November 7, 2003

Platoon, Halt!

By Bob Barton '57

If you think backroom deals and secret perfidy are new in college athletics, you haven't lived.

Forget all the lawsuits and name-calling this summer when two of the Big East's big football schools stole away to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Those two leagues, counting their basketball-only members, comprise a couple of dozen colleges.

Heck, 50 years ago a faction at an NCAA convention brought about a rule change that altered the face of college football nationwide for more than a decade.

Officially, the change involved the substitution rule. Behind the scenes, it was about money. Aren't big squabbles always about money?

From 1941 through 1952, the substitution rule had been fairly similar to today's. A team could substitute any number of players any number of times whenever the clock was stopped.

The rule had been adopted in 1941, when the military draft threatened to strip colleges of some of their ablest players. H.O. "Fritz" Crisler, coaching Michigan, had seized on the rule in the years after World War II to create separate units for offense and defense.

Other coaches followed suit. Herman Hickman, Yale's coach from 1948 through 1951, even proposed, tongue in cheek, a three-platoon system: "one for offense, one for defense and one to go to class."

Trouble was, having 22 starters instead of 11 led to larger squads. Larger squads meant more bodies to feed, equip and support with scholarships. That cost money. From 1950 through 1952, a total of 60 colleges -- including some with high-profile gridiron programs, such as the University of San Francisco -- decided the cost was too high and dropped football.

At the NCAA convention in Washington in January 1953, football's cost was one of many concerns. Other issues debated were limiting the lengths of football and basketball seasons; controls on the televising of football; penalties for schools, most notably Kentucky, that had been caught paying basketball players. Votes on items like those were overwhelming -- 172-13 or 115-35 or 122-1.

Then, on the closing Saturday, when most of the delegates were already on their way home, came a resolution to "strongly urge" the football rules committee to abolish platoons. Only 66 voters were in the room. The measure passed 43-23.

That tossed a hot potato to the rules committee -- headed, ironically, by Crisler, who had retired from coaching to the athletic director's chair at Michigan. A survey of football coaches had shown they favored platoons by a 4-to-1 ratio. But Crisler's committee, taking the convention vote as a mandate, slapped severe limits on substitutions.

"This is the end of the two-platoon system," said Columbia coach Lou Little, reputedly a major advocate of the limits. Crisler called the change "the most important since 1906" -- the year the forward pass had become legal.

The new rule said a player withdrawn in one quarter could not return to the game until the next quarter. There was an exception: In the last 4 minutes of each half, a player could re-enter once.

In practical terms, the change meant that players schooled as specialists in either offense or defense had to learn to play both -- or yield their jobs to guys who could.

The change was front-page news in the New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Anguished screams came from coaches, including Frank Leahy of Notre Dame. He wanted spring practice extended to give coaches time to retrain their troops.

In the Ivy League, that wasn't an option. The league's presidents had outlawed spring practice in 1952 and were not about to back down. Ivy coaches had barely three weeks of practice in September to get their teams ready for a radically different game.

Consequently, coaches went with players who had shown at least some ability on both offense and defense. The paragon was Dick Carr of Columbia, who had been a defensive halfback and reserve quarterback and could punt too. He wound up playing every minute of every game -- 540 minutes on a nine-game schedule. He was hardly a pass master in the mold of Columbia's greats, Sid Luckman and Paul Governali, but by 1953 standards, Carr was the All-Ivy quarterback.

Other Ivy players pulled 60-minute duty in various games. A 60-minute performance against Penn State catapulted Penn tackle Jack Shanafelt onto All-America teams. Yale guard Dick Polich, who had experience on both sides of the ball, went the distance against Colgate and won some All-East recognition. Yale quarterback Jim Lopez put in back-to-back 60-minute games against Columbia and Cornell. Harris Ashton, a Yale senior who'd played offense as a sophomore and defense as a junior, pulled some 58- or 59-minute stints at tackle.

At Columbia, Carr wasn't the only durable guy. In beating Lehigh 14-7, the Lions used only 17 players.

Inevitably, the rule change cost some athletes playing time. Joe Fortunato, a linebacker elected Yale's captain before the rules were altered, found himself competing for a position among the running backs. Slowed by a torn hamstring, he played 15 minutes or less in most games.

Ed Molloy, a nationally ranked passer for Yale in 1952, hurt a knee in a preseason scrimmage. Once he healed in November, coach Jordan Olivar used him in spots on offense. Molloy threw just 11 passes all year.

A significant result of the change -- nationwide, and quite noticeably among the Ivies -- was that kicking specialists virtually disappeared. Yale made nine extra points for the year, missed 10. Columbia, which had made every conversion try in 1952, misfired on nearly half its attempts, including two in a 20-19 loss to Princeton.

Scores, on average, were a speck lower because teams ran fewer plays. Concern that dog-tired players would produce boring games, however, turned out to be misplaced. Princeton beat Columbia on a pass with 23 seconds left. Cornell withstood Princeton 26-19 and Dartmouth 28-26. In one of the year's classics, Yale came from 17 points down in the second half to beat Princeton 26-24. It was the highlight of a 5-2-2 season for the Blue.

The hero of that game, it turned out, was a specialist -- Larry Reno, a trackman who had come out for football as a receiver after seeing Yale lose badly to Dartmouth on Halloween. At Princeton he caught a 43-yard pass from Lopez that set up the winning pass to Bob Poole with 24 seconds left.

His job done, Reno vanished from football. As a senior in 1954, he didn't play.

The limited-substitution rule, with amendments, stayed in place over the next several years. In 1955 a player who started a quarter was allowed one re-entry in the same quarter. In 1960 a team could substitute a one player -- not counted as an entry -- between downs.

The '55 change made it feasible for a coach like Louisiana State's Paul Dietzel to start an all-purpose platoon, then send in offensive and defensive platoons as situations developed. After he won a national championship in 1958, his idea spread. In 1962 Olivar fielded three platoons at Yale: the Bulldogs (all-purpose), Commandos (offense) and Apaches (defense). So much for shrinking the size of squads.

By 1964 the rulesmakers concluded the finagling had gone on long enough. They flung wide the gates for almost unlimited substitutions.

Did the rule change of 1953 accomplish anything? Maybe. The exodus of colleges from competition slowed, though Fordham and Marquette, among others, quit football during the limited-substitution years.

Players' reviews were mixed. "I loved it," Ashton remembers. "As a lineman, I liked to be in the whole game. People who'd played only offense or defense didn't."

Fortunato was among those. "From my perspective," he says, "I thought it hurt the quality of the game. I wish they'd stuck to platoons."