How Football Died

SAMUEL YELLEN is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University. His verse has appeared in the Atlantic and other magazines.


GIVEN the hindsight we have now in 1960, there was a moment thirteen years ago when one might have foretold the recent debacle at Ann Arbor and the nation-wide collapse of intercollegiate football. That moment occurred very early in the opening game of Michigan’s 1947 season. Oddly enough, the scene then was also the stadium at Ann Arbor. I cannot recall who the opposing team was. However, having elected to receive, it had just failed to gain on three attempts and, in the orthodox manner, had punted on fourth down. The complete Michigan team then retired from the field, a full fresh team trotted out, and football fans saw a school use two entirely different teams — one for the defensive, the other for the offensive.

As the “Michigan System” spread, the resulting demand for football material became a serious drain on the country. Each year a number of the smaller colleges, like Wabash, Hiram, and Amherst, had to give up football. There simply were not enough players to go around.

The next fateful step leading to the ultimate catastrophe was taken by Notre Dame. It was in 1952 that the Irish came up with the specialized unit trained to execute one, and only one, particular play. So well was the secret kept that the opposing teams did not catch on until the season was well along. Of course, even during the 1940’s one could have foreseen the specialized unit in the development of the specialist who came out on the field to kick the point after touchdown and then returned to the bench until his educated toe was again needed. The new unit was made up of four, five, or six keymen, and was plugged into the offensive team whenever its specialty was required — that is, for an off-tackle plunge, an end run, a dive through center, a short screen pass, and so on. Similarly, units perfected in breaking up particular plays could be plugged into the defensive team.

Offhand one might have thought that the specialized unit would be at a disadvantage, since its very appearance on the field practically called the play coming up. Nevertheless, so thoroughly expert did each unit become in its specialty, such machine precision was drilled into it, that rarely could it be stopped, except by a defensive unit which had specialized in the same play. Nor was there any lack of deception and surprise, as can be seen by considering the variations possible in a standard play like the end run. While the “Notre Dame System” had limitations, it had the basic strength and subtlety of draw poker; whereas the older system was more like playing poker wild. In 1953, all of the Big Ten and at least twenty other schools introduced the specialized unit.

The spread of the Notre Dame System meant a further drain on the already depleted football resources of the nation. In the years before 1947, a top-ranking school could get along with a squad of 60 or 70. After the Michigan System came into use, squads jumped to 100 or 120. Now, however, the development of specialized units made it necessary to have a squad of at least 150 and often 200. The coaching staff, too, had to be increased. Furthermore, it was not enough to collect simply 150 or 200 players. For no longer were men interchangeable parts on a team. Scouts had to locate not merely a good lineman or back, nor even a good tackle or fullback, but rather a good defensive screen-pass tackle or offensive end-run fullback.

It remained for the original offender, Michigan, to take the final step. Equipment, additional coaches and trainers, travel, and a network of scouts had made of football a major financial operation. Meanwhile, the revenue from football remained approximately stationary.

The trouble lay, everyone readily agreed, in the limited capacity of a stadium seating only 100,000. Yet it was extremely doubtful that the game could be made visible to 200,000 spectators. Already, half the spectators found it impossible to see clearly what was happening out on the field. Most of them had to rely on the loudspeaker to learn what the microscopic organisms off on the distant field were up to.

An impasse had been reached, but deliverance came suddenly, and from a most unexpected quarter, in the fall of 1957. The deus ex machina was an assistant professor in the Department of English Literature by the name of J. T. Worthington. The saving idea flashed upon him one evening as he was frowning over the cryptic reference in Milton’s Lycidas to “that two-handed engine” and dreaming of renown won by unraveling a riddle which had puzzled scholars for so long. He little realized how soon he was to shine in a blaze of fame. The idea itself had all the simplicity of genius. What Professor Worthington proposed was that Michigan build a second stadium holding another 100,000, and then play two games simultaneously. At any one time, while the offensive team was playing in one stadium, the defensive team would be playing in the other. An underground tunnel was to connect the stadiums. The team was the two-handed engine.

The new stadium was completed for the opening of the 1959 season. On the first Saturday in October, Michigan was to play both Stanford and Wisconsin. As one might have predicted, these schools, like others, had been reluctant to sign up under the Worthington plan, since it gave them the appearance of second-rate teams which Michigan could take on two at a time. However, such was Michigan’s prestige and, perhaps more significant, so alluring the share of the gate offered them that they were prevailed upon. The eyes of the college world were on Ann Arbor for this initial test of the plan. Of course, bungling was unavoidable on that Saturday; and although Michigan beat Stanford, the Wisconsin game was lost through faults in planning and timing. But towards the close of the season, things were running like clockwork.

Nevertheless, complaints were heard, both from the other schools and from the fans. The visiting teams felt that they were somehow being used. Notwithstanding the larger share they were given, they could not forget that it came from a single gate; whereas Michigan’s came from a double gate. Moreover, chagrin set in as they began to comprehend what an unsurpassable lead they had allowed Michigan to attain. For, obviously, not every school could undertake to build a second stadium and schedule double games. Simple arithmetic was against it. There were not enough teams.

The fans, too, caused difficulty. They displayed a reluctance to come to Ann Arbor for the less important game. A kind of Gresham’s Law in reverse came into operation. Thus on the Saturday when Michigan played Illinois and Syracuse, the first stadium was packed, the other only half-filled. And when Michigan played Notre Dame, the other stadium, where the opponent was Princeton, had a handful of spectators. Worthington, appealed to for help, came up with the daring suggestion that Michigan schedule a double game with Notre Dame in 1960. The idea was that both schools would shuttle back and forth, taking the offensive in one stadium while on the defensive in the other.

To relate the melancholy events of the fatal Saturday just a month ago seems hardly necessary. They are only too well known. The day began fine, the crowds were colorful. The 200,000 rabid fans who had descended on Ann Arbor were getting their money’s worth. For the first three quarters the games went off with exceptional smoothness. The score was tied at 14 all in the old stadium, and

Michigan led 21 to 20 in the new. Then, during the fourth quarter, through some caprice of fortune or some momentary tangle in the weary brain of one of the coaches, the irrevocable mistake was made. The Michigan offensive team shuttled from the new stadium to the old at the same time that the Notre Dame offensive shuttled from the old to the new. This brought Michigan’s offensive against its own defensive, and put Notre Dame in a like predicament.

A number of factors prevented the teams from noticing the blunder until it was too late. A drizzle had started to come down in the second half, the fields had been churned to mud, and the uniforms had become unrecognizable. Furthermore, dusk having fallen, the light was poor. And, perhaps most important, the teams had grown so big, with 200 men on each squad, that a player did not know half of his teammates even by sight unless they happened to be associated with him in particular operations. Whatever the reasons, thanks to a special trick play, really a brilliant and thrilling maneuver, held in reserve for this very moment, Michigan scored against itself. Only then, after the extra point had been kicked, was the mistake discovered.

Chaos settled over the old stadium. The gridiron was a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight. The players wrangled. The referees could make no decision.

The snarl never was untangled. Both schools claimed the victory, and some of the Michigan alumni raised a fund to carry the case to court.

But cooler heads quickly understood that something far more serious than the score—namely, the future of football itself—was at stake. What would be the reaction of the fans? Michigan waited anxiously. On the following Saturday the worst fears were realized. Across the entire country the stadiums were deserted, and have remained so ever since. Most of the schools have not even bothered to play the scheduled games. A stupor of bewilderment overwhelmed the fans. Apparently their firm faith in football had toppled and they would have no more of it. Although a few schools have gone ahead halfheartedly to draw up a schedule for 1961, it is certain now that intercollegiate football is as dead as falconry or dueling. Most of the big schools have announced that they are quitting the game. With its usual hardheadedness and resourcefulness, Michigan has already put its best minds to work devising uses for the two stadiums at Ann Arbor, so that it need not default on the bonds. Plans are afoot to hold a festival of Greek drama in the new stadium next spring, opening with Euripides’ Hercules Distracted.