The current debate in college football ranges from recruiting ethics and text messaging to the merits of the spread offense. And of course, there is the stalwart of debate: playoffs v. bowl games. This post isn't about any of that. This post is about the debate that was going on in the 1950s and something we take for granted today: two-platoon football. Sixty years ago, everybody played both offense and defense; now it's a novelty when someone takes a few snaps at corner and a few at wide receiver. Heck, it's even enough of a circus act to steal the Heisman Trophy from one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, not that I'm still bitter or anything.
I always assumed that the two-platoon system was widely accepted when it came into being, but not so. In fact, according to an Associated Press article from 1951 ($), there was a lot of argument among sports media about the merit of two-platoon football.
The Associated Press posed this question to sports writers and sportscasters: "The two platoon system, with its attendant increases in the size of playing squads and coaching staffs, is being blamed for many of football's ills. Do you agree?"
There were 121 replies to the survey in '51, 71 writers in favor of two-platoon football and 50 against it. What's interesting to me is that the responses both for and against were very insightful about the future of college football at the time. More specifically, those opposed were way ahead of what two-platoon football was going to do to the game. For example:
- It gives more boys a chance to play
- It makes for more exciting football
- This is an era of specialist, why not in football?
- It reduces the number of injuries in that fresh players are used
- The necessity for "deep" squads furthered recruiting and proselyting
- It will force many schools, especially the smaller ones, to give up the game because of cost
- It is too confusing for the spectator
- It makes for too many specialists
- It completely takes the game out of the hands of the boys
Ok, so some entries in the "for" column are too idealistic or subjective, and #3 in the "against" column is just insulting -- I guess mainstream media in 1951 was just as haughty as it is now -- but the ideas of expanded recruiting and downsizing or elimination of programs for smaller schools (see ETSU
even recently) are right on.
Especially accurate, too, is the specialization of positions and emphasis of coaching (nos. 4 and 5 on the list). Although many offenses allow their QBs freedom to change the play at the line, long gone are the days when quarterbacks called all their own plays. Most positions have become specialized (nickel backs and rush ends on defense, third-down backs and multiple sets/packages on offense) though it hasn't quite turned out the way writer Craig Stolze envisioned:
Before long -- the way we're headed -- we'll have specialists for every play and the traffic on and off the field will look like Times Square on New Year's Eve. We'll put in our "off-tackle" unit and the defense will rush in a "stop-off-tackle" bunch. Soon college football's attendance rating will be a rung below quoits."
... it's close. The specialized substitution patterns are there, but it surely hasn't affected attendance. And yeah, I had to look up quoits
What I can't help but wonder is this: had blogging (or message boards, or sports talk radio) been around in 1951, would this argument take up as much space as the playoff argument takes now? I have to think it would, and it makes me wonder further: In 40 years, when a playoff has been around for decades, will we remember the bowl system as being as antiquated as single-platoon football seems today?