What we can learn about modern college football from an old timey coaches book

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Well, most of the time.

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I’ve mentioned before that I just love college football books. I’ve filled up nearly an entire bookshelf here in my office with nothing but books on college football. I’ll probably need to build another shelf this summer, as I undoubtedly will end up getting more.

I’ve read most of the books on that shelf. But the one I’ve spent the last few weeks plugging through was this one, which I doubt will make any must read list. It’s called Football’s Greatest Coaches, by Edwin Pope. It was published in 1955, and I believe is no longer in print. You can find most of the book via PDF right here, if you’re interested.

The book advertises itself as a pretty ambitious undertaking. A jury of over 50 of the country’s top football writers, from the top papers in places like Chicago, New York and San Francisco, to smaller metros like Dayton and Richmond, selected the 28 best college coaches of all time. The list was then chronicled by Pope, the Executive Sports Editor at the Atlanta Journal at the time (he would later be better known for his work at the Miami Herald).

If you’re looking for deep, biographical, nuanced looks at some of the early giants of the sport, you’re probably not going to find it here. Some of that is just the nature of the project…can’t really sum up Amos Alonzo Stagg or Walter Camp in just 13 pages, after all.

But this was also 1955, and a young sports editor working on his first book in 1955 probably isn’t going to try and nuke the reputation of Fielding Yost. Here, virtually everybody is a gentleman, a fierce defender of amateurism and fair play, and a role model for men and boys everywhere. Most warts are covered under piles of charming anecdotes and color.

That isn’t to say that there wasn’t media coverage that was more skeptical of Big College Football in 1955. Certainly, there were magazine profiles and newspapers and others who dared to insinuate that maybe not every big time football player was a Phi Beta Kappa that would perish at the thought of accepting a ten dollar handshake from a booster. You just won’t find as much of that here. And that’s fine.

What really fascinated me about this book was how it gave a snapshot as to how some of these players, programs and coaches were perceived in something much closer to real time. It’s one thing to read about Wallace Wade decades after he coached a game, and with years of context. It’s quite another to read about him when players he recruited might have still been on Duke’s roster.

That context is especially useful, since I think so many of the big debates in college football have remained roughly the same over the last 150 years. Professors and administrators fret over the outsized importance college sports has taken over the student body and community at large. Nobody really agrees on what the definition of amateurism is. Everybody thinks everybody else is cheating. Rutgers is bad. The beat goes on.

And to be clear, there are plenty of storylines throughout this book that I think are actually pretty contemporary, even though the game itself has been completely transformed. I think some of those are worth mentioning!

But a few things stuck out to me here that actually have changed a bit. Let’s dig into both.

Lou Little came to play school

Lou Little coached at Georgetown from 1924-1930, and at Columbia from 1930-1956. He helped bring the Hoyas into something resembling the modern era of football, and helped Columbia reach their highest points in program history. He coached the Lions to a massive Rose Bowl upset of Stanford in 1933, their only bowl win.

Even with that victory, on pure wins and losses alone, Little wouldn’t be on anyone’s list of elite coaches from that era. He actually finished with a W-L record below .500 at Columbia, and outside of the 1933 season, rarely competed for anything more than pride.

Columbia has been a hard college football job for about as long as we’ve had college football. Early coaches and boosters worried that it would be impossible to recruit talent to a place like New York City, with so many other distractions. The football program struggled to raise money. And some of their early successes, like a three year run from 1899-1901 under George Sanford, owed success in large part to bagmen and cheating scandals.

It remained hard in the 1930s. Via Pope:

Little has had some exceptional athletes….but never another outstanding collection of players. Columbia athletes must toe the line scholastically, and because of laboratory work and other late classes, Little sees his entire club together only on Saturdays. But that’s the way Columbia and Lou Little want it.

Columbia pays Little around $17,000 a year {Note: That’s about $182,000 today}, which is prorated in victories would easily make him the highest-salaried football coach in the country. Little is a confirmed worrier, although Ralph Furrey, Columbia graduate manager of athletics, periodically reassures him, “IF it was a question of winning or losing, you’d have been gone a long time ago.

Even if Pope is exaggerating a bit about the class time, I can’t really think of any FBS situation anywhere even close to this, and maybe not in the FCS, outside of MAYBE another Ivy League school.

Columbia was playing big time schedules around this era, regularly playing teams like Navy, Penn State, Syracuse, Virginia and Michigan, along with Ivy League opponents like Yale and Penn. Even the most restrictive or academic institutions wouldn’t kneecap a coach with those kinds of practice limitations, or tolerate regular losing seasons if they felt the coach was a good teacher. Even at Rice or Northwestern…you need to win.

The best comparison I can think of here would be Duke’s David Cutcliffe. Like Little, Cutcliffe earned the respect of his peers in part because of his connection to successful professional QBs (the Mannings for Cutcliffe, Sid Luckman with Little). Like Little, Cutcliffe’s career W-L record is middling, but he’s achieved consistent success and an academically intense and challenging job. And like Little, Cutcliffe has rock solid job security.

But Cutcliffe has made bowl games in six of his last eight seasons at Duke. That’s a level of consistent success that Little never came close to enjoying over the last 15 or so years of his career. It’s not totally an apples to apples comparison.

There are plenty of other mentions in Little’s chapter that remind the reader that times have changed. Pope praises Little’s demand that his players do things like wear ties when they visit his office, or refrain from informal language like calling other players “guy” instead of “fellow”. There’s also a line where Pope tries to praise Little’s commitment to physical fitness and conditioning by mentioning that he only smokes a few cigarettes a day.

But the idea that you can stay at one school for over 20 years, with plenty of losing seasons, because you do things the right way? That feels almost as out of date.

It’s also a good reminder that context matters in how we evaluate coaching success

In modern football, at the end of the day, you’re going to be fired if you don’t win enough football games. But the absolute “quality” of a coach is usually more than just his final place in the standings.

Take Clark Shaughnessy for example, another coach profiled in this book. By any fair metric, Shaughnessy was an excellent football coach. He’s credited as the founder of the T-Formation, which would become the dominant base offense in college football for decades. The Chicago Bears memorably used it to absolutely murder Washington, 73-0. Shaughnessy would use it to great effect at Stanford, going 16-3 over two years, with a Rose Bowl win.

But at Chicago, Shaughnessy was just 17-34-4 over seven seasons, never posting a winning record. But Chicago was in the process of dismantling the football program, forcing him to face very challenging Big Ten schedules without anything close to Big Ten talent or resources. At the end of his career, he took over a Hawaii program that was about to shut down. He went 1-8, but is credited with helping to stabilize the program. Did he do a bad coaching job?

A lot of the early fathers of college football coaching hopped around quite a bit, and coaches like Shaughnessy, John Heisman, Pop Warner and more had multiple stints where they went under or near .500. Some of those could probably be attributed to mistakes the coaches made, but others may very well be a product of circumstance. If the administration and athletic department were not aligned, or if the team had to play an impossible schedule, or if everybody was broke, well, nobody is going to win nine games.

This is true now. There are some very good coaches who are going to struggle at *hard* jobs, and there are coaches that could succeed elsewhere, but the timing, administrative buy-in, or just plain ol’ bad luck, prevent them from succeeding at a particular job at a particular time. Evaluation is hard!

Another debate that feels contemporary? Fans arguing about scheme

Most college football programs are running some variation of the Spread offense, but that certainly isn’t the only way to win football games. Programs like USC, Stanford, Michigan and Miami, for years, won a lot of games using more Pro-Style principles, even as other top programs were doing different things.

If the rest of college football is zigging, and you continue to zag, and you fail to meet expectations, you’re going to hear it from your fans.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the debate was between the Single-wing and the T-Formation. The Single-wing, and it’s various offshoots, dominated college football in the 1930s. The formation allowed for a ton of misdirection and trickery. But as rules changed that made the forward pass a more dangerous weapon, the T became an even more potent weapon. It was complicated and required more specialization, but was faster, more dynamic and versatile than the T.

A few coaches stuck to the Single-wing, and their fans weren’t always happy about it. Take this passage, about Tennessee head coach Robert Neyland:

It wasn’t the international crisis that had Knoxville bothered. Its football team was only breaking even.

Wasn’t so much the University of Tennessee squad, fans groused, as it was the coach. “It’s that covered-wagon offense” some suggested. “Why doesn’t he throw out that old-fashioned single-wingback formation and switch to the T?”

Or this passage, about UCLA’s Red Sanders:

Nor has he gone in for fancy football since, although he parodies critics by referring to his single-wing as '“a horse-and-buggy offense with a TV set in the dashboard.” He looks with disfavor upon fans who “demand that a team be scintillating or colorful…I’ve yet to see anything more scintillating than a touchdown, no matter how my team makes it.

Can’t you see a message board commenter typing up the same thing about Wisconsin football right now? Or Stanford, if their fans actually used message boards? Why do we keep doing this Paleolithic caveman football crap?

Well, sometimes it works! It might be better to completely master a small amount of plays than switch to a more complicated offense where 1,000 plays can only be understood kinda well. While the Single-wing as we know it is basically extinct from major college football, some of those spread principles are used by basically every college program today.

There are lots of ways to win college football games. You don’t have to do it the same way everybody else does.

That’s just as true in 1921 as it is in 2020.

The cigarette stuff? That’s uh, been a bit updated.

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