SI Vault
John Underwood
September 20, 1965
Pro football is for fat linemen, quarterbacks who cannot run and coaches who never vary an offense. So argues the author, who adds it is but a pale imitation of the intercollegiate brand
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September 20, 1965

The College Game Is Best

Pro football is for fat linemen, quarterbacks who cannot run and coaches who never vary an offense. So argues the author, who adds it is but a pale imitation of the intercollegiate brand

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I said that I would not dispute the six million in the stands and the millions more panting in front of their TV sets, that they were probably richly entertained. I enjoy the pro game myself. It is entertaining. But the pros' rising attendance figures were no more germane to the issue than the record 24 million who watched the colleges play last year (an attendance increase for the 11th straight season, for the reader's information). The difference was, and any reasonably discerning college observer would know this, that the pro fan wasn't seeing football.

Pro football, I went on hurriedly, for the lawyer's mouth had flown open, is exactly what you have presented it to be, a highly entertaining creature of television, an In sport perpetuated by the piquancy of the forward pass and the admen of Madison Avenue. If it were what its devotees claim it is—the logical postgraduate extension of the college game—it would not have taken 30 years to get off the ground. Before TV, pro football was a game played for mill hands and factory workers and did not require the sophistication it now has. But promoters discovered the thrill factor of the quick touchdown and made pro football show business, so exciting that you can barely stand it without a commercial or a station break. Mill hands and factory workers cannot get tickets anymore.

"Enough of that sociological twaddle," the lawyer said testily. "Get down to basics."

Well, I said, the college game is technically better because it is more diversified, or less one-sided, whichever way you want to put it. It is not stereotyped and does not resist change the way the pros do. It engenders more spirit and emotion among participants and spectators, an intimacy the pros can never hope to achieve. It operates on a more exalted plane, because of its traditions and because it is involved in the education of the participants. (Publicity agents do not become college presidents, but one did become president of the National Football League.)

"Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute!" My friend was shouting and holding up both hands. We were now surrounded by dinner guests. What did I mean, technically inferior? What did I mean, no diversity?

Consider this, I said. Almost every pro team runs from what is known as the pro-slot offense (two running backs, a split end and a flanker) but what in reality is pass, pass, pass, ad nauseam. And they all at least begin with a 4-3 defense. Where is the diversity in that? The pros are stereotyped. Exchange the jerseys before almost any game and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference unless you were knowledgeable enough to spot an individual's characteristics—like Lenny Moore's taped shoes and long stride or Paul Hornung's goat shoulders or Rosey Grier's big belly.

Which is another thing: How many college coaches would put up with all that whale fat you see running loose on pro fields? Darrell Royal of Texas would die if he saw one of those bellies on a Texas guard. At Alabama, Paul Bryant would simply exile the offending player to another county. The next time you watch the introductions before a pro game on TV check how many jowls shake when the players run onto the—

"One thing at a time," the lawyer said. "A point of order. It is evident when you say 'no variety' that what you mean is you don't understand the subtleties of the pro offenses and the variables in a 4-3 defense."

I know what I can see and what I cannot, I said, and as an inspector of the college game I know the college coaches will try anything—single wing, double wing, spreads, I formation with motion, I with a shift, V, split T, short T, tackle-eligible passes, double flankers, scat-backs, pilot-backs, ratbacks, coonskin-hatbacks. When one mode of attack phases out—the Notre Dame box or the buck lateral—they quickly go on to another. Each team has a personality: it will vary from coach to coach, from section to section, from conference to conference and within conferences. Every Saturday there is an interesting new team to play. College coaches learn to adjust their game to the players on hand; the pros pick through that talent and make it adjust. The pros will not change, because they cannot afford to risk an image of failure. It's box office, brother, box office. Red Hickey pulled the shotgun offense on the NFL a few years ago, and when it backfired on him the next year he was laughed out of the league.

So, in their effort to settle on a formula for sustained entertainment, the pros have perfected the pro slot—the passing game—to the exclusion of all else. In the line they learn to push and shove and maul each other, those 250-pounders, and the quarterback gets carte blanche to throw 40 passes a game. Davey O'Brien once threw 60 in a game for the Eagles. Three years ago Sonny Jurgensen came within three passes of equaling that dubious record. Y. A. Tittle made a lifetime of it—he threw 3,817, or 254 a year. Last year only three NFL teams, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Minnesota, rushed for more yards than they passed. The Chicago Bears passed 70% of the time.

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