Skip to main content
Publish date:


Pro football is for fat linemen, quarterbacks who cannot run and coaches who never vary an offense. So argues the author, who adds it is but a pale imitation of the intercollegiate brand

The thing that stimulates a conviction, that really makes it breathe, is that there is always some latterly intelligent friend saying something, or somebody doing something, to inspire an argument. I happen to be dedicated—not just for the purpose of this article, but unconditionally dedicated—to the persuasion that college football is a better game than professional football. Better esthetically, because there is more art and imagination to it, better technically, because it is better coached, more entertaining, certainly more inspiring, more meaningful, more colorful, more—oh, but what is the use of rushing the argument through in the first paragraph?

This faith was rekindled recently by two events of little importance to anybody but a convinced man. First, a college coach from the Midwest was lulling a group of us into a conversational torpor telling of his team's prospects over lunch at an Italian restaurant—somewhere in Pennsylvania, if you must have it pinpointed—when I became aware, as one hears a doorbell ringing in his sleep, that what he was saying was that he had put in "a lot of pro-style" stuff. Wait a minute, I thought, mentally snapping to attention. What do you mean: pro style? Volleyball, wrestling and a 4-3 defense? Is that what you are putting in? What on God's earth for? There was a despairing in my stomach. It was not from hunger, though we had not yet been served. Had my college friend embraced the heresy that pro is synonymous with perfection, that the professional game is the ne plus ultra of the elite and his, the college game, that of the proletariat? Did he not realize that his attempt to copy the professionals and their highly efficient, calisthenic pitch-and-catch was demeaning? I would have interrupted immediately but at that moment was taken with the more basic urge to filch the anchovy from his antipasto, so I let him ramble on, not wanting to divert his attention.

A few days later came the second temblor. In an account of a pro game on the West Coast I read that George Mira, the San Francisco quarterback, had thrown his helmet down in anger during a game with Cleveland. Mira was frustrated because his receivers were dropping his passes. The receivers were frustrated because Mira threw the ball too hard. The receivers had complained of this to the correspondent (I get a picture of this big, hulking professional football player, hands out in supplication in the dressing room: "Gee whiz, guys, it hurts when Georgie hits me in the hands with the ball").

That was not the part that got me, though, because Mira used to drill the ball when he played at the University of Miami, too, and Andy Gustafson, the Miami coach, did the only logical thing—he found ends who could catch Mira's passes and who would be grateful for that extra step on the defense that a sharply thrown ball allows. The part that really got me was that the correspondent assured his readers that at least Mira was learning to stay in the pocket. Not completing many passes and not gaining many yards, but Staying in the Pocket. It read like a chapter in a book on the clichés of pro football. "Chapter 12: Stay in the Pocket. Subtitle: You Can't Get to Heaven with a Scrambling Quarterback." (Pro coaches do not remake every player they hire, they just give the illusion of trying.)

Well, George Mira was a great quarterback before he went to the 49ers for professional refinement, a great, scrambling quarterback, the most exciting I have ever seen, with an arm equal to that of Babe Parilli when Parilli was at Kentucky, and the thing about Mira was that he could run as well as pass. In short, he was the complete quarterback. If the 49ers wanted somebody to pose back there, somebody with the form and the agility of the Statue of Liberty, more in the mold of the classic pro quarterback, they should have traded for Ed Brown or Dick Wood or George Blanda. Those boys know how to stand still in a disintegrating pocket and take their medicine.

A few nights later, not having satisfied my itch for postulating the case, I made my feelings known to a lawyer friend at a dinner party in Wilton, Conn. I knew him to be a passionate New York Giant fan—he had had a traumatic experience when the Fordham Rams gave up intercollegiate football—and as such a hardened cliché addict.

For example, he is all the time low-rating the American Football League by insisting it is still five years away from equality with the NFL. My usual rejoinder (I offer this because it also serves to undercut the notion that there is a large proficiency gap between the colleges and the pros) is that the football player who has played three years in high school and four years in college has already reached maturity, or is not far from it. As a parallel: the baseball player who has not had at least one trial with a major league club by the time he is 22 or 23 probably never will. Many football players become jaded even before they are college seniors—college coaches call it "senioritis," and it is a malady that has struck down many a fine team—and never again play as well as they did when they were younger.

Some evidence of the maturity of the good college player is the College All-Star game. The collegians have won over the NFL championship team more times than seem possible when you consider they work together only two or three weeks prior to the game and are up against a unit—the best in pro football—that has been hand-tooled over a period of years. The collegians have won three of the past 11 games; eight of those games were very close, and it is likely that had Otto Graham, the All-Star coach, known more about his personnel before the second half (he did not discover John Huarte until then) he would have beaten the Browns last month.

To further illustrate the powers of youth: four rookies made the Pro bowl starting lineups last year. In other years great college quarterbacks like Sammy Baugh and Bob Waterfield led pro teams to world championships in their rookie seasons. Last year the Minnesota Vikings, without a player over 26 in their starting offensive lineup, with a team that had less professional experience than seven of the eight AFL teams, and a scrambling quarterback (Fran Tarkenton) to boot, finished tied for second in the NFL's Western Division.

"How can you say such a thing?" my lawyer friend shouted. I knew he would get emotional, so I had steered him into the foyer away from the other guests. He has a shrill courtroom voice. My argument—I had also told him of my two recent experiences—he reasoned correctly, was a feeble one if it depended on a college coach's admission that he was switching to a pro-style offense and my own personal, unreasonable high regard for scrambling quarterbacks. What was wrong with my eyesight, anyway? Hadn't I seen Y. A. Tittle's spiraling touchdown passes winning for the New York Giants over and over on Sunday afternoons at Yankee Stadium? What greater excitement, what greater proficiency than that? Good Old Y. A. And Del Shofner and Gifford and Webster. Was I not aware that a record six million people went to see the pros play last year, and that millions more watched on television? The pros must be doing something right, he said.

I said that I would not dispute the six million in the stands and the millions more panting in front of their TV sets, that they were probably richly entertained. I enjoy the pro game myself. It is entertaining. But the pros' rising attendance figures were no more germane to the issue than the record 24 million who watched the colleges play last year (an attendance increase for the 11th straight season, for the reader's information). The difference was, and any reasonably discerning college observer would know this, that the pro fan wasn't seeing football.

Pro football, I went on hurriedly, for the lawyer's mouth had flown open, is exactly what you have presented it to be, a highly entertaining creature of television, an In sport perpetuated by the piquancy of the forward pass and the admen of Madison Avenue. If it were what its devotees claim it is—the logical postgraduate extension of the college game—it would not have taken 30 years to get off the ground. Before TV, pro football was a game played for mill hands and factory workers and did not require the sophistication it now has. But promoters discovered the thrill factor of the quick touchdown and made pro football show business, so exciting that you can barely stand it without a commercial or a station break. Mill hands and factory workers cannot get tickets anymore.

"Enough of that sociological twaddle," the lawyer said testily. "Get down to basics."

Well, I said, the college game is technically better because it is more diversified, or less one-sided, whichever way you want to put it. It is not stereotyped and does not resist change the way the pros do. It engenders more spirit and emotion among participants and spectators, an intimacy the pros can never hope to achieve. It operates on a more exalted plane, because of its traditions and because it is involved in the education of the participants. (Publicity agents do not become college presidents, but one did become president of the National Football League.)

"Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute!" My friend was shouting and holding up both hands. We were now surrounded by dinner guests. What did I mean, technically inferior? What did I mean, no diversity?

Consider this, I said. Almost every pro team runs from what is known as the pro-slot offense (two running backs, a split end and a flanker) but what in reality is pass, pass, pass, ad nauseam. And they all at least begin with a 4-3 defense. Where is the diversity in that? The pros are stereotyped. Exchange the jerseys before almost any game and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference unless you were knowledgeable enough to spot an individual's characteristics—like Lenny Moore's taped shoes and long stride or Paul Hornung's goat shoulders or Rosey Grier's big belly.

Which is another thing: How many college coaches would put up with all that whale fat you see running loose on pro fields? Darrell Royal of Texas would die if he saw one of those bellies on a Texas guard. At Alabama, Paul Bryant would simply exile the offending player to another county. The next time you watch the introductions before a pro game on TV check how many jowls shake when the players run onto the—

"One thing at a time," the lawyer said. "A point of order. It is evident when you say 'no variety' that what you mean is you don't understand the subtleties of the pro offenses and the variables in a 4-3 defense."

I know what I can see and what I cannot, I said, and as an inspector of the college game I know the college coaches will try anything—single wing, double wing, spreads, I formation with motion, I with a shift, V, split T, short T, tackle-eligible passes, double flankers, scat-backs, pilot-backs, ratbacks, coonskin-hatbacks. When one mode of attack phases out—the Notre Dame box or the buck lateral—they quickly go on to another. Each team has a personality: it will vary from coach to coach, from section to section, from conference to conference and within conferences. Every Saturday there is an interesting new team to play. College coaches learn to adjust their game to the players on hand; the pros pick through that talent and make it adjust. The pros will not change, because they cannot afford to risk an image of failure. It's box office, brother, box office. Red Hickey pulled the shotgun offense on the NFL a few years ago, and when it backfired on him the next year he was laughed out of the league.

So, in their effort to settle on a formula for sustained entertainment, the pros have perfected the pro slot—the passing game—to the exclusion of all else. In the line they learn to push and shove and maul each other, those 250-pounders, and the quarterback gets carte blanche to throw 40 passes a game. Davey O'Brien once threw 60 in a game for the Eagles. Three years ago Sonny Jurgensen came within three passes of equaling that dubious record. Y. A. Tittle made a lifetime of it—he threw 3,817, or 254 a year. Last year only three NFL teams, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Minnesota, rushed for more yards than they passed. The Chicago Bears passed 70% of the time.

There is, furthermore, a myth that pro ends and flankers have a unique, secret understanding of how to run a pass pattern. Television's isolated camera is taking care of that. It always shows a familiar tableau. The end runs downfield, cuts in—or out or slants or buttonhooks or does something else that he first learned in high school—and the quarterback throws him the ball. As simple as that. No mystery.

My lawyer friend had been standing mute for some time and I thought it safe to pause for breath, but when I did he grabbed the initiative—cunning little barrister that he is.

"No running attack, eh? No diversity? Did you know that Allie Sherman is going to the wing T this year? Haven't you heard of Jimmy Brown, Jim Taylor, John David Crow? What about Cookie Gilchrist and Keith Lincoln in that other league? What about Vince Lombardi's big back offense at Green Bay?"

I agreed that Green Bay was a refreshingly different cup of split T (the pun went unrewarded, but I enjoyed it immensely). Obviously, Lombardi, when he was learning under Red Blaik at Army, paid no attention to pro coaches who were at that time saying it was impossible to move a 250-pound tackle far enough to get a running game going. Lombardi could not but think a 240-pound guard could move a 250-pound tackle at least part of the time, and eventually he proved it. Allie Sherman will have to coach up to college standards to make the wing T work. Sure, the ground game is tougher on the participants, but football is supposed to be a contact sport. The good run is still the most exciting play in football. Interesting, too, is what happens when you run the ball better, the things that open up for you. The most effective quarterback in the league last year was Bart Starr of Green Bay—a "running" team. The most effective passing team was Minnesota, with Fran Tarkenton doing all that ridiculous scrambling. Compared to Tarkenton, half the quarterbacks in the NFL run like Pete Rozelle. And do not overlook the injury factor. According to the Classic Pro Quarterback Instruction Booklet, bad boys who run out of the pocket get hurt. Perhaps Tarkenton did not read that part. Babe Parilli once told me he'd rather get hit a glancing blow running from a red-dogging defense than have it cascade down on him.

"I am tired of hearing about scrambling quarterbacks," said the lawyer. "Let's get back to where you said there were no good running backs in pro football."

I did not say the pros do not have good running backs, I corrected him. They have great running backs. They get the best the colleges can offer. They just do not have great running attacks. No self-respecting college coach, certainly not John McKay or Ara Parseghian or Bobby Dodd, would prepare an offense that did not include a reverse trap or two, a few counters, a bootleg, a scissors, some rollouts, some post-turn blocking. You see sucker traps in the pros, but you seldom see effective two-on-one blocking. There is little faking. You almost never see a sustained drive, the kind that takes the heart out of a defense. The line play is not crisp, it is just violently heavy. College coaches in private call it pushing and shoving. They could add: illegal pushing and shoving. A college official refereeing a pro game would be throwing penalty flags all day. And the handoffs. Oh, the handoffs. I saw the Browns try what looked suspiciously like a reverse in the championship game with Baltimore, and the play was so badly executed, Paul Warfield could not have gotten to the ball in a taxi. If an opposing team pulled a double reverse on a pro defense the defense would consider it unethical.

Look here, I said, producing a page from the Sunday New York Times. I had kept it folded in my pocket hoping for this turn in the debate. Obviously, you will say, I had stacked the deck and, obviously, that is what I had done. Anyway, the page had stories of three pro exhibition games. The six teams involved rang up these yardage totals rushing the football: 21 yards, 49 yards, 113 yards, 87, 15 and 48 yards. The average for the six teams was a paltry 55.5 yards' rushing. Devastating, I said.

"Who got the 113?" asked the lawyer. He sounded rather subdued, it seemed to me.

Cleveland, I answered and that means Jimmy Brown. Which is another point. The pros don't block. Do you know what a look-out block is? It's what college coaches call some of the blocks they see executed in the pros. The blocker makes a pass at an onrushing lineman, turns and yells, "Look out!" to the quarterback. Jimmy Brown is one of the best look-out blockers in the business. He may be the greatest running back in the history of football, but he wouldn't play first team for a lot of college coaches unless he learned to block.

A college player blocks, gets up and blocks again. I once saw an LSU lineman block four different men on one play. The college player may not know the subtleties the pros talk about, is liable to make more mistakes than the pro and will not conserve his energy as well. But he is reckless and daring and unconcerned about his personal safety. He swarms on a ballcarrier. He pursues. He is easily inspired. Football is not his life's work, it is his sport. Red Blaik of Army believed that the extra weight and the attitude of the professional combine to work against him when he is called on to go beyond his immediate responsibility—pursuing a fleeing ballcarrier or blocking downfield. College teams thrive on going beyond.

There is charm even in the imperfection of the college game. Johnny Unitas will spot and hit a receiver in the clear 60 yards away almost by instinct. Beautiful. On the other hand, there is the possibility that the quarterback at Morphine Tech will not see his man at all, and he may not be able to throw 60 yards. But cool perfection can be deadly dull. The pros have done that to place-kicking, made it dull. I would rather see a man fall off a bench than watch Lou Groza kick a 50-yard field goal. The pros have the posts on the goal line to make field goals easier, and they have great kickers like Tommy Davis to kick 186 extra points in a row and Groza to kick 198 field goals. There is no such thing as a goal-line stand in pro football, because every team has a kicker. He comes in just in time to cheat the fan out of something exciting, like a touchdown when it's fourth and one on the five-yard line.

"It is hardly an endorsement," said the lawyer, rallying slightly, "to say that colleges thrive on imperfection. How easy to please can you be when you are taken with fumbled passes and failing kicks? I can watch that in my side yard. My 10-year-old does it every day."

But you cannot go to a pro park and see the kind of team Notre Dame had last year, with that great balance, that splendid blend of passing and running, that defensive team that did not eat meat all week so it would have an appetite for Saturdays. The Southern California team of 1962 was such a team. It rushed for 189 yards a game, passed for 149 and won 11 straight. Balance and diversity. It had a sprint-out quarterback named Pete Beathard—he is now teaching some of that radical stuff to the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL—and an attack that moved. Coach Johnny McKay used the I formation, shifted to the V, used motion, flip-flopped his line, even had the temerity to use an end-around.

Which brings up two additional points. By and large, pro coaches are faceless. They are credited with being the great minds of football but, with the exception of Vince Lombardi, there has not been a real innovator, an iconoclast, in pro football since Paul Brown. Of the present group, there are the Svares and Shulas and Bones Taylors. Lou Saban coached one year in the Big Ten, at Northwestern, and did not win a game. Only Mike Holovak could be called a successful college coach: he won 49 and lost 29 in nine years at Boston College—and he has done well with little material on the Boston Patriots. Joe Kuharich is doing a fine job at Philadelphia, and he is a bright man, but he could not win in four years at Notre Dame. Blanton Collier, coach of the champion Browns, barely made it over .500 in eight years at Kentucky. I do not mean to discredit these men. I just say they do not measure up to the giants of college football—the original thinkers like Bryant, Wilkinson, Tatum, Dodd and Leahy. After years of studying the pro game Blaik once said, "I don't learn anything from the pros." Darrell Royal tried coaching in the pros one year, in Canada. He had a successful season, but when it was over he said he felt as though it had been a waste, "like, what good have I done? And what do I do now?"

My lawyer friend shook his head sadly. "What you are now going to tell me," he said, "is that the college game is better because it has tradition, because players listen to half-time talks, because it gets you right here when the band plays On, Wisconsin! and when Alpha Tau Omega wins the prize for the best homecoming float. You are going to say that you like cheerleaders, card sections, crowded fraternity dances, leggy majorettes and cowbells."

Precisely, I said, but there is more to it than that. The game began with the colleges, and the history of it is wonderful. I like to hear again that story about KF-79, the secret play, beating mighty Stanford for Columbia in the Rose Bowl. I like to read about the bowlers, the toppers and the pneumatic headgear, or the time when the players parted their hair in the middle and wore it long to cushion the blows. I like the things they wrote about the Poes of Princeton: "Arthur Poe is back, smaller than ever." I like to think that Ted Coy of Yale really did say, "The hell with the signals. Give me the ball." And the nicknames. Those great nicknames. Germany Schultz, Mr. Inside, The Gipper, Choo Choo Justice, Pat (the Kangaroo) O'Day, Slinging Sammy, Whizzer White. The idea that someone would say, "Fight fiercely, Harvard," actually chokes me up. Once I heard a gray-haired old lady, a professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan, give a rousing speech to a pep rally on the quadrangle in front of the university library. She did it in a soft voice. The snow was coming down on her gray head. "Go, Blue," the little old lady professor said. It actually sent shivers up my spine.

The essence of college football is something the pros cannot duplicate. There is a spirit about it, a drawing together. People identify with a college team, and it is totally unlike that tenuous identification a pro fan may feel for two hours on a Sunday afternoon. College football is the alumni, the parents of the friend down the street, the girl sitting next to you in the library, the local restaurateur who rides around with "Beat 'Em Bucks" painted on the side of his station wagon.

It is a game of ancient rivalries that inspire genuine loathing, not for a weekend but for a lifetime. It is traditional games, whose meaning is deep—Army vs. Navy, Ohio State vs. Michigan, USC vs. Notre Dame, Clemson vs. South Carolina—no matter how bad the records may be, how low a team is in the standings. In Texas a rule of thumb is that you dress up for the college game and down for the pros, because the one is the heavy drama, the other fun but of no great consequence.

College football is Mormon schools, Quaker schools, Baptist, Catholic, neo-atheistic schools, poor-boy and rich-boy schools. It is a game for towns like Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; South Bend, Indiana; Fayetteville, Arkansas—far away from the blackened cities and the skinned infields of baseball parks, up where you can see Mt. Rainier in the background, or look out over Lake Cayuga, or just get on top of a stadium, up there on the last row, and look out on a campus like Wittenberg, Colorado Western or Kansas State. The people in Busch Stadium on Sunday afternoon would never understand that.

"Rah rah," said my friend the lawyer.

Rah rah is right, I said, and reached for the hors d'oeuvres.