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Remember the old days, about eight or 10 minutes ago, when a freshman football player was expected to fumble every other carry because he always had one hand on the Clearasil? Remember when freshmen were those guys around the fraternity house shining shoes and mixing martinis for the suave sophomores who knew how to let the sweater hang just right? Remember when freshmen were lucky if they could get a date to go to the pancake house with a humpbacked, gotch-eyed leper who had never even heard of Merle Haggard? Remember when freshmen weren't even people?
Well, in the first place, those days were all fantasy, anyhow. A fantasy created by a parade of coaches who discovered long ago that they could lean on the alibi of youth when explaining interceptions and baroque pitchouts. Freshmen have forever been old enough to send off to war, so where did it ever say in embossed gold lettering that an 18-year-old wasn't smart, strong, big or fast enough to do anything a 19-year-old or 20-year-old could do? It didn't. And now a whole pile of freshmen are proving it in college football in the most high-powered era the game has known. Every Saturday they've been doing it. As Texas' Darrell Royal says, "I guess it proves that if a dog's going to bite you, he'll bite you when he's a pup."
The pups were admitted last January when the NCAA major colleges sat up on their hind legs and tried to do something about the higher cost of triple options, or so they said. Freshmen are now eligible for the varsity just like they always were in other times of strife, such as during world wars and police actions on foreign soil. Only now the strife is financial, what with the rising expense of maintaining a squad and artificial turf and recruiting and two dozen assistants. Presumably with freshmen eligible, fewer scholarships have to be given for football. That was the logic.
Of course, the coaches of the elite took it personally. They almost unanimously looked upon the legislation as a trick to damage their recruiting, a way to help out the have-nots. A good athlete would now avoid a Nebraska, for example, where there would be a lot of competition, in favor of an Oklahoma State, where he could probably earn a starting position as a rookie.
In fact, Nebraska's Bob Devaney, with his tongue poking not only through his cheek but practically through his cocktail glass, said, "When NCAA people meet in a place like Hollywood, Fla., what else are they going to do but pass a stupid rule like the freshman thing? If they'd met at Scranton, Pa., they'd get the hell out of there so fast they wouldn't have time to make such a ridiculous decision."
The cries that freshmen wouldn't be able to help any good team—not really—were loud and far-flung. Kansas' Don Fambrough said you can't win in the Big Eight with very many sophomores in your lineup, so how are you going to win with freshmen? Oklahoma's Chuck Fairbanks said last spring, "I wouldn't expect a freshman to help out in a program like ours." Devaney said he didn't want to see a freshman unless he was Johnny Rodgers. John McKay asked what a freshman was. Bear Bryant said he didn't even like freshman coaches. And Woody Hayes didn't understand the question.
What has happened, of course, if you have lately been hearing such names as the Buckey Twins (see cover), or Archie Griffin, or Kerry Jackson, or Wayne Morris, or Don Taylor, or Quinn Buckner—or any number of others—is that at least three dozen major teams, including most of the Alabamas and Oklahomas, have made the remarkable discovery that some freshmen are not only plenty O.K. but can make considerable contributions toward winning games.
Even the most stubborn of coaches predicted something like this might happen by midseason. The unique first-year player will "break in," they said. Here and there. The extremely mature kid, they said, who had benefited from exceptional high school coaching and had a real "want-to" about him.
But the fact is, a lot of them broke in right away, from the very beginning more than a month ago. Sometimes he was an offensive guard like Alabama's Greg Montgomery and sometimes he was a quarterback like Kent State's Greg Kokal, who passed his team to a victory over Ohio U. before he had even attended a college class. Sometimes he was a defensive tackle like LSU's Steve Cassidy and sometimes he was a linebacker like Iowa's Andre Jackson, who went out and started leading the Big Ten in tackles. Sometimes he was a substitute like Pacific's Bruce Keplinger, who suddenly found himself playing quarterback against Washington and LSU when the starter was hurt. And sometimes he was a Goliath of an offensive tackle like 17-year-old Ron Hunt at Oregon, who has merely been labeled "the find of the century" by his coach, Dick Enright. Oregon, incidentally, used seven freshmen in its 15-13 upset of Stanford last Saturday, and Enright said, "Oh, how I love those freshmen."
The most notable, however, are the ones who have been in the headlines all season long, the ones who first made the losing coaches say, "You mean to tell me he's a freshman?"