Saturday, February 22, 2014

Say No to The Ten Second Rule: Alabama's Prejudice Against Smaller, Quicker Football Teams

On Thursday, March 6, 2014 the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Committee will consider a proposal to radically change how college teams play football. USA TODAY writes that the NCAA Rules Committee will consider a proposal, offered by Nick Saban of Alabama, that offenses be mandated to wait ten seconds after a play finishes before snapping the ball for the next play. This ten second "delay" will allow defenses to substitute players -- all in the name of safety. However, this proposed ten second rule--conveniently not presented to college football coaches for discussion at January's 2014 American Football Coaches Association National Convention --seems designed to slow down the college football game to give bigger, slower defenses like Alabama's time to catch up with smaller, faster offenses like Oklahoma's. It seems as if Alabama and a few other colleges--teams who have dominated the college football game these last few years through their size and brute strength--are now reacting to the offenses of smaller, faster teams by attempting to change the rules.

History repeats itself.

In 1875 U.S. Army Lieutenant Richard Pratt imprisoned in shackles 75 "savage" Cheyenne, Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche warriors in western Indian Territory (what we now call Oklahoma) and transported them to Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida for terms of imprisonment. These Indians, prisoners of the United States government, had been arrested for their involvement in the Buffalo War, America's last Indian war on the southern plains. The Plains Indians were kept at Fort Marion for three years under the command and watchful eye of (then) Captain Richard Pratt. Eventually United States politicians became so impressed with Pratt's successes in "civilizing" the Indians at Marion, that the government gave to him the old Carlisle Indian barracks to establish the first government sponsored Indian school in the United States.  Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1879, opened with many of the sons and daughters of those original 75 "savage" Indians as students. The United States government hoped that Pratt would be able to "civilize" the sons and daughters just as he had done their fathers.

Some of the Oklahoma Indians at Fort Marion
Richard Pratt was a devout Christian man. He believed in the equality of the races in a day when America was filled with prejudice. One only has to read Pratt's 1892 article The Advantages of Mingling American Indians with Whites to understand his racial egalitarianism. Many modern educators despise Pratt because of his belief that an Indian should forsake the Indian culture of the Plains and embrace white civilization based on capitalism, Christianity and the customs of a modern America. Particularly in our present age of political correctness, where there is no tolerance for any declaration of absolute 'truth,' Richard Henry Pratt is despised. Yet, even among those who shiver at Pratt's Indian education methodology, there is a deep respect for Pratt's adherence to racial equality.  The Carlisle Indian students knew Pratt loved them, even those students who hated how he forced them to adopt personal and cultural change. To help these young Indians adapt to the cultural changes and the rigors of academic and military discipline at Carlisle, Richard Pratt focused on developing a comprehensive recreational program at the school. Pratt knew from his experience among the Indians on the Plains in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), that one of the games the Indian boys loved to play was called "hoop and spear" or "hoop and pole."

In this game, the Indians would find a  tender tree branch and bend it to form circular hoop, tying its ends together with rope. They would then wrap the hoop in feathers and roll it on the ground as opposing teams of Indian youths attempted from a distance to throw 'poles' or 'spears' through the hoop. Points were determined by the distance and accuracy of the throws. The overhanded throw the Plains Indians used closely resembled what would become the modern American quarterback's throwing motion when firing a pass to a receiver downfield. The "hoop and spear" game was extremely popular in the southern Plains. It helped develop the art of throwing a spear, a skill particularly advantageous when Indian men would go out on their tribal game hunts. Richard Pratt knew his Plains Indian boys at Carlisle were smaller than the average American boy in terms of size, but Pratt used their natural athletic skills to motivate them. He helped the boys to adapt to track and field events and other American competitive games that suited their abilities.

But the Indians at Carlisle pressed Captain Pratt to teach them the brand new game called "football."  Football began evolving from rugby as a unique sport among eastern Ivy schools about the same time Carlisle opened. With Carlisle, Pennsylvania being near the epicenter of the Ivy League schools, word soon spread among the Indians about this new game. The "Father of American Football" was a man named  Walter Camp. In 1876 Camp began attending Yale University. He was an athletic, smart man, who played his first year at Yale on the school's 'rugby' team. However, in the fall of 1876, a handful of Ivy League schools gathered at what is now called the Massasoit Convention, to draw up some new rules that would turn their  "rugby" games into what we know as modern football. Camp, one of the leaders at the Massasoit Convention, wound up playing varsity football for Yale from 1877 to 1882, the last two years as a student in Yale's graduate school. He captained Yale's football team for three of those five years, and historians credit Camp for creating the game and scoring rules for American football that are still being used today. However, even as late as 1898, American football continued to look like a rugby scrum (see the picture above from an 1898 game between Penn and Cornell). There was no 'passing,' no deceptive fake hand-offs, reverses, or attempts to run wide and fast. American football was still a game of brute force where teams plunged straight ahead in a scrum, with big, strong men having the advantage.

Richard Pratt (pictured left) knew nothing of the new game of football except what he'd read in the newspapers or heard on the streets of Carlisle. He resisted the pleas of his boys to teach them the game because he knew his small Indians from the Plains would have little chance at playing a game dominated by the big American boys at the Ivy League schools. Eventually, Pratt saw a football game in person and was repulsed by the brutality of the game. Many of the collegiate young men were injured during the contest, and to Pratt, the game looked like a disorganized fight. The pace of the game was slow, consisting of straight ahead runs, ending with head on confrontations between the opposing teams. Pratt had no desire to teach the Indian boys at Carlisle the game of American football because he believed they would be physically hammered.

The Indian boys at Carlisle had taken to playing intramural football during recreational times, and they continued to press Captain Pratt even harder to give them a coach and let them play competitive American football. Finally, Pratt understood his continued resistance to their pleas would be a detriment to their schooling. He told the boys, "If you keep your grades up for the entire year, I'll consider bringing somebody in next year to teach you football."  The Indians kept up their end of the bargain, and in the fall of 1893, Richard Pratt kept his promise and hired a former Yale football playe as coach. For the first six years, the Carlisle Indian football team struggled. The game didn't suit their athletic capabilities, and many of the teams they played had extreme prejudice against the "Injuns."  But in 1899 Captain Richard Pratt hired a creative, young football coach by the name of Glen Scobey "Pop" Warner (1871-1954) to lead his Indians. "Pop" Warner would be the coach of the Carlisle Indians for a total of ten years, a decade of years that would form a portion of his long and distinguished coaching career at several colleges and universities. "Pop" Warner would later say (1931):
"After thirty-six years of coaching at widely separated and differing schools as Iowa State, Cornell, University of Georgia, Carlisle, University of Pittsburgh and Stanford, the experiences that stand out most vividly in my memory are those connected with the Indian lads."
Pop Warner's coaching tenure at Carlisle Indian School encompassed two separate stints. The first time he coached at Carlisle, from 1899 to 1903, the little, fast Indian boys from the Plains continued to be punished by the big, strong college boys of the east. After leaving Carlisle to coach at his alma mater Cornell for three years (1904-1906), Pop Warner returned to Carlisle to coach the Indians a second time, from 1907 to 1914. It was during this second tenure that Warner developed a "fast-paced offense" that took full advantage of the athletic skills of his smaller, faster Indian boys.

Included in this new fast-paced scheme was the new form of advancing the football (approved in 1906) called "the forward pass," a play that took advantage of the "hoop and spear" throwing technique that the Indian boys had learned in their home territories. During this second stint of coaching at Carlisle, Pop Warner also implemented what he called "the single wing" formation (or shot-gun offense) as well as the "double wing" formation. The Carlisle Indians would dazzle their prominent east coast Ivy League football rivals with their quick feet, sleight of hand plays, precise forward pass throwing skills, and a wide-open, fast paced offensive attack. Every little boy who has ever played "Pop Warner" Little League Football, and who has ever attempted to out-flank, out-run, out-throw, or in general "deceive" an opposing defense can thank Pop Warner and the Carlisle Indians for changing football from a slow, brutal head-on confrontational game of brute strength to the fast paced, wide-open offensive game that American football is today. Using their speed and quickness and a fast paced offense, the Carlisle Indians began defeating strong, powerhouse football teams like Harvard and Army.

Sports Illustrated author Lars Anderson, in his brilliant book Carlisle vs. Army, as well as  Washington Post sports reporter Sally Jenkins, in her historical novel The Real All Americans,  both compellingly recount the greatest game ever played in the history of American football. The game was between the Carlisle Indians and the West Point Army Cadets, played on November 9, 1912 at West Point, New York. It was truly a battle on the athletic field between Indians and soldiers; a veritable war without blood. Playing tailback for Carlisle was Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete in the history of the world, and an Indian from Oklahoma. Playing tailback for West Point was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the future leader of the free world during and after World War II. Jim Thorpe scored three touchdowns and three extra points during the game. The future President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was injured while tackling Thorpe. Eisenhower, who was described in the press as someone "who hits the line harder than any other man on the Army team" played his last game the following week against Tufts University. President Eisenhower would later say that the image of the incredibly fast and elusive Jim Thorpe running down the field with the ball in his hands is something "I will never forget."  Sports Illustrated writer Sally Jenkins calls the 1912 Carlisle Indians "the team that changed a game, a people, and a nation."

According to Lars Anderson, Coach Pop Warner prepared his Indians for battle against the soldiers of West Point that Saturday afternoon, November 9, 1912 with a speech that rivals the greatest motivational speech ever given by a coach to his players. Jim Thorpe (pictured to the left) never forgot it. Coach "Pop" Warner, using graphic language, explained that "THIS game" was the Indians chance to extract revenge for all the cold-blooded horrors that the white man had inflicted on their people in the past. He reminded the Indian boys that "the ancestors of these Army boys killed and raped your ancestors." Warner concluded his pre-game pep talk with these words:
"On every play I want all of you to remember one thing. Remember that it was the fathers and grandfathers of these Army players who fought your fathers and grandfathers in the Indian Wars.. Remember it was their fathers and grandfathers who killed your fathers and grandfathers. Remember it was their fathers and grandfathers who destroyed your way of life. Remember Wounded Knee. Remember all of this on every play. Let's go!"
The Indians, using their fast-paced, forward passing, fake-handoff reversing deceptive offense defeated  the bigger, stronger Army football team that day 27-6. American football has never been the same since. Army, Harvard, and the other powerhouses of the day sought unsuccessfully to change the rules in order to limit Carlisle's playmaking ability, but eventually those powerhouse teams had to adapt to the opposing team's speed, or continue to lose. That's the beauty of football. It's war without blood. New tactics, new offenses, new schemes, are essential to successfully defeat the opposing team. One would expect that some would seek to change the rules to gain an advantage, but one can only hope that the game will be allowed to continue to continue to evolve on the ball field and not in the board room.

The proposal being brought before the NCAA Rules Oversight Committee on March 6, 2014 is an attempt to reverse over a century of football history. It is not for "safety" that the game should be slowed down. It is for "safety" that the game should be sped up. The shotgun, forward-passing, fast-paced offense of the early 20th century was designed to protect the smaller Indian players from Oklahoma against the big, brutal teams from the east. In light of the history of American football, it would be wise for the Rules Committee to vote "No" on the ten second rule when they meet Thursday, March 6, 2014. In closing, I'd like to give a few tidbits of information worth pondering for every football fan, particularly those from Oklahoma:
(1). In a very real sense, those 75 Indian "savages" captured by the US Army in what we now call Concho, Oklahoma and transported to Florida played a very historic role in the evolution of American football. In fact, I tell people all the time, Oklahoma has as much to do with the evolution of the NFL as any state in the union.
(2). The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was disbanded in 1918. However, the dorms, fields, and other sites of Carlisle Indian School's historic past have been excellently preserved by Pennsylvania historical societies and are worth the $5.00 entry fee. One can enter the grounds and run on the very track where Jim Thorpe trained for the Olympics and play catch on the field where the Carlisle Indians practiced.
(3). On the grounds adjacent to the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania now sits the United States Army War College where every future general of the United States Army is being trained in the art of war.
(4). The Washington Redskins, until just a couple of years ago, always held their football training camp during the summer at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The movement to "change" the Redskins nickname of Washington D.C.'s professional NFL team is being resisted by owners of the team for purposes of tradition and history, not racial prejudice.
(5).  When the Oklahoma Sooners football team runs a fast-paced, hurry up offense under Bob Stoops and Josh Heupel, the team is probably closer to their football roots in Oklahoma than anyone realizes.


Anonymous said...

Hi Wade.....

Love your history posts. I am not from OK but have enjoyed your many stories of it's past days.
For the sake of us who enjoy reading about our American history, especially localized American history, keep up the excellent work.


Rex Ray said...

Enjoyed the history. Interesting that Eisenhower played against Thorpe.

I believe Thorpe got a bum deal by his Olympic medals being taken away as he was classified professional because he made a workman’s wages a short time for playing football. .

Last week, while driving on highway 75 in Denison, TX, I saw a huge monument of the face of Eisenhower. Denison is where he was born.

Anonymous said...

What a great history lessen.

Jim Thorpe was the greatest all around athlete in U.S. history. It's too bad there are more films of him in his prime.