Today's Tidbit... A Tall Tale About Coaching Towers
Bob Dylan wrote All Along the Watchtower in 1966 or 1967 when recuperating from a motorcycle accident, none of which has anything to do with football other than the reference to watchtowers, which football coaches have used since at least the early 1920s. Some coaches built towers at smaller stadiums to film games or to give assistant coaches a high-level perspective on the action occurring on the field. However, we'll focus on the towers coaches used during practice to facilitate their own observations.
The earliest reference concerning a coach using a tower during practice relates to George Foster Sanford at Rutgers. Sanford played center at Yale and was one of four second-team All-American Bulldogs on the undefeated 1891 team, which also had five first-team All-Americans. He coached Columbia and Virginia before taking on Rutgers from 1913 to 1923, during which he did not take a salary, making his money running a Wall Street insurance brokerage.
An innovator throughout his career, by 1921, Foster used a twenty-foot tower on wheels to observe practice. Likewise, fellow New Jerseyan, Bill Roper, had a similar tower at Princeton in 1924.
Meanwhile, Robert Neyland at Tennessee had no need for a tower, but as a reserve Army officer, he was called up in 1935 and sent to the Canal Zone, so his long-time assistant, W. H. "Bill" Britton, took over for the year. Like Sanford, Britton had an interesting background. He was Neyland's teammate at West Point in 1913 when Gus Dorais, Knute Rockne, and the rest of the Fighting Irish visited Army and famously tossed the pea around the field to the amazement of Eastern writers. Although Neyland went tower-less, Britton opted to coach from a tower that we can only hope they called Rocky Top.
The popularity of coaching towers rose after WWII. Biggie Munn climbed one at Michigan State in 1947.
Andy Gustafson used one at Michigan in the early 1960s, getting additional use from it during the offseason by having players push it up and down the field during workouts. But towers reached new heights in the 1970s and 1980s with Lou Saban at Miami, Bobby Bowden at Florida State, and Don James at Washington.
Still, no one stepped up his game like Bear Bryant. The story goes that he once called a short practice and, as usual, climbed up the tower. Unfortunately for the players and his staff, Bear soon dozed off, and with no one willing to wake the sleeping Bear, the practice continued until he awoke three and one-half hours later. Those things happen when you are a towering figure in your field.
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The towers depicted look to be substantial. Unfortunately in 2020, a tower used to video tape Notre Dame practices collapsed and killed the student that was to tape the practice.