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How Football Changed in the Last Half of the 20th Century

As recalled by Gust Nichandros        (please email any comments to


 football.jpg (19887 bytes)

Last week my nephew asked me to write a column that he could run on his web site that would be of interest to the viewers. Since I felt I was more senior than most of his viewers, I decided to try to include items of the past that I was familiar with.

It is now football season. The college teams have just started and the NFL is starting this week. Football is a subject I know a lot about, since I played football for my high school, Manual Arts in Los Angeles, playing in the Los Angeles High School League for two years in the early 30s. From there I entered University of California in Berkeley. I played on the freshman team and on the California Bears Rambler Team in the later 30s. Here I would like to say that our varsity team won the conference that preceded the PAC 10, and our team played Duke University in the Rose Bowl. That team of 1938 was the last team to date that has won a Rose Bowl game for the University of California, Berkeley.

Now that I have told you that, I would like to get on to the subject of how football changed in the last half of the 20th Century. The changes were drastic.

In the 30s the bench was prohibited from sending signals to the field at any time except during time-outs and intermissions. The team on the field made decisions on its own. Plays from the bench, or a substitute carrying in signals, was prohibited with penalties. A substitute could not communicate with any team member until a play was run after he entered the game. After his first play he could spill out all of his messages. Actually, he was usually instructed by the coach to stay 10 yards away from any player to avoid any possible appearance of a signaling or communicating violation that could be called for a penalty.

Today when you see a player get tackled on the sideline, the ball is brought into the field 30 yards for the next play to start. In the 30s that next play was started exactly where the tackle was made. This was a disadvantageous spot for the offensive team, as running another play would probably not move the ball into mid-field. In these situations special plays were created just to get that ball back to mid-field. You could imagine the ball downed within one foot of the sideline.

Now, imagine the center being the only man that could be inside the line. The other players would all have to line up on the other side of the ball so that 7 men would still be on the line. Now the center would become an end and be eligible to receive a pass. The coaches had to work out plays for these situations.

I remember one play. The center lined up with the quarterback behind the center, both on the sideline. The quarterback called signals and the center flipped the ball out of bounds. This play was a winner because it moved the ball into the center of the field. There was only one drawback. The center had to be able to conceal the play and get it off. In those days, the 30s I mean, the center had to be sure the defense would not touch the ball before it went out of bounds, as the last person touching the ball on its way out would get possession.

Another rule that was controversial when it was made was the free substitution rule—changed in the 40s or thereabouts. Before that rule took effect, a player leaving a game for any reason had no right to return, just as it is in baseball. This created problems in picking a starting team, as you couldn’t send in a kicker without pulling someone out. Coaches had to try to get someone on the team that could be pulled back from his regular spot and become a kicker. Another player would have to be trained to fill the kicker’s position for that play.

With the above situation facing the coach, he had the job of putting a team on the field that could play a full 60 minutes. For the team to have the passers, kickers, runners, and blockers it needed, many players had to do more than one job.

I can’t help remembering a game that Cal played against USC after the rules were relaxed to allow a substituted player to return to the game. USC scored and a time-out was called by USC until they could bring in their field goal kicker. He was the band leader and was leading the USC band at the time. He came in, kicked the field goal, and went back to the band. I never found out if this was true, but that was the story told to show that the rules were now too loose and more controls were needed on substitutions.

In the 30s Oregon State won the Western Conference one year and went to the Rose Bowl. Oregon State had the 11 iron men playing. They played 60 minutes without a substitution. I believe that Wayne Valley was on that team. Later, he was one of the first people to invest in a football team that Chet Soda was forming. This team was the Oakland Raiders… but that is a story for another time.

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Last modified: Saturday May 06, 2006.