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Original Issue


At a meeting in Miami Beach last week a group of the nation's top athletic authorities decided to turn college football players into messenger boys: they gave coaches the right to send in a substitute—who can carry the coach's orders to the quarterback—before every play.

It is doubtful that any bronze plaques will be cast to commemorate this decision of the Rules Committee of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. But by an ironic coincidence there was a bronze plaque unveiled last week to commemorate football's first rules committee, whose members innocently supposed the game belonged to the players.

This committee consisted of eight young men from Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia who met of their own accord in the long-departed Massasoit House in Springfield, Mass. (the plaque is on the site, now a movie theater). They met one day in November 1876 to formulate the first basic rules of the game that became American football.

There were many marked differences between the rules adopted in 1876 and the rules that govern football today. One rule, for instance, stipulated that a kicked goal should be rated "equal to four touchdowns" unless this resulted in a tie score, in which case the kicked goal should be rated superior. Another rule fixed the number of players on each team at 15, although one student, Gene Baker, held out in obstinate defeat for 11 on a side. The rules of 1876 gave no thought to making players messenger boys for the coach, because the coach as he is known today had never been heard of.

The game the rulemakers of 1960 were considering in Miami Beach last week is a game in which the coach is at least half the show. The proposal (Rule 3, Section 5, Article 1) that principally concerned the committee was one that will give the coach even greater dominance of the game.

By a fat 2 to 1 majority at their convention in New York the week before, the nation's football coaches had urged a return to the unlimited substitutions of the 1940s—which allowed two coaches, manipulating their players like so many pawns, knights and bishops, to sit on opposite sides of a football field and play gridiron chess with each other.

At its most flagrant, this system led to squads so huge that defensive players and offensive players on the same teams scarcely ever met except on Saturdays. But even coaches from small colleges, unable to afford complete offensive and defensive platoons, favored unlimited substitution because of the freedom it gives to use specialists at critical moments and to control the direction of the game by a constant stream of instructions relayed to the quarterback by incoming players. Even without the privilege of unlimited substitution, this control—though illegal—has become standard among coaches: without messengers to carry orders onto the field, coaches have widely resorted to secret wigwags.

Appalled at the license already granted their football colleagues, the assembled representatives of other sports at this winter's NCAA general convention instructed their rules committee to reject any return to unlimited substitutions. The rules committee, headed by Tennessee's tough General Bob Neyland, technically obeyed. But over the mutters of Neyland (who sticks to his belief that quarterbacks should call the plays), the committee gave the coaches single-player, or "wild-card," substitutions "at any time."

This, at least, assured the coaches an adequate supply of messengers and—as Bob Neyland said—"Who knows, if this wild-card business works out, next year we may consider using two or three wild cards at a time."

Two or three—or maybe even 10 or 11. And in a few years—who knows?—they might take out the teams and send in the coaches.