Bigger, Stronger, More Complex: College Football, Then and Now

The game has grown and diversified more dramatically than any other sport in the last half-century—in audience, in complexity, in profits, and even in numbers and sizes of players.

banner_CFB.jpgUSC football looks quite a bit different to Silas Redd in 2012 (right) than it did when Brad Budde played in the late 1970s. (Wikimedia, AP Images)

In his 1954 autobiography, W.W. "Pudge" Heffelfinger, the first All-American college football selection, wrote that he'd "love to live another sixty years, just to see what's around the corner for college football." By that point, Pudge, born in 1867, had seen plenty: from the reign of the Yale powerhouses of the 1890s—for which he played—to the national champions of Army, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma over the next 60 or so seasons.

But were he alive today to watch Division I-A football, he'd likely be astonished. What he'd see is a sport that has changed more radically than any other since Eisenhower was president—one that's gotten bigger in terms of audience, complexity of rules, sizes of conference, money involved, and even players' weights.

The first thing he might notice is how many games are at his fingertips. He wouldn't have to travel from college town to college town during the season to get a look at the best teams. In our time, he could get a cutaway view of all of college football in a single Saturday.

In the 1950s, most Major League Baseball teams had many games televised, and even the NFL, which was still years away from its big boom years, had several telecasts a week, either regionally or nationally. But televised college football was a rarity then; schools were allowed one nationally broadcast home game a year. Now it's rare for any major college football power not to have every game televised, at least on local cable or on the Internet.

Pudge would have quickly noticed the ethnic mix of players. Exact figures are hard to come by, but in the 1950s, scarcely one college football player in 10 was black. By 1962, that number was about one in seven, and there were still virtually no Hispanics. Now, according to research by the Institute for Diversity in Ethics and Sports at the University of Central Florida, when the 2012 season kicked off, around 46 percent of players are black and 45 percent are white, with a small sampling of Hispanic, Asians, and Hawaiians.

Another thing that would catch Pudge's attention is the number of players on the sidelines. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the pro and college games. Throughout his life, and in fact until the early 1960s, player substitutions were limited and players played both offense and defense. By 1964, all substitution rules had vanished, and everyone was playing two-platoon football with entirely separate squads as well as punting and place kicking specialists.

Since Heffelfinger's day, colleges and pro teams had about the same number of players. Today, the average college team has at least twice as many players as an NFL team. There are no precise records, but here's one example. Alabama's 1961 national championship team usually took 50 to 55 players on road games. Last year's Crimson Tide national champs suited up almost twice as many. The larger roster is the direct result of two-platoon football, in which players no longer need more than a single skill to earn a starting slot. The old-fashioned college football star, exemplified in the song "Mr. Touchdown USA"—"He can run and kick and throw"—is no longer needed. He has been replaced by three men.

The old-fashioned college football star who "can run and kick and throw" is no longer needed. He's been replaced by three men.

Many college teams in the era of the one-platoon game used just a single wide receiver. Now it's common for teams to use three, four, and even five depending on the situation. In fact, nearly every new formation or strategy used by the pros had its origin in college football, including the "Wild Cat," in which the ball is snapped not to a quarterback but directly to a running back.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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