Skip to main content
Original Issue

This Year You're Going To See Red

A quietly passed NCAA rule that allowed freshmen to be redshirted in 1978 means 1982 should be a vintage year for upsets

We've all heard it so many times that no one really listens when a coach like Arizona State's Darryl Rogers says, "This is going to be one great year for college football. It's going to provide more excitement and great games than we've ever known before." Or when Oklahoma State's Jimmy Johnson says that most coaches he has talked with "feel they have more talent and experience and that the overall quality of the game will be much better." Or even when Penn State's Joe Paterno predicts "more upsets than usual." Come on, Joe, more upsets than last year, when No. 1 teams lost on five of the first eight Saturdays?

But, incredibly, there's a very specific reason why, for once, all this talking up may come to pass, why the college game in 1982 may be better than it ever has been—or will be again until at least 1986. The reason: a rule that slipped through largely unnoticed at the 72nd annual NCAA meeting in Atlanta on Jan. 11-13, 1978. There, against a backdrop of yawns and clinking glasses, a motion was passed that allowed freshmen to be redshirted, something that previously had never been permitted.

Redshirting is the practice of holding a player out of competition for a season without that player losing a year of eligibility. It was first adopted by the NCAA in 1961 to allow an athlete to play his full four seasons even if he missed a year because of injury. But as will happen, this noble intent was soon subverted to serve more nefarious ends. A coach, upon scrutinizing his roster, would find himself overstocked at certain positions. Say he had two flankers of roughly equal talent, and say both were juniors. The coach would then redshirt one junior, thereby ensuring that his team would have at least one good flanker for the next three seasons, instead of two good flankers for two seasons. The redshirt gets to practice like the other players, gets chewed out like the other players, goes to sleep in meetings like the other players and takes his lumps like the other players. He does everything like the other players, except he doesn't play in games. Which is to say, he gets everything football has to offer but the fun. By doing this the player preserves a year of eligibility for later use and presumably not only learns a whole bunch—talk to a few coaches about the pass-blocking ability of an average offensive-line recruit if you want to know what's to learn—but also grows up physically.

Oddly, the rule change was pushed through the convention by Gene Sullivan, then athletic director at DePaul, on behalf of a basketball player, Guard Randy Ramsey. "I didn't tell anyone why I wanted the rule changed," says Sullivan, who's now the basketball coach at Loyola of Chicago. Ramsey hadn't played as a freshman, but he made DePaul's team his second year and ultimately became a starter. As a fifth-year senior, he wouldn't have been eligible for the NCAA tournament, because of a rule, predating the 1961 redshirt rule, that an athlete could play in postseason competition for only three years after his freshman year.

Sullivan told the convention—correctly—that a situation whereby a "player is eligible for regular-season play and ineligible for postseason play" wasn't "logical, sensible or fair."

Sullivan's proposal, to eliminate the old post-season rule and thereby allow an athlete to redshirt in his freshman year, sailed through the convention, and Ramsey went on to have the best offensive performance of his career in the first round of the NCAA tournament his senior season, scoring 16 points against Creighton. "I don't know how Sullivan got it done," says Ramsey, now 27 and working as an assistant sales manager for C.F. Air Freight in Chicago, "but I sure do owe him a bottle of wine."

So, too, do many coaches, especially those canny ones in football who were quick to see how the new rule could be turned to their advantage: Redshirt the freshmen—let them age and improve in the wine cellar, as it were—and still have them around for four varsity seasons. Nifty. But as happens, it was nifty for just that one year; the NCAA reversed itself on freshmen redshirting at its next convention. The NCAA re-reversed itself at its annual meeting last January, but we'll have to wait another four years to see the fruits of that vintage. The 1978 crop, though, will be ready this fall, and that's why there are going to be a lot of new names in the polls.

Nowhere was the unique opportunity presented in 1978 seized more expertly than at the University of Washington. There, Coach Don James relaxes in his office, scans the boat-dotted glories of Lake Washington just outside his window and tries not to look like the cat who swallowed the canary. In the fall of 1978, James quietly redshirted 21 of his 23 freshmen recruits. This fall, when Texas-El Paso shows up for the season opener in Seattle, 15 of those 21 will be playing key roles for the Huskies, and eight will be starting, not including field-goal and PAT expert Chuck Nelson, twice an All-Conference selection.

"I'd say our weakness is complacency," says James, "whatever position that is." True, if ever a team looked loaded to make a run for a national championship, it's defending Rose Bowl champion Washington (see page 41). Oregon State Coach Joe Avezzano says glumly, "We're all going to be chasing a bunch of redshirts around Seattle. It's going to pay off for them, that's for sure."

In explaining his maximum utilization of the 1978 rule, James says, "We felt it had been an 11th-hour vote, and our consensus was the rule wouldn't last." Right on both counts. But James also was in the enviable position of having the Husky program in good shape, so he felt he could get through 1978 in fine style without using freshmen. After all, his 1977 team had won the Pac-8 title with an 8-3 record, followed up with a 27-20 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan, and 18 starters were coming back. Washington, it turned out, fizzled in 78, falling to 7-4. But in 1979 the Huskies were 10-2 and beat Texas in the Sun Bowl; in 1980 they went 9-3 and lost to Michigan in the Rose Bowl; in 1981 they were 10-2 and thrashed Iowa in the Rose Bowl. And now comes 1982, the season they've been pointing for.

Naturally, some of Washington's former freshmen red-shirts weren't thrilled when James told them they'd be sitting out a season. Linebacker Mark Stewart says, "Getting redshirted as a freshman doesn't build confidence." Nelson says that about the only advantage of James's decision was "I didn't know what I was missing."

James wasn't the only coach to capitalize on the NCAA ruling, though he may reap the greatest rewards if he wins the national championship. At some other schools, mere respectability was the goal, with the bigger dividends accruing in coming seasons, because wins this year could make recruiting easier. At Ole Miss, Coach Steve Sloan will have 10 erstwhile freshmen redshirts on his squad, and five of them will start. Says Sloan, "Redshirts will have more effect this year than at any time in history." Maryland redshirted 12 recruits in 1978; seven will start this year. Baylor redshirted only nine freshmen, but they included Punter Ron Stowe and Quarterback Mike Brannan, both of whom figure to be key performers this season. Ohio State's Earle Bruce was at Iowa State in 1978 and he redshirted 18 of 23 freshmen.

Then, of course, there were the perennial powerhouses, which looked upon the rule as a convenient way to warehouse their inventory. Alabama redshirted 19 of its first-year players in '78; 12 are still on the team, and eight will start. But Bear Bryant plays down his decision to hold those freshmen out, saying, "I always think about the year at hand, not the next one." Bryant's outlook parallels that of Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz, who says, "When a guy is redshirted as a freshman, he trades a year when he was green and dumb for one when he may very well be good enough to win honors. Still, I feel very strongly you shouldn't prepare your team for the next coach." Whatever, 'Bama Safety Tommy Wilcox, now an All-America, was one of those who sat down, and he describes the '78 season as "painful and boring. We spent the whole fall getting beat up."

If some of the redshirts themselves didn't like having to cool their heels, their exasperation was nothing compared to the frustration, even anger, felt by the alums who impatiently waited for the big turnaround. Thus, some coaches who artfully used the redshirt rule to provide for the future soon found they had no future. Take Minnesota Coach Cal Stoll. Make that former Coach Cal Stoll. In '78 he redshirted his entire 25-member freshman class. Like Washington, his team was coming off a good 1977 (7-4) and an appearance in the Hall of Fame Bowl, and he thought the new rule might be the avenue to even greater success in the Michigan-Ohio State Conference. "Sometimes you have to bite the bullet," says Stoll. "I also felt the university might honor the remaining two years of my contract. I considered it further and thought that while the alumni might become sullen, they wouldn't become mutinous." They did, and Stoll was fired after a 5-6 record that fall.

Nebraska was a noted exponent of redshirting long before the '78 rule: Kansas State Offensive Tackle Doug Hoppock says, "I remember playing the Huskers as a freshman. All their guys had full beards and mustaches.... I had just barely started shaving." Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne says, "I didn't know what to do about the new rule, so I called a meeting of freshmen and said, 'Those of you who want to redshirt, go ahead.' " Four accepted the offer; two of them will start this fall. Indiana Coach Lee Corso, who seldom has the excess manpower to do much redshirting, recalls the 69-17 drilling he took from Nebraska in 1978. In that game he counted 27 Cornhuskers who were at least 22 years old, compared with seven of his. "I'm not complaining," says Corso. "I'm envious." Everybody is.

Particularly for schools like Indiana, where a winning season isn't automatic, there's a distinct risk in redshirting anyone, particularly unknown quantities like freshmen. The rub is that each redshirt counts against the 95 football scholarships (90 in the Pac-10) that a school can give out at one time. This means that as players move through their eligibility, more and more of those who are marginal won't have their scholarships renewed. A player gets a grant-in-aid for one year, not four; it's renewed annually at the discretion of the coach. Frank Solich, freshman coach at Nebraska, admits the 95 limit is a problem and says, "The big difficulty is a guy who's getting a 3.2 in his classes but is flunking football." Which is why—although every coach in the land denies it—student-athletes are routinely run off football teams.

Then there are those few schools that don't believe in redshirting anybody. Notre Dame is the leading example. Athletic Director Gene Corrigan says, "It's [Notre Dame President] Father Hesburgh's rule. He just doesn't think anybody has a right to delay a student's graduation, and he believes college is a four-year proposition." Stanford doesn't do it either. And at nonbelieving Duke, Head Coach Red Wilson says, "Redshirting is an exploitation of the youngster on the part of the coach and the university administration. College people say that the freshman just entering college isn't mature enough, that the redshirt gives him extra time to adjust to college life. If he's not ready for college, then the high schools shouldn't be letting him out. College is based on four years. If you're paying for your son or daughter to go to college, you jolly well want them to finish in four years. Redshirting is absolutely preposterous."

The practice, concedes Nebraska's Osborne, "has gotten a dirty name. I think maybe it's because the Big Ten didn't allow it for a long time. [The Big Ten finally voted to permit redshirting in 1973.] It has become symbolic of high-power, high-pressure, shady, big-time football." San Diego State Head Coach Doug Scovil agrees, saying, "I believe players thought of redshirting as the ultimate whipping post, that only the duds and goof-offs were redshirted. Some kids still feel that there is a sort of stigma attached to being redshirted."

Though almost to the man the hundreds of 1978 redshirts hated the idea back then, they love it in 1982. At SMU, Fullback Charles Drayton concedes, "I probably would have gotten stroked pretty good and ended up gun-shy." At USC, Split End Jeff Simmons says. "It gave me time to get direction. You go to college and it's real exciting to go to bed when you want. And then you find out girls not only can come to your room, they can stay. It's a lot of freedom that many young men of 18 can't handle."

There were a lot of coaches with a lot more than 18 years behind them who didn't know quite what to make of the rule in 1978. This is the year they'll find out what a freshman red-shirt can do as a senior, and a lot of them are prepared to get upset about it.





Coaches love redshirting because they can field "mature" players.



Some schools don't hold redshirting in such lofty regard.



Coaches of have-not teams saw the freshman redshirt rule as a way to upset the old order.

A Different Breed of 'Cats

The most inglorious big-time football reputation in the country belongs to Kansas Stale. The Wildcats have had one winning season in the last 27 and have been shut out 50 times in that span. Over the last seven years, the 'Cats have won six conference games in the Big Eight.

After 21 games without a win in the mid-60s, Kansas State whipped Colorado State in the 1967 opener. The 'Cats got so pumped up by that signal triumph that they went out and lost the remaining nine games on the schedule. Kansas State has tried everything to turn itself around, including cheating. One year the Wildcats signed 43 recruits to scholarships (the limit was 30). Another time players competed in junior varsity games under assumed names. All this got the 'Cats was two devastating probations during the 1970s. In 1980 the Kansas State press guide was marked down in national judging because there was no page devoted to the school's bowl record; the Wildcats have never been to a bowl.

Anyway, desperate situations require desperate solutions, which is why Coach Jim Dickey jolted not only his players but also the football coaching fraternity last fall when he announced he was redshirting 18 players—including almost all of his best players, among them eight stunned seniors. All-Big Eight Guard Amos Donaldson says, "I thought he was joking when I first heard about it."

Nope, no more jokes at K-State. Dickey simply decided to toss in the towel on 1981 (the Wildcats went 2-9) and pin all his hopes on 1982. Dickey is putting his job on the line, and he says, "A failure this year would be not having a winning season." On the other hand, Chuck Neinas, executive director of the College Football Association, says, "If this thing works, Dickey will have all the have-nots of the nation copying him."

Why did Dickey decide to do such a revolutionary thing? "My mother told me," he says, "that there's never a wrong time to do the right thing." For K-State this is definitely not the wrong year. The 'Cats have seven home games and could win six of them, against Kentucky, South Dakota, Wichita State, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Colorado. And as long as we're talking miracles, should the Wildcats win these six games and then scrape out another victory from among Arizona State, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa State or Oklahoma, they'll be 7-4. That could get them that long overdue bowl bid.

Dickey, whose record after four years at K-State is 12-32, says the idea hit him in 1980, when his team beat Colorado 17-14. "It's probably best to get the bad over early," said Dickey as he walked off the field with Colorado Coach Chuck Fairbanks.

"I' m not sure it's over," said Fairbanks. It clearly wasn't, and Fairbanks has since escaped back to the pros. But Fairbanks' remark got Dickey to thinking. "I' m not much better off than Fairbanks. I've got to come up with some kind of plan to keep us from being a doormat." A couple of weeks ago, Dickey stared across the football stadium, his eyes sparkling, and he said, "I' m anxious to see how it works. A year older doesn't necessarily mean better."

But at least the Wildcats can hardly be worse. And the atmosphere around K-State is positively giddy. Senior Defensive Back Jim Bob Morris wears a shirt emblazoned with I SURVIVED THE REDSHIRT YEAR '81 on the front and READY TO KICK ASS IN '82 on the back. Even Dickey sounds uncharacteristically crazed when he lauds one of his players, Linebacker Dan Ruzich. "He has the shortest fuse of any player I've ever coached," Dickey says. "He'll strike anything that quivers twice."

K-State has never had much talent or depth, and in 1978 Dickey could see his way clear to redshirting only one freshman, Quarterback Darrell Ray Dickey, who's also his son. Darrell didn't like it one bit. Backup signal caller Stan Weber, an '81 redshirt, who was hurt this spring and is questionable for the fall, says, "We're like the kid who was afraid to try in school because it would leave him without any excuses when he failed. We've got the physical confidence now not to be afraid to try."

Before the '81 season Dickey said, "Last year [when K-State was 3-8] we let my wife call a lot of the plays. This year we're not going to." Then the 'Cats went 2-9. Which proves that whether Jim or Inez calls the plays doesn't matter much. Which is the way it has always been in Manhattan, Kans. Now we'll learn whether anything can make a difference.