How Football Became Football: Why QBs Used to Call the Plays
It is now the norm for football coaches to signal plays in from the sideline, but that was not always so. Quarterbacks called the offensive plays for the first ninety eight years of college football and the defensive captain generally did the same on the other side of the ball.
When football began in the 1860s and 1870s, teams did not have coaches as we understand the role today. Teams were led by captains who managed practices and the interactions with officials during the games. Since the game was still new, many players arrived on campus having never played football so recent graduates took time from work to return to campus to assist in teaching football techniques to the inexperienced players. Schools commonly opened the season with a game between the varsity and alumni teams, a tradition that continued well into the twentieth century.
As football's popularity increased, schools with little football tradition hired recently graduated players from the Eastern football powers to come to campus and coach their teams. Amos Alonzo Stagg, John Heisman, and Pop Warner were among the many Ivy League graduates who began their careers that way. Similarly, Walter Camp, who played at Yale and lived in New Haven after graduation, oversaw his alma mater's team for decades, other than the two years he spent at Stanford after being hired in 1892 to kickstart their program. The concept of coaching was so new that Americans imported the term “coach” from Britain in the late 1880s. The term "football coach” first appeared in a U.S. newspaper in 1889, while “baseball coach” appeared the previous year.
Although formal coaching roles became the norm, that did not alter the view that games should be won or lost based on the players' brains and brawn, not that of coaches. Coaches were to instruct players during practice, not games; coaching during games was the mark of a poor sportsman. That sentiment led to a 1892 rule banning instructions from the sideline, including that from coaches, teammates, or supporters in the stands. Coaching from the sideline brought the risk of a ten-yard penalty. The ban on coaching from the sideline was widely supported, but violated by some coaches. Like dirty recruiting, some coaches found ways to signal in plays while standing on the sideline. Specific movements by the coach might indicate the quarterback should call a line plunge, a sweep, a punt, or attempt a field goal. A Wisconsin coach was once accused by Ohio State of writing instructions to his team on the bottom of the water bucket ladle, which, if true, would make Wisconsin the ladle of coaches. (Apologies to Miami of Ohio.)
Since it was difficult for the two or three officials on the field to keep their eye on the sidelines, a succession of rules were passed limiting the number of people that could stand on the sideline during games. Five were allowed in 1900 after the rule makers rejected a proposal to place the coaches and substitutes into a fenced area along the sideline. A 1912 rule allowed only one person to stand on the sideline and the rule makers barred anyone from standing on the sideline during play in 1914. Even substitutes were restricted from communicating with their teammates for one full play after entering the game, lest they bring coaching instructions from the sideline. A final example of the restrictiveness of the rule was that coaches could not talk to individual players or the team during timeouts until 1967.
One whacky suggestion to eliminate coaching from the sideline came from Jack West, who won eleven conference championships coaching South Dakota State and North Dakota from 1919 to 1945. In the mid-1930s, West suggested adding a twelfth offensive player to each team whose sole duty was to call the plays, after which they would step out of the way. West also suggested the twelfth man stand on the opposing sideline when his team was on defense to ensure he did not receive instructions from his own coaches. (A later post on this topic is found here.)
The rule requiring everyone on the sideline to be seated during games was modified in 1949 so coaches, trainers, and substitutes could stand in the bench area but not “walk up and down (italics in original), or needlessly approach, either side-line.” The restrictions on sideline behavior were eased substantially in 1957 when players were restricted to the team area between the 35-yard lines, and all references to sitting, walking, and approaching the sideline were eliminated. Many teams continued to have the team remain seated nonetheless.
Even the NFL, whose players were professionals, did not allow coaching from the sideline until 1944, but it was not until 1954 that someone took full advantage of the rule change. That someone was Paul Brown, who used "messenger guards" to shuttle in plays. (One of those guards was Chuck Noll, who later won four Super Bowls coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers while walking freely along the sideline.) The messenger guards sometimes mixed up the play calls, and the process took precious time, so Paul Brown was open to new approaches. One came in 1956 when a pair of Ohio inventors told Brown they had created a radio headset that could fit inside the quarterback’s helmet. The Browns used the system in one exhibition game and four regular season games, despite the system sometimes picking up the local taxi dispatcher’s calls. The NFL banned electronic methods of communicating with players on the field midway through that season, and such devices did not return to NFL fields until 1994.
College football, which had unlimited substitutions between 1945 and 1952, returned to single-platoon football in 1953 before progressively easing those rules in the early 1960s. Since those rules allowed coaches to shuttle players, coaches used the process to call plays from the sideline even though doing so was technically illegal. But old habits and ways of thinking die hard. Col. Red Blaik, who won three straight national championships while coaching Army, voiced his concern about that approach in 1964, saying:
“If the coach has worked properly with his quarterback, he knows more about running the works than does the coach. Interfering with the quarterback destroys his confidence. He loses faith in his coach when the bench falters.
The continuous shuttling of players for the purpose of communication makes a bad impression on spectators. They get the feeling that the men in the field are nothing more than pawns for the geniuses on the bench, most of whom are horrible chess players.”
Blaik's view on coaches calling plays fell on deaf ears, and all restrictions on coaching from the sideline were lifted in college football in 1967. Woody Hayes became the first coach to use baseball-like signals to send in plays from the sideline when the 1967 season opened.
The most recent means of signaling in plays emerged with teams running no-huddle offenses. Given the need to quickly communicate formations and plays to ensure the hurry-up offense does not slow down, many teams now communicate by holding up signs with seemingly random images. The approach was originated in 2008 by Glen Elarbee, then a graduate assistant with Oklahoma State. Oklahoma State used the signs in their Holiday Bowl game against Oregon that year, and Chip Kelly began using the signs with his Oregon offense the following year. Oregon's success led to the system being more widely adopted.
Coaches calling plays is now so ingrained in football culture that it is hard to imagine that it was ever different. Perhaps that is just a sign of the times.
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