Forgotten Innovations: The 12th Man as Field General
One of the significant transitions in football over the last sixty years has been the shift from quarterbacks to coaches calling the plays. The details of how that process occurred are available in an earlier post, but the summary version is that the shift took decades due to the tension between two opposing forces. On the one hand, the game's increasing popularity meant there was too much money at stake -and coaches' livelihoods- for playing calling to be left in the hands of mere students. Many coaches wanted to control their fate, and managing their team's play-calling assisted that process. Conversely, the belief in amateurism and the idea of football being an educational tool for its players remained strong. Many of the latter's strongest proponents were coaches who believed their duty was to prepare athletes to call the plays. Tad Jones, who coached Syracuse and Yale between 1905 and 1927, was among those arguing against coaches exerting greater influence during the game:
Football is developing into a game not of two teams but of two coaches We are all beating the rules. Substitutes are juggles. Men are taken out not because they are hurt or used up but because their coaches want to correct their faults. …I say, once a man goes out, let him stay out. Then there would not be so much complaint regarding the coach's influence on the game.
A handful of rules minimized the coaches role in play calling, including those:
Prohibiting substitute players from talking to teammates during the first play after entering the game,
Requiring everyone or nearly everyone on the sideline to be seated, and
Limiting coach-player communication during play and timeouts.
One proposal to resolve this conflict came from Andy Kerr, then considered one of the game's brightest minds, now primarily known as the namesake of Colgate's football stadium. Kerr was Pop Warner's assistant at Pitt when Warner signed a contract in 1922 to become Stanford's new coach. Since Warner had to honor the two remaining years on his Pitt contract, he sent Kerr to Stanford to coach the team during the 1922 and 1923 seasons and implement the Warner system. Kerr made his way to Colgate in 1929, where his teams lost one game each in five of his first six seasons. In the other season, 1932, his team did not lose a game -shutting out every opponent. After they were passed over for the Rose Bowl, Kerr described his team as "undefeated, untied, unscored upon, and uninvited."
Two years earlier, Kerr argued that defenses had begun dominating football due to the increased variation in defenses played. The mix of defenses from team to team made it difficult for offenses to block effectively, while teams shifting defenses from play-to-play complicated play calling. For Kerr, the solution was to add a twelfth man on the offensive side of the ball. American football had fifteen players before switching to eleven in 1880, while our Canadian neighbors dropped from fourteen to twelve players per side in 1921. But Kerr did not advocate for a twelfth man to participate in plays. Instead, he wanted the twelfth player, variously called the field general or pilot, to call plays, step back and stand near the referee before barking the signals. When his team went on defense, the field general would move to the opponent's sideline to so he could not receive pointers from his own coach.
The field general's position behind the backfield gave him a broad view of the defense, allowing him to change play calls based on the defense while keeping him from being knocked around as quarterbacks were at the time. (Single Wing and other quarterbacks of the era were blocking backs who functioned like today's fullbacks rather than the protected species that now plays the position.)
The first test of the twelfth man idea came in the Rose Bowl. Okay, it was not in the Rose Bowl game played on New Year's Day, but the Occidental and UC Santa Barbara game played in the Rose Bowl in November 1932. Occidental had an injured backup quarterback at field general while Santa Barbara used a backup halfback for the first half and another player in the second. Occidental won 20-0, limiting Santa Barbara to three first downs all game. Given the talent difference between teams, the field general likely made little difference in the outcome, but observers thought the play calling moved faster than in games controlled by quarterbacks.
Andy Kerr use the twelfth man in a 1934 spring game between Colgate's varsity and an alumni team that tested several ideas for new rules. The first half was played with five downs per possession. Punts or kicks were required on fifth down, and teams received one point per first down earned throughout the game. Andy Kerr, Jr. acted as the varsity's field general against Colgate alums, leading them to a 16-5 victory over the geezers.
No specific conclusions resulted from the Colgate game, but Jack West picked up the twelve-man mantle in 1935. West, who led South Dakota State and North Dakota to eleven conference titles during his tenure, thought the twelfth man would help smaller schools since they were less able to overcome the double whammy of losing their quarterback / signal caller. Separating the roles made the loss of the quarterback less painful while also eliminating the need for the quarterback to be reasonably bright. West does not appear to have played a twelve man game until 1946, when he did so more traditionally as the coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Kerr continued pressing the argument with little success. The twelfth man idea drew its last breath in 1940 when two opponents accepted Oklahoma City University's football coach Oswald Doenges' proposal to play test games. Mose Simm, the coach of St. Mary's of San Antonio, agreed to the concept but wanted the two coaches on the field calling plays. A few weeks later, Oklahoma City met McMurray University, playing the full game with student-athletes at field general. The local media touted the game as revolutionary, not realizing Kerr had floated the idea for a decade, but the game received little attention elsewhere.
Following Oklahoma City's twelfth-man game, the idea dropped from public discussion. With the world at war and the U.S. beginning to build up its armed forces, draftees and volunteers left campuses, leading to concerns about college football rosters' likely depth. To give coaches the flexibility to substitute for an injured or tired starter, the 1941 rules committee approved unlimited substitutions. Under the new rules, players could enter and reenter the game whenever the ball was dead, and substitutes could immediately communicate with their teammates.
The committee anticipated coaches would use the new rule as intended: substitutes would enter the game one at a time due to injuries or fatigue, and coaches complied from 1941 through most of the 1945 season. While the letter of the law allowed coaches to substitute players freely, no one used the rule for mass substitutions until Michigan's Fritz Crisler platooned his offense and defense against Army at the end of the 1945 season. Two-platoon football exploded over the next few years before college football returned to one-platoon play in 1953 for cost-cutting reasons. Various forms of limited substitution applied until the colleges returned to unlimited substitution in 1965.
In the end, the substitution rules of the 1940s and 1950s gave coaches the means to communicate plays to their quarterbacks, thereby eliminating the need for the field general, and the concept, like old generals, only faded away.
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