rushed for 93 yards on 15 carries in that game and caught three passes for 87 yards. As a cornerback, he was in on 10 tackles (with seven solo stops), caused a fumble and broke up a pass. He also returned two kickoffs for a total of 46 yards, and had three punt returns. "It was a great opportunity, and it was fun," says Woodson. "I like offense because it's exciting, and defense because it's challenging. I think players should be given the opportunity to try both. Why not?" Woodson has talked to the Steelers about playing a little wide receiver. The Steelers, of course, told him not to hold his breath.
4) The all-around athlete will predominate. Walden likes the idea that a one-platoon system would "eliminate the one-dimensional athlete and do away with the big lug who can't get out of harm's way." There would be more players like Johnny Roland, who was an All-America defensive back in 1965 and the next year was the NFL Rookie of the Year at running back for the St. Louis Cardinals. Or Gordie Lockbaum of Holy Cross, who wasn't real big or real fast, but starred at tailback and defensive back for the Crusaders from 1984 to '87 and finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy his senior year.
At Washington State, coach Mike Price, a former quarterback and defensive back for the Cougars ("I wasn't good enough to play either offense or defense, so I played both"), says that the "all-around athlete would become a star again. He would play all the time. And the fans would get to know him." Which, except in the case of a handful of stars, doesn't happen with the current cast of thousands. Who, for example, was the starting pulling guard for the national champion Miami Hurricanes last season? But this season, a fellow at Tennessee named Carl Pickens could become as famous as Lockbaum if he continues the success he had last season playing both receiver and free safety.
"Blocking doesn't teach you to tackle, so what two-platoon football does is make a man a lesser player," says Walden. At its core, football is blocking and tackling, and former Missouri coach Dan Devine finds it wrong that "we have these kids who have never blocked and the other half who have never tackled."
5) The players will be better conditioned and there will be fewer injuries. Price says there would be a shift "from training to be a sprinter to being a marathoner, from an emphasis on explosive mass to conditioning the overall body."
Having smaller players—Purdue coach Fred Akers thinks the 6'5", 315-pound offensive tackle would be no more—as well as better-conditioned ones would mean a decrease in the number of injuries. That's partly because now, as Price points out, the typical 185-pound player is bulking up to 220, "and he doesn't have the bone structure to support it." With athletes having more all-around abilities, there would be less speed, which combined with smaller size would lessen the severity of collisions—especially on artificial turf.
The argument that playing both ways means the players would be tired and therefore injury prone makes no sense. First, Delaware's Nelson says his studies show that the ball is actually in play a mere 14 minutes a game. To think that a young, healthy, well-conditioned athlete can't suck it up enough to put out top effort for 14 minutes on 11 Saturday afternoons borders on the absurd. At the very most, having to play both offense and defense would mean that athletes might have to be tougher mentally. And that's no drawback.
In the continuing domino effect, better conditioning and fewer injuries might help ease a serious problem: helmets. As recently as 20 years ago, 20 companies made football helmets; now there are four. Liability concerns, and the cost of insurance, have simply become too onerous. To the extent that collisions become less severe, the number of head and neck injuries presumably would decline.
6) The playbook would be simplified. "It would do away with the hot reads and safety blitzes and all that stuff," says Walden. "If I were to tell my players, 'Here are 72 offensive plays and 55 defensive plays for you to learn,' they would look at me like I was stupid." BYU coach La Veil Edwards sees "a far more conservative game."
Alabama's new coach, Gene Stallings, grouses that "Today we put in a player to rush the passer, another to run a deep route, someone else to catch a pass out of the backfield, somebody to cover that.... When I played, the only time we came out was when we did bad."
One-platoon football would decrease the game's alleged sophistication and bring it back to basics. Nelson contends that specialization has had a bad effect on the game. For example, he says conversion kicks succeed at a rate of 96%, which, he says, is "ridiculously easy." And field goals—which are not even close to being as entertaining as watching a touchdown—have gone from 103 in 1958 to 2,380 last year. Ideally, under a strict one-platoon system, the quarterback would be replaced by the kicker on field goals and punts, and only one other substitution would be permitted.
7) The balance of power could very well be altered. As it stands now, anyone can devise a credible Top 20 list for this year simply by using the teams that were on it last year. Which, with few exceptions, were on it the year before. New guys at the party would spice up the conversation a bit.
Kansas State's Wefald says, "This would mean that 35 players who might have gone to Notre Dame or Michigan or Oklahoma will be going somewhere else. It would provide a fairer opportunity for the rest of us to get better players." At TCU, coach Jim Wacker predicts, "The schools struggling would jump up and down in support of this." So would it make TCU, which was 34-72-4 during the 1980s, more competitive? "No doubt about it," says Wacker.
So there you have it. Yes, one-platoon football would result in smaller size and less speed. But the beauty is, the fans wouldn't care. Again, it's Walden who gets to the heart of the matter: "All they want is to see the 11 who have got it against the 11 who are trying to get it. They just look at it as us and them."
To those who say that one-platoon football would diminish the quality of the game, Nelson says with a shrug, "Quality in relation to what? The NFL? We're talking about college football, aren't we?" Besides, a number of the best college football teams in history were fielded during the 1953-64 one-platoon era. Oklahoma, '55-56, was unbeaten and untied, and between 1953 and '57 ran off an NCAA record of 47 straight games without a loss. Other one-platoon teams that easily rank among the Top 25 ever include Syracuse in 1959, LSU in 1958 and UCLA in 1954.
One of Devine's favorite memories is of a game in 1959 that his Missouri Tigers played against Michigan at Ann Arbor. Because of intricate one-platoon rules restricting substitutions, he couldn't get his star player, starting quarterback Phil Snowden, back in the game. The Tigers were behind in the fourth quarter and needed to drive 80 yards in two minutes in a driving rainstorm to win. Which is precisely what backup quarterback Bobby Haas did. Does that lack drama?
The question of one platoon versus two platoon is a hot football topic nearly as old as college football itself. From the game's birth until 1941, everyone played both ways. There was unlimited substitution from 1941 through '52, mostly because of concerns about getting enough versatile players during the war years. But Michigan coach Fritz Crisler gave birth to the modern concept of two platoons in a 1945 game in Yankee Stadium, against Army, when he used eight players who lined up only on offense and eight who played only defense; three played both ways. Although Michigan lost 28-7, Army's Blaik quickly saw the possibilities, and he developed them. From 1946 to '50, Blaik's teams twice finished second in the final Associated Press poll, and did not rank lower than 11th.
Passions have always run high on the substitution rule. When the Rules Committee abolished two platoons in 1953—citing costs, primarily—General Bob Neyland, then the athletic director at Tennessee, was thrilled to do away with what he saw as "chicken——" football. At the same time, no issue has caused more indecisiveness in football than the substitution rule. The rule has been tinkered with 37 times since 1876, often in horribly convoluted ways. For example, in 1953, the rule read: "A player withdrawn from the game shall not return during the period from which he was withdrawn, except that a player withdrawn before the final four minutes of the second or fourth period may return during the final four minutes of the period from which he was withdrawn." Complained a critic at the time, according to Nelson, "It's like playing poker with queens, fours, one-eyed jacks and the joker wild in a high-and-low game."
Those who are against the idea of one-platoon football marshall a familiar litany of objections: fewer players get to participate, less sophistication, more injury, less fan interest, a move backward instead of forward. Grouses Nebraska AD Bob Devaney, "I don't see a single advantage to one-platoon." He refuses to even consider any advantages. That's a common response. There remains that prevalent feeling among the sport's big shots that they would rather deal with the devil they know than with the devil they don't.
And yet, a simple return to simple football requires only a simple rule: Two players may be substituted after every play. Period. A coach could still have some flexibility, and he could get his quarterback out of the game to protect him.
"What all this would do," says Nelson, "is give the students the opportunity to run their game." There have been worse ideas tried in college football.