I never saw Fielding Yost's teams play football, but then again, neither did you. And neither did Nick Saban, unless he truly is the spawn of Beelzebub: Yost became the coach at Michigan in 1901 (he took over from a man named "Biffy," which probably played to his advantage), and he implemented a radical system that emphasized tempo and pacing. He instructed his quarterback to bark out the signal for the next play while the opposing defense was still gathering itself off the dirt from the collision that had just occurred. Yost's nickname was "Hurry Up," because he never shut up about it: From 1901-1905, utilizing this breathless strategy, his teams outscored the opposition by a tally of 2,821 to 42.
All this happened at a crucial juncture for college football, in the midst of rampant public fear over the game's inherent violence, which sparked fundamental changes in the rules (including the legalization of the forward pass). Best as I can tell, no one of note ever accused Fielding Yost of violating the spirit of the game, and no one decried his "point-a-minute" teams for their perversion of football's values, or for their attempts to somehow alter the character of the sport. If anything, Yost's teams expanded the paradigm; if anything, Yost's teams helped open up a sport that had collapsed inward on itself, a sport that had become increasingly reliant on brutal inside runs, a sport that had somehow managed to become both increasingly savage and increasingly boring.
If anything, Fielding Yost might have aided in rescuing the sport from itself. He proved, not for the last time, that football is the most popular American sport because, despite its gruff fundamentalist exterior, it still sees itself as an entertainment. And entertainments, and the creative minds who dictate these entertainments, must evolve with their audience. They must progress, or they will fade away.
Which is why I'm starting to wonder if what we're witnessing this offseason might be the beginning of the end of the Nick Saban dynasty.
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"Soccer is a continuous game, rugby is a continuous game, but for the physical elements that are involved in playing a football game and the number of plays that you play, I don't know that it was ever intended to be a continuous game." -- Nick Saban, 2014
"…the coach who expects to develop team play must not let more than a week or ten days go by before he begins work upon the subject of lining up quickly. There can be no team play on offense or defense if there is a laggard on the line. Every man must jump for his place as soon as the referee has called the ball down; in fact…there may be times when a man must get in place when he sees his runner coming down."-- from Football, by Walter Camp and Lorin Deland, 1896.
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This week, a bureaucratic body known as the NCAA's Playing Rules Oversight Panel will consider a proposal for a "10-second rule," which would prohibit teams from snapping the football within the first ten seconds of the play clock. Most likely, the proposal will fail; after several weeks of public debate, it has become clear that A.) This idea is being driven by a minority of coaches with conservative offensive philosophies, mostly Saban at Alabama (and to a lesser extent, Arkansas' Bret Bielema, who has lapsed into the sort of doltish bullying rhetoric that Doug Neidermeyer would find tiresome), and B.) The notion that this proposal might somehow make the game safer is based on facile assumptions rather than science.
It's still not impossible that Saban and Bielema will be shown correct over time. It's still not impossible to see how the tautology they're peddling -- that more plays equate to more injuries -- might be proven through empirical methods. But after reading David Bartoo's extensive (if unscientific) report on his CFB Matrix website, I am increasingly skeptical; what Bartoo found was that the number of plays did not matter in terms of predicting injuries nearly as much as the size of the players mattered. What Bartoo found leaves open the possibility that the brand of football that coaches like Saban and Bielema prefer -- a version of the sport that emphasizes bulk over quickness -- may actually be more dangerous than the hurry-up offenses they're pushing back against. What Bartoo found may wind up supporting the notion that hurry-up football -- an emphasis on quickness over bulk -- might actually mitigate the violence that threatens to marginalize the sport.
In other words, it is equally (if not more) reasonable to believe that Saban might be actively arguing against the cause he's supposed to be championing. In which case, history will only make him look worse.
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College football has always been driven by not-so-hidden agendas, and this argument is no different, but what feels so uneasy about it is that the greatest coaching mind in the sport is leading the opposition almost entirely on his own. Most people, even if their own team doesn't play with alacrity, have accepted the notion that modern college football is an accelerated sport; most people find it entertaining and enjoyable and figure that, until defenses find a way to stop this onslaught, it's all fair game. Most people feel like they see through Saban's agenda, to the point that other programs are now openly mocking his villainy, to the point that Saban attempted to personally distance himself from it in a recent interview with AL.com. "I really don't necessarily have an opinion on the 10-second rule," he said, and then went on to express his opinion for several paragraphs. Nick Saban, he said, lapsing into the third person, is for whatever's best for the game.
Saban is still the best pitchman this side of Ron Popeil. It's may be that his living-room ability alone, along with his fastidious organizational skills, will win him another national championship or two before his hegemony fades. But in January, his team was throttled by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl; in the offseason, Saban reached out to Lane Kiffin, of all people, for help on offense, a move that could very easily blow both men's hair out of place once and for all.
The Alabama dynasty almost seemed a perpetual inevitability before a fleet-footed Auburn defensive back named Chris Davis scooted along the sidelines, past several huffing and bulked-up Crimson Tide linemen, during the Iron Bowl. Now, it could go either way; now, it feels like the Iron Bowl might become a metaphor. Now, Nick Saban has put himself in a spot that no longer feels solid. Now, Nick Saban is on one side, and the future increasingly appears to be on the other side. And this is how men fade into history.