Faced with data showing that spring football has the highest injury rate among 16 college sports, football coaches nonetheless bristled at changes in the spring practice limits proposed earlier this year by the NCAA's competitive safeguards committee (SCORECARD, May 12). At times, said committee chair G. Dennis Wilson, the director of Auburn's Department of Health and Human Performance, he felt like "Menachem Begin talking about the Golan Heights."
Under current rules, 10 of the 15 practices allowed in the spring may include contact, up to and including a full scrimmage. Five may not. The safeguards committee wanted to reverse those numbers. Coaches responded with the delight they typically reserve for a dropped ball.
The two sides found common ground when talk shifted from "contact" and "noncontact" practices to "tackling" and "nontackling" sessions. "Nontackling" is a way of describing so-called thud practices, in which players block and hit but don't take each other to the ground. The coaches and the safeguards committee agreed last Tuesday to a reduction to eight tackling practices, three of which may include a full scrimmage. Four of the remaining seven sessions will be thuds; three will be noncontact.
Thud practices are common in the NFL, in which rosters are smaller and players are more highly prized. College coaches who have voluntarily begun using thud sessions have seen their injury rates fall and their winning percentages rise. North Carolina first experimented with thud practicing in 1993. "Our concussion rate has gone down by half," says team physician Bryan Smith, a member of the safeguards committee, whose school eliminated tackling altogether during spring practice in '96. "I'm not a football coach, I just know that we don't get as hurt when we don't hit as much." For East Carolina coach Steve Logan, the benefit of reduced injuries is simple. "I'm always getting to coach my first-team guys," he says.
Other coaches have begun to convert, one of the most surprising being West Virginia's Don Nehlen, an old-school guy. By the end of this spring Nehlen said, without a hint of irony in his voice, "Our team got pretty good at not knocking each other down."