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

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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.

Coaching staffs have also grown to accommodate these extra players, from the four- or five-man staff of the 1950s to today, when it's not unusual to have 12 or even 13 coaches. In addition to offensive and defensive coordinators, there are coaches for players at nearly every position: quarterbacks coach, receivers coach, linebackers coach, etc. The modern football coach doesn't so much coach the players as he coaches his coaches.

Unlimited substitution led to yet another change which would have had Pudge's eyes popping: the size of the players. Athletes in all sports have gowns bigger over the last 50 to 60 years. Baseball players on the whole are about 20 to 25 pounds heavier. In pro football, backs and receivers have added around 15-20 pounds while linemen have grown at least 40-50 pounds. But that's small compared to the beefiness of the college players who will be on the field this weekend.

Let's compare Southern Cal's 1962 national championship team to this year's Trojans.Only two players on the 1962 team were listed at more than 225 pounds. The team that faced Stanford two Saturdays ago featured an offensive line that averaged 305 pounds a man. At 230 pounds, USC's quarterback Matt Barkley, the season's leading Heisman Trophy contender, would have been the second-biggest player on the '62 team.

The football season itself has changed radically over the last five or six decades. In the year Heffelfinger died, 1954, there were just seven postseason bowl games. Fifty years ago, there were 12. Last year, there were 34. Several major college powers, such as Notre Dame, didn't participate in postseason bowls. (The Fighting Irish didn't begin playing in bowls on a regular basis until the 1969 season.) Now every major college, and quite a few smaller ones, goes to a bowl.

As for the regular season, 50 to 60 years ago, no team played more than 10 regular season games and some only played nine. Now, everyone plays 12 regular season games, and many conferences have grown so large they are split into an Eastern and Western (or Northern and Southern) division and play a conference championship game before the bowls.

The conferences today wouldn't be recognizable by old timers. The Pacific 8, or Pac-8, has now become the Pac-12. The Big 10 actually has 12 teams, and just to be consistent, the Big 12 conference has 10. The old Southwest conference, which for decades consisted of seven or eight Texas schools plus the University of Arkansas, is now gone. Several of its members now belong to the Big 12. Meanwhile, the Southeastern Conference has grown to include Texas A&M, formerly of the SWC, and Missouri, which was once in the Big 8. The Big 8 once included Oklahoma and Nebraska, but they are now in the Big 12. And you thought the NFL's alignment was confusing.

Perhaps the biggest difference of all in college football over the years is one that Pudge would not have been able to calculate: money. Information on revenues 50 years ago is sketchy, but here's one method of comparison. In 1962, Alabama and Arkansas played in the Sugar Bowl, and an end zone ticket went for $6.00. This past January, Michigan and Virginia Tech played in the Sugar Bowl, and a comparable ticket cost $150.00.

Even that jump, though, pales in comparison to television dollars, hardly a factor in Pudge's day. This season, the six largest conferences (Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12, SEC, ACC, and the Big East) alone have contracts worth more than $1.146 billion dollars. Pudge would have been staggered: He once bragged that he had never watched a college football game on TV.

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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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