There was a time when all you had to do to be considered an ardent follower of college football was ride around in a jalopy and give an occasional locomotive for Jack Oakie. If you were a real nut, you listened to Bill Stern on the radio, knew what "hike" meant and worried about whether your school's good old 6-2-2-1 could stop the other team's good old single wing in the traditional battle for the Little Oaken Skillet. It was nothing at all like the sophisticated season that now begins with another set of rules, a freshened vocabulary of coaching terms—a dedicated player, for example, will stick you instead of outbutt you—and the promise of more genuinely strong teams than ever to compete for a national nonmythical championship that should exist but does not.
Staying abreast of college football's changing moods and trends is as difficult as keeping up with programs on television: now you see them, now you don't. Take the offenses. Just when you thought you had learned all the deceits of the split T, where the quarterback handed off or faked and ran, it was replaced by the simple power of the wing T, where the quarterback pitched and blocked. Then, as coaches tried to get the jump on one another, along came the shifting T or the I formation, where the quarterback suddenly became a thrower. Now, in 1965, most systems will yield in popularity to something called the I slot.
The I slot is not, as the casual observer might guess, a State Department term for the wastebasket where presidential memos are thrown, but a pretty good combination of the formations immediately preceding it. It has the deception of the early T, it scatters out the defense like the I and it provides running strength as well, for ideally the halfback in the slot (between the end and tackle) will be capable of blocking as splendidly as he can catch. With practically every team committed to a balance of running and passing, the I slot seems perfect—until next year, when there will be wrinkles on another letter of the alphabet.
Although for the majority of spectators defense is the uncomplicated art of chasing people, there is a little more to it. The season will find the "Okie" (for Oklahoma), or 5-4, still in vogue, along with the use of a "monster," or roaming, strength-equalizing linebacker. But it will also find increasing use of a thing called the split six. This is a six-man front with a curious gap in the middle and all linemen slanting in, the gap designed to lure runners smack into alert, nimble linebackers.
Now that you know the formations to be confused by, you have a right to know their precise value. Says Texas' Darrell Royal, who has successfully resisted them all, "Trends are bunk. Only angry people win football games."
Far more beguiling than the techniques of the game is the language. Throwing around terms has become something of a game in itself, especially at cocktail parties where old grads and influential summer-job providers gather. These are the men who help recruit, who get the "studs," the winning athletes, the ones who can only come, as Alabama's Bear Bryant says, "from good mamas and papas."
Nowadays you never hear the hip fan speak of a pep talk. In 1965 a coach puts on a game face. The good passer who once possessed a weapon called the arm now has a cannon. And with it he does not hit the deep pass or the bomb anymore, he hangs one up there for six. Or maybe he can blow it across the alumni stripe. He throws a streak.
The top receiver who can race down-field to catch the ball in the seams (the gaps in a zone defense) has the steps. If he almost never drops a pass he has good clamps, and if he sometimes does he merely has good boards. The broken-field runner who only a short time ago could juke a defender can take it away now.
Linebackers are generally known as "Mike" (middle), "Liz" (left) and "Rip" (right). And while some of them may still red-dog, blitz, storm or shoot, a lot of them simply like to come or go, as in the following conversation:
Coach (at blackboard, worried): Now, Donny, when we're here, Mike likes to come.