SI Vault
Douglas S. Looney
September 03, 1990
Want to know how to make the college game better in almost every way? It's easy. Just return to one-platoon football
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September 03, 1990

One Is More Like It

Want to know how to make the college game better in almost every way? It's easy. Just return to one-platoon football

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One of Devine's favorite memories is of a game in 1959 that his Missouri Tigers played against Michigan at Ann Arbor. Because of intricate one-platoon rules restricting substitutions, he couldn't get his star player, starting quarterback Phil Snowden, back in the game. The Tigers were behind in the fourth quarter and needed to drive 80 yards in two minutes in a driving rainstorm to win. Which is precisely what backup quarterback Bobby Haas did. Does that lack drama?

The question of one platoon versus two platoon is a hot football topic nearly as old as college football itself. From the game's birth until 1941, everyone played both ways. There was unlimited substitution from 1941 through '52, mostly because of concerns about getting enough versatile players during the war years. But Michigan coach Fritz Crisler gave birth to the modern concept of two platoons in a 1945 game in Yankee Stadium, against Army, when he used eight players who lined up only on offense and eight who played only defense; three played both ways. Although Michigan lost 28-7, Army's Blaik quickly saw the possibilities, and he developed them. From 1946 to '50, Blaik's teams twice finished second in the final Associated Press poll, and did not rank lower than 11th.

Passions have always run high on the substitution rule. When the Rules Committee abolished two platoons in 1953—citing costs, primarily—General Bob Neyland, then the athletic director at Tennessee, was thrilled to do away with what he saw as "chicken——" football. At the same time, no issue has caused more indecisiveness in football than the substitution rule. The rule has been tinkered with 37 times since 1876, often in horribly convoluted ways. For example, in 1953, the rule read: "A player withdrawn from the game shall not return during the period from which he was withdrawn, except that a player withdrawn before the final four minutes of the second or fourth period may return during the final four minutes of the period from which he was withdrawn." Complained a critic at the time, according to Nelson, "It's like playing poker with queens, fours, one-eyed jacks and the joker wild in a high-and-low game."

Those who are against the idea of one-platoon football marshall a familiar litany of objections: fewer players get to participate, less sophistication, more injury, less fan interest, a move backward instead of forward. Grouses Nebraska AD Bob Devaney, "I don't see a single advantage to one-platoon." He refuses to even consider any advantages. That's a common response. There remains that prevalent feeling among the sport's big shots that they would rather deal with the devil they know than with the devil they don't.

And yet, a simple return to simple football requires only a simple rule: Two players may be substituted after every play. Period. A coach could still have some flexibility, and he could get his quarterback out of the game to protect him.

"What all this would do," says Nelson, "is give the students the opportunity to run their game." There have been worse ideas tried in college football.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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