One day earlier this summer I watched in amazement as a former football coach got up on the grease board in my office and drew up the defense that he once used to stop a specific football play.
The more he went through the play and all of the possible scenarios involved with it the more I thought I was watching Einstein draw up the formula for time travel.
I thought to myself, I’m in my upper mid-40s, I once played the game (albeit at a low level and not very well), I’ve been around college football for the last 25 years or so and I spent some time with some really good football coaches, and although I do work in mostly small round numbers, I can hold a fairly intelligent conversation on a lot of different topics. But what I saw going up on that grease board was done in a language that I had never seen before. And while I was struggling to figure out what he was attempting to draw, I began to wonder how some 18, 19 or 20-year-old kid with ADHD would receive this?
If you’ve got a few minutes, or a few hours, just listen to Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG football analyst Jed Drenning talk about the Zone Read play some time. He can describe that play until your fillings hurt, which begs the question: Is the game getting too complicated?
I had always heard that Vince Lombardi’s playbook with the Green Bay Packers consisted of a just handful of plays that his players executed to perfection.
In today’s game, on the collegiate level, I know when Rich Rodriguez was coaching here at West Virginia his playbook was not that elaborate – he just masked a few core plays within a bunch of different formations that he ran as fast as he could.
Dana Holgorsen has said over and over again that it takes only three days to install his offense.
So, why do people try and make the game so complicated?
When I played red was always right and green was always left. That made sense to me. For years here at West Virginia, the defensive fronts were always assigned by numbers (4 was a four-man front, 3 was a three-man front and so forth) and coverages were always either even or odd to make it easier to learn. There were no such things as colors for different coverages or names like Eagle or Tiger for specific defenses or things like that.
But some people like complicated, I guess, even the good ones.
When Tom Bradley was coaching at Penn State he said they used a language all their own. Their strong safety was called the ‘Hero’ because former coach Rip Engle didn’t think the term ‘Monster’ fit in college football. Penn State’s middle linebacker was called ‘Backer’ and one of the outside linebacker positions was labeled ‘Fritz.’
“People would come and watch our defense and we would have to explain what the Fritz was,” recalled Bradley last weekend. “’Fritz, what is that?’ ‘It’s like the will (linebacker).’ ‘Why do you call him the Fritz?’ It was named after Fritz the Pizza Man from back in 1950. He gave the guys free pizzas. True story.”
Bradley said the Nittany Lions also labeled their receivers completely different than everyone else.
“We did everything backwards,” said Bradley. “I think we were dyslexic because on offense our flanker was the X, the tight end was the Y and the split end was the Z. I would start laughing because we would be talking about the flanker and say the X and someone else would say, ‘No, you mean the Z.’ People would come in and talk about our defense and they were confused because we were backwards. Everyone else was right.”
Bradley said Penn State’s pass skeleton was always referred to as ‘Drill 6.’
“When the new coaches would come in they would ask, ‘Why do you call it Drill 6?’ Well, in the old days when Rip was the coach the sixth period was always pass skeleton so it was known as Drill 6,” said Bradley.
Following Engle, Penn State coach Joe Paterno never used a clock or an air horn to change periods. There was only one clock and one whistle in practice and both were the property of the same guy - Paterno.
“You’d hear this little whistle and people would just start running places,” chuckled Bradley. “Whenever people would be standing around I would say, ‘Just run somewhere! I don’t care where you run. Just start running and everything will be good.’”
Here at West Virginia, Holgorsen’s practices are scripted. The players and coaches know exactly what they are going to do because it’s detailed on their schedule.
Paterno’s practices changed daily, sometimes hourly.
“Every Monday was different. Every Tuesday was different. Every Wednesday was different – whatever he felt the team needed he would adjust constantly,” said Bradley. “It’s good and bad but that was the way he did things.
“You’ve just got to get a feel for what’s going on,” Bradley added. “I think that’s what Coach Holgorsen is trying to do. You see so many different situations out there and we do it all the time because then you can get them thinking about all of the different situations.”
The key, of course, is to get them to think but not overthink things. We saw that firsthand last year at times with West Virginia’s defense when the Mountaineers were employing more complicated schemes that didn’t always match the inexperienced personnel trying to play them.
I always liked the way Al McGuire approached intelligence. The former Marquette coach used to say that he preferred having a C-student standing at the foul line in key situations instead of an A-student because the A-student could envision all of the implications of a missed shot while the C-student was only smart enough to see the front of the rim.
There is something to be said for those C-students – just don’t tell that to my kids.
I had an interesting telephone conversation with former Mountaineer offensive tackle Nick Kindler the other day. Nick is currently working as analyst for United Bank here in Morgantown and is also involved in a lawsuit alleging that the NCAA is capping its cost of living stipends for student-athletes.
Kindler’s claim has since been bundled with Shawne Alston’s lawsuit and several others and is currently being reviewed in California by the same federal judge who presided over the Ed O’Bannon case.
For those of you out of the loop, Alston is also suing the NCAA for a violation of antitrust laws by capping the value of an athletic scholarship at less than the actual cost of attending school.
O’Bannon’s case, of course, has received a substantial amount of publicity because it centered on the usage of a players’ name, image and likeness (NIL) for profit without proper compensation to the players.
Judge Claudia Wilken has since ruled in favor of O’Bannon, but did give the NCAA a small victory by upholding the NCAA’s practice of prohibiting players from seeking their own endorsement deals.
For years, the NCAA’s business practices have been under fire going all the way back to the late 1930s when Pitt players went on strike for benefits they felt they didn’t receive following a 1937 Rose Bowl appearance against Washington. What eventually came out of that was a de-emphasis of Pitt Panther football.
In 1953, a University of Denver football player named Ernest Nemeth sued the NCAA demanding worker’s compensation for an injury he sustained during spring football practice.
Thirty years later, the University of Oklahoma successfully sued the NCAA claiming the organization violated antitrust laws by prohibiting individual schools to negotiate their own television contracts. Another antitrust suit was filed in 2006 when Stanford quarterback Jason White led a group of players arguing that the NCAA capped its scholarship amounts, leading to a $10 million settlement.
Kindler’s and Alston’s claims are similar to White’s.
“Pretty early during our careers, Shawne, myself and a couple of other guys noticed that something just wasn’t adding up,” said Kindler. “We were all pretty intelligent kids with our money and at the end of our first or second year it seemed like something was missing.
“I’m pretty tight with my money so I knew there was definitely a problem,” Kindler continued. “I’m keeping track of my stuff and I’m just below on everything and if there is an issue with me then there has to be guys who think, ‘Oh, if I don’t save money for the month that we don’t get a scholarship check then I’m going to be screwed in August when I can’t pay my rent.’”
Kindler said he needed a loan just to cover the everyday costs of being a college football player despite receiving a full athletic scholarship.
“Rather than getting some absurd government loan, because I didn’t qualify for the Pell Grant, I ended up taking out a personal loan from my parents that I have slowly been paying off since I got a job,” he said. “I went the more informal route instead of going to a bank or the government to get a loan. Over the years, I ended up getting a loan for a lot more money than I expected I would have to when I got a full scholarship.”
Kindler said he doesn’t believe it should be his parents’ responsibility to fund all of the costs associated with being a full-time college football player.
“I’m lucky enough that I can drive home,” he explained. “It may take me a couple hundred bucks for gas and to get my car ready to drive home, but guys who have to fly it sometimes comes down to choosing whether to pay your rent for one month or buying an airplane ticket to fly home for your grandmother’s funeral or your sister’s wedding. That’s a big thing. Why not help people out?”
Kindler likens his personal situation as a college football player to that of a regular student who is resourceful enough to capitalize on their skills and abilities to generate a little extra income.
“If I came here on a full music scholarship I can go out every night and play in a band downtown or teach lessons and I can be getting paid for that. People are congratulated for doing that,” Kindler explained. “But if a football player or an athlete would consider doing something like that it would be, ‘How could you ever put your scholarship in jeopardy by wanting to make a little extra money?’ To think (loosening up restrictions on student-athlete compensation) is going to ruin college sports I think that’s a stretch.”
Kindler has an interesting viewpoint, for sure.
And finally, a little humor to liven things up as we get prepared for next weekend’s season opener against Alabama.
In the mid-1980s, West Virginia was in a little bit of a quarterback slump prior to the arrival of Major Harris. The Mountaineers had a good run of QBs in the early ‘80s with Oliver Luck, Jeff Hostetler and then Kevin White
for one season in 1984 before the well ran dry.
In 1986, West Virginia was in the midst of its worst season under Don Nehlen, who had guided WVU to four straight bowl appearances for the first time in school history from 1981-84.
The Mountaineers were struggling to score touchdowns and they hit rock bottom in a game against No. 1-ranked Miami that was televised nationally by ABC until things got so out of hand that the network switched over to the Holy Cross-Brown game, or some game similar to that.
Quarterback Ben Reed, today a successful Hollywood actor, entered the contest late with the Mountaineers hopelessly behind.
Demonstrating his leading man traits, Reed broke the huddle and confidently walked up to the line of scrimmage, surveying the field like Joe Willie Namath used to do. Then, he motioned for the crowd to quiet down so he could properly get a bead on where Miami’s second and third stringers were lining up.
There were less than 5,000 people remaining in the stands when he did this.
Later, near the end of the game when Miami was attempting to add its 59th point to the scoreboard, freshman defensive tackle Mike Fox crashed through the Hurricane line like Bobby Boucher to block Greg Cox’s PAT try.
When the cameras airing the game to only parts of West Virginia zoomed in on Fox sitting on the bench with his teammates, he tempestuously flashed the “We’re No. 1 sign."
Meanwhile, the real No. 1 team in the country was ahead 58-7 at the time.
It turns out Fox was almost prophetic, though, because the Mountaineers came within one game of becoming the nation’s top ranked team in 1988 when he was a junior.
Big Mike just happened to be a little early on the call.
Have a great weekend! Next weekend it’s Alabama!