When the NCAA Rules Committee voted a return to two-platoon football last month, one of the least surprised men in the country—and one of the most pleased—was Fritz Crisler, athletic director of the University of Michigan. Crisler is a life member of the Rules Committee. Seldom celebrated in headlines as a mover and shaker in college football circles, he has, in his quiet, behind-the-scenes way, exerted a profound influence on the game. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the deep thinkers of the committee saw the error of their ways and came, at last, almost full circle to the free-substitution rule of the late '40s, in the background, as insistent as ever, was the voice of Fritz Crisler.
Crisler has always been thinking a little ahead of his colleagues. He urged the adoption of the first unlimited-substitution rule as a wartime measure in 1941. He had been the first to suggest the conversion option that gave a team the choice of kicking for one point after a touchdown or running or passing for two. He had championed wider goal posts to encourage more tries for field goals.
Some little time before leaving Ann Arbor for this year's rules meeting, Crisler had gone on record as favoring the return to unlimited substitution. He had gone on record with some other ideas in response to a suggestion that he observe his 25th anniversary at Michigan (and his 65th birthday) by taking a look back over the years and into the future of the game to which he has devoted his life.
I met Crisler in his ground-floor office in the Michigan athletic administration building. He stood near his desk, tall, broad of shoulder, trim of waist. When he walked to a window and back again, as he occasionally did, he was quick and sure in every movement. His eyes were clear and cool, his face unsmiling, as he considered how he would begin.
Behind him was one of the greatest coaching careers in the history of college football. He had started as an assistant to the incomparable Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago; he had moved on his own to Minnesota, Princeton and Michigan. As head coach, he had a lifetime record of 116 victories, 32 defeats, nine ties. His magnificent 1947 team had gone through the season undefeated and then had scored a 49-0 victory over Southern California in the Rose Bowl. It was the last team he coached before he retired, as Coach of the Year, to devote all his time to the athletic directorship, a new career during which Michigan Stadium was twice expanded, until it became the largest college-owned bowl in the country, with a seating capacity of 101,001.
He sat down at his desk, leaned forward and rested his elbows on it. "Now," he said, "about the substitution rule. Let's go back and review the circumstances that made platooning possible. World War II had created a tremendous drain on manpower, and in the 1941 meeting of the Football Rules Committee many people felt that football schedules should be scrapped entirely. But the services urged that the colleges continue all athletic programs as best they could, pointing to their importance in conditioning the boys who would eventually be called up and to the morale and leadership factors involved.
"With this directive from the services, the Rules Committee met to ponder the question—the staggering question—of how we were to continue with our ranks so depleted. I attended that meeting in my capacity as president of the American Football Coaches Association, along with Matty Bell of Southern Methodist, who was to succeed me in that office. We had no vote, but we could have the floor at any time and state our views.
"Since the problem was obviously a matter of depth, Matty and I came to the conclusion that the answer might be found in a relaxation of the substitution rule. The rule at the time said that if a boy started a quarter and was taken out he could not return to the game during the same quarter. So if you had only a limited number of men, a narrow bench, and you had to make substitutions for reasons of injury or fatigue, and one thing and another, you might very well run out of men altogether. But if a boy—with a minor injury or the wind knocked out of him—could be taken out and returned as soon as he was able to play again, why, that would be most helpful. The Rules Committee found the answer in three little words. Instead of having the rule say that a substitute could enter the game only once in a quarter, the committee approved a rule permitting a substitute to enter the game 'at any time.' Just those three little words."
And those three little words made platooning possible?
Actually," said Crisler, "they did. But at the time our concern was for the single boy. We were thinking of the single boy who might have to be taken out briefly. We wanted to be able to put this boy back in the game as soon as he was ready and needed. I don't think anybody at the 1941 meeting of the Rules Committee visualized platooning as it was later developed."