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Princeton's public image suffers from a peculiar double focus: atop the old stereotype of "the pleasantest country club in America" stands the new vision of a great rural scientific laboratory where atomic bombs are conceived and thermonuclear energy harnessed. Around the golf links are strewn structures housing synchrotrons, accelerators, stellarators and silently whirring computers. The representative Princetonian appears to be not the trim F. Scott Fitzgerald in his Norfolk jacket but Albert Einstein in his long hair and sweat shirt.
The classroom has invaded the club room and even the locker room. The scientific spirit of theoretical physics has captured that emotional and irrational phenomenon, the cult of intercollegiate football. Princeton plays scientific football—which means that it always knows what it's doing, even if it oughtn't to be doing it. The game is played under a complex system of mathematical analysis that has just celebrated its 13th anniversary. It has become a ritual with the coaching staff and, as in most rituals, its origins are hazy in memory—especially since the death of its principal architect, Head Coach Charlie Caldwell, of cancer in 1957.
In the cafeteria of the student center, oddball specialists and eggheads rub shoulders and take coffee breaks; here football science was first formulated in a series of speculative bull sessions. The pioneers of the science were Caldwell; John Stiegman, then freshman line coach and now head coach at Penn; Paul Busse, an end coach who was also assistant to the chairman of the physics department; a mathematics professor; and the director of research administration at the university, who happened to have played football for Caldwell at Williams. In the language of physics, they convinced themselves that a football game is nothing more than approximately 150 "explosions" (plays) triggered by the snapping of the ball and hurling of 22 "electrons" (players) into various high-speed tracks and random collisions. A scientific mode of analysis is to translate motion into the symbols of science—that is, mathematics—and to "measure" each action by assigning it a numerical value; by coding these "bits" of information onto punch cards and running the cards through a computer, it is possible to discover patterns, regularities, repetitions among the various explosions that render the particular phenomenon comprehensible to the human mind. The scientist deduces a theory that explains the process and makes it possible to manipulate it and to predict the results of future experiments.
In a football game the violent confusions, extreme speed and bewildering interactions of 22 different players all over the field combine to defy all but the most elementary comprehension (I can't even follow the ball). But if each separate action is assigned a numerical value and reduced to a common denominator, and if the electronic intelligence of an IBM machine is used as a Monday-morning quarterback to recombine them into meaningful patterns and regularities, then the game can be vivisected.
The mathematics professor offered a key parallel out of his own research into "explosions," having made a survey of antisubmarine warfare for the Navy with the Office of Scientific Research in World War II. The admirals were using exactly the tactics of 1918: when a submarine was detected, a run was made over it and a single big depth charge (ash can) dropped. The professor suggested that other plans of attack be tried, especially shooting out a simultaneous pattern of small bombs (mousetraps). A theoretical study justified designing and building the requisite hardware, and it was tried in action. After an attack on a sub the destroyer commander or bomber pilot was ordered to fill out a detailed and standardized questionnaire relating all the different settings, angles, factors and results. The data from several hundred of these questionnaires were punched onto IBM cards and statistically analyzed. It proved to the gold braid that more "fish" were being "mousetrapped" than "ash-canned," by a factor of 10, as the academic phrase goes.
Why couldn't similar analysis of football "explosions'* be performed, to discover which formations were most effective, what tactics most efficient, what factors most crucial? The solution was a complicated operation: three spotters are posted in the press box who note on each play the down and distance, the yardage gained, position on the field, sequences, penalties, and the number of every Princeton player in the game. This information in tabular form is presented to the coaches when they gather Sunday morning to view the movies and complete the statistics on each play: on offense—the number of the play, type of defense and the tackier; on defense—the hole hit, offensive formation, flankers, split ends, man in motion and the tackier. In an eight-hour grind they run each play back and forth, reversing the film hundreds of times, each coach watching not the ball but his own group of players, calling out to a stenographer grades on the Princeton academic marking system for each player on every play—from 1 (excellent) to 6 (flunk) or 7 (horrible).
Now the game has been completely reduced to numbers and symbols, and on Monday morning the figures are punched onto IBM cards—one card for each play, with up to 94 pieces of information on it—by two operators in the registrar's office, who suspend their usual task of compiling academic statistics for a time. Then the university statistician heads for his machines, which look something like home freezers. On 16-inch paper ruled in 94 columns he prepares 13 running feet of statistics in triplicate, and for about two hours the machines shuffle and combine and recombine the cards to group, compare and average the various types of plays: end runs, tackle smashes, guard traps, wedges, deep passes, short passes. What plays were working, in what part of the field, in what situations, and with which players? What went right, and what went wrong? Who was doing his job, on what plays, and who was goofing off? On defense, what hole yielded the most yardage, who was making the most tackles, what types of plays was Princeton most vulnerable to? All these analytical tabulations in a foolproof mathematical index are studied by the coaches before practice on Monday afternoon, at which time the players are given their grades and urged to review their mistakes and correct them before the next game.
This Monday-morning autopsy also provides a chance to second-guess the quarterback: Is he calling the right plays? Is he mixing his calls? Is he running too much to one side? Does he always run the same play in the same situation? The same mind reading can be done on the opposition quarterbacks. Some quarterbacks never pass inside the five-yard line, others never throw the ball when they are ahead.
A few years back Brown had on its team a halfback named Tommy Thompson, who was an exceptionally strong receiver of short, passes; but the statistics showed that the pass was being thrown only to the far side of the field, enabling Princeton to bring up an extra defender there and check at least some of Thompson's effectiveness.
After the season is over the 1,000-plus cards for the whole fall are run through the machines, and a complete comparative history of each formation, offensive and defensive, is compiled and bound into giant black ledgers. Here is all the information necessary for a part-by-part analysis of the Princeton football machinery. The grades on the players provide the key: if the short-side guard on the deep reverse always got a 5, then perhaps he is being given too much to do and there should be two men on that block. On a breakaway run against Princeton, if one player got a bad grade, then it was his fault; but if the entire line got average grades, then the formation wasn't any good, and the fault was the coaches'. Gains against each of the defensive formations—the Oklahoma 5, the Eagle 5, the Syracuse 6-2, along with their accompanying stunts and red-dogging—are averaged and compared.