Faced with data showing that spring football has the highest
injury rate among 16 college sports, football coaches
nonetheless bristled at changes in the spring practice limits
proposed earlier this year by the NCAA's competitive safeguards
committee (SCORECARD, May 12). At times, said committee chair G.
Dennis Wilson, the director of Auburn's Department of Health and
Human Performance, he felt like "Menachem Begin talking about
the Golan Heights."
Under current rules, 10 of the 15 practices allowed in the
spring may include contact, up to and including a full
scrimmage. Five may not. The safeguards committee wanted to
reverse those numbers. Coaches responded with the delight they
typically reserve for a dropped ball.
The two sides found common ground when talk shifted from
"contact" and "noncontact" practices to "tackling" and
"nontackling" sessions. "Nontackling" is a way of describing
so-called thud practices, in which players block and hit but
don't take each other to the ground. The coaches and the
safeguards committee agreed last Tuesday to a reduction to eight
tackling practices, three of which may include a full scrimmage.
Four of the remaining seven sessions will be thuds; three will
Thud practices are common in the NFL, in which rosters are
smaller and players are more highly prized. College coaches who
have voluntarily begun using thud sessions have seen their
injury rates fall and their winning percentages rise. North
Carolina first experimented with thud practicing in 1993. "Our
concussion rate has gone down by half," says team physician
Bryan Smith, a member of the safeguards committee, whose school
eliminated tackling altogether during spring practice in '96.
"I'm not a football coach, I just know that we don't get as hurt
when we don't hit as much." For East Carolina coach Steve Logan,
the benefit of reduced injuries is simple. "I'm always getting
to coach my first-team guys," he says.
Other coaches have begun to convert, one of the most surprising
being West Virginia's Don Nehlen, an old-school guy. By the end
of this spring Nehlen said, without a hint of irony in his
voice, "Our team got pretty good at not knocking each other down."