The trouble with football? All the intrinsic and symbolic values have been overrated. The one real value of football is to teach a boy the desire to go out and win. That's the only carryover value that I can see. Good sportsmanship? You don't teach that in college football. If a boy isn't a good sport by the time we get him, probably his parents have failed somewhere along the line and we won't be able to correct him. No coach is going to be a builder of men. No coach can justifiably say, 'I'm making boys good sports.' Sure, you can temper 'em to a degree, but not much; it's always too late to make any deep personality changes in your players."
Forest Evashevski, the bland, muscular football coach who last year steered the University of Iowa to the Rose Bowl for the first time in that institution's history, spoke these heresies without batting an eye. Though hairs might curl from the Harvard Yard to the Stanford quad at such iconoclastic utterances, to him they were the simple statement of principles in which he believed. Football to Evashevski is a game played by two teams of 11 men each. The team that knocks down the other team wins. The players are muscled, healthy young men. They are not Greek gods or Horsemen of the Apocalypse (though many of them later become qualified for these descriptions in hazy strolls down Memory Lane). The object of a football game is to win, not to develop good sportsmanship, team spirit or healthy gums. Winning is fun, and fun is the only reason for football. When football stops being fun, it should be replaced by girls' hockey, Frisby or something that is fun.
Evashevski's scorn of what might be called the school of righteousness and virtue in college football does not stop short of his own colleagues. "Look at all these football coaches today," he said. "They have a little speech that they continually hand out. It goes like this: 'I like football. Football builds bodies. Football builds character. I like football. Thank you.' That's what coaches tell everybody. Nothing. Platitudes. The result is a lot of misconceptions about college football.
"The game," Evashevski said, lighting a Chesterfield and slumping his 218 well-distributed pounds into an easy chair, "has changed. The backs hit in there tougher than they've ever hit. When I was playing, a back would run behind his blocker, and an end could push the blocker down or play him and finally make the tackle. You don't get that situation any more. The blocker will sail in there and run and block harder. Nobody's gonna 'play' him.
"A lot of the improvement is because college boys are just bigger and tougher and healthier than they used to be. But also there's a new trend in college football since the days of Red Grange and those others. It was started by Fritz Crisler, and in my opinion he was the most lucid teacher the game has ever known. He set everything up the way you'd teach an English course or a math course. Everything was set up on principles. He was one of the first to do away with designations like 'between guard and tackle,' 'between tackle and end,' and so forth. Fritz came along and numbered over his offensive men, not over the defense. That was constant and you could control it. He got a different philosophy across where he didn't say to block a guard or block a tackle. He said you block in at the hole or out at the hole or you removed men from the hole. And the hole was numbered by your own men, and you always knew where your men were.
"This plan was way ahead of its time. And it's done a lot to improve football. But no matter how scientific or updated the system is, football must be fun or the team will fail." Evashevski sees to this by sometimes knocking off practice, setting up Cokes all around and showing fishing movies. "There has to be enough levity in football to make up for the grind and the hard work. I remember 1952. We had lost our first four ball games. Twice we were beaten real bad. We'd been using the same old multiple offense with the conventional unbalanced-T and the single wing. The boys weren't having any fun with it, you could see that. So we were coming up against Ohio State on a Saturday, and on the previous Wednesday I decided to give the team something to play with. We drew up a bastard formation—we took our unbalanced line and split it out about a yard and a half a man, and we ran a split-T version from our unbalanced single wing. We practiced the bastard formation for two days, and then we beat Ohio State 8-0 with it. Kept 'em out of the Rose Bowl. Point is, the boys got a kick out of the new formation—they were having fun, and it gave them confidence; so they won.
"To make football fun, we let our kids make their own training rules. We find they live up to their own rules better than if they were instructed. And we let our players run any formation they want to run, as long as we feel we know enough about it to coach it. Conversely, we've thrown out plenty of formations because our players didn't enjoy 'em."
"It's still a game"
If there's anything the normally mild-mannered Evy can't abide, it's the Monday morning All-America who takes football too seriously and castigates erring players. "I still think it's a game," he said, "and in any game people are going to make mistakes, and what the hell's the difference? Trouble with a lot of student bodies and alumni and close friends is they'll punish a player socially for dropping a ball. I don't have a great deal of sympathy for the coach when he's blamed, because he's getting paid. Like the way I cost us the Michigan game last year by anticipating that Michigan would do something they didn't. It was my own fault, and I should have been blamed. But it's sad to see a young kid, with all the frailties of being young, blamed by thousands for defeat."
Not that Evy likes to lose. "I certainly do not. Winning is important because it's the only criterion we have for measuring anything. When we have to pick an All-America team of the 11 best losers, I know I'll be finished with football." No poetry fan, Evashevski's blood boils when someone quotes the Grantland Rice classic to him. "That's just so much horse-radish: '...not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.' Now wouldn't that look lovely in a doctor's office. So you're violently ill and go to see the doctor and you see on the wall, 'For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he won't ask whether the patient lived or died, but how you made the cut.' You'd get the hell outa there.