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"College football's costly two-platoon era, which introduced the gridiron specialist and bankrupted the football programs of many small colleges, came to a sudden end today."
Wouldn't it be wonderful to pick up the morning paper, nearly 38 years after those words were written, and see that news reported once again? Except things have gotten so much worse that today the word small would have to be deleted. Imagine a return to iron-man football, a time when men were men and football players played real football. Which is to say, a time when the same guys played offense, then defense, then offense. All afternoon.
Remember Chuck Bednarik, possibly the best linebacker ever and among the best centers? In four years at the University of Pennsylvania he practically never left the field, and he didn't let up when he arrived in the NFL, either. Bednarik played on both sides of scrimmage during nearly all of his 14 years, 1949-62, with the Philadelphia Eagles. He put the New York Giants' Frank Gifford out for a year with a world-class hit, and he stopped the Green Bay Packers' Jim Taylor, one-on-one, to preserve the Eagles' NFL championship in 1960. And he hardly ever flubbed a center snap to such greats as Norm Van Brocklin and Sonny Jurgensen. It's time for another Bednarik. That was down and dirty football, before prissy wide receivers started streaking onto the field as play-carrying messengers and myriad other substitution travesties multiplied.
"They couldn't do it. They'd run out of gas," Bednarik, now 65 and a sales rep for a corrugated box company, says of today's athletes. "Before the half, they'd be suckin' and huffin' and puffin'. We keep hearing how great they are. One-platoon football would let us really find out how great they are."
"If it were up to me," says Penn State coach Joe Paterno, "I'd love to go back to one-platoon football right now. It would get us back to a lot of basic values." He falls silent, then says, "Wouldn't that be great? "
Sadly, those marvelous days lasted only through 1964, when unlimited substitution—otherwise known as the two-platoon system, so named by Colonel Red Blaik, the Army coach who naturally thought in military terms—was again foisted upon us. Just as sadly, almost nobody today is seriously talking about a return to the good old days. But they should be, for seven quite sensible reasons:
1) Expenses would be cut. Dramatically. Kansas State president Jon Wefald thinks one-platoon football could result in at least a 40% savings. And that is directly in line with the sentiments of the NCAA Presidents Commission, which, says Wefald, "is in favor of cost reduction in all sports. But football is the sport most associated with overemphasis. We've got to bring this thing under control, because football has become the tail that wags the dog."
Dave Nelson, the secretary-editor of the NCAA Rules Committee since 1961, suggests that if one-platoon rules were reinstated, the NCAA's current limit of 95 scholarships per school could easily be reduced to 60. As things stand, the 106 Division I-A schools can award a total of 10,070 scholarships, at an average cost of $10,000 each, which is $100.7 million a year. The reintroduction of one-platoon football would mean that schools could cut their scholarships back to 6,360, at a cost of $63.6 million. Bingo, a savings of $37.1 million. Nelson estimates that the average major school would save about $350,000 a year in scholarships. Stanford, where a football scholarship is valued at $20,805 a year, would save $728,175. And that's in scholarships alone. There would be additional savings in uniforms, transportation, recruiting and so on.
And to those who express concern for those 3,710 players who would lose out under a new 60-scholarship rule, Iowa State coach Jim Walden says, "Nobody promised we'd have trees to cut down forever or that people would burn coal forever or that we'd have 95 scholarships forever." Even at Iowa State, where a scholarship for an in-state player is valued at only $4,900, that would represent an annual savings of $171,500.