THE FOOTBALL season proper is a race against time. Its duration is approximately ten weeks, but allowing for seven or eight games there remains only time enough for some fifty practice sessions, which average not over two hours daily. It follows that the total time allowed a coach to carry out his program of preparation is roughly one hundred hours.
The training of a varsity crew, which involves autumn practice as well as three to four months' trial in the spring, resolves itself into teaching eight men to perform the same thing some seven hundred times (for a four-mile race) at the same time and in the same way. The author fully appreciates the difficulties which beset the crew coach, but in contrast to the comparatively simple program of the crew let us consider the problem of teaching a varsity football team. Thirty or forty players must be taught to execute between twenty and thirty different offensive maneuvers most of which may be run from three to five different formations, in which each player does something different in each play. The program is further complicated by a plan of defense which entails from four to seven separate team formations in which the duties of the various individuals differ radically. Moreover, during the course of the season both offensive and defensive assignments are often changed in order to meet the varying styles of play of the different opponents encountered. However, the crux of a course in football lies in drilling a team so intensively in the theory of tactics that each individual will instinctively select the correct move at the right time according to the existing circumstances.
What, then, is the best procedure to accomplish these results in ten short weeks? Mention has been made of the difficulty of obtaining voluntary coaches for the outset of the season. Many and competent men are needed at this time to assist in sorting and grading the material, which at the larger colleges often numbers one hundred and fifty candidates.
That there may be no conflict of ideas among the coaches, regular meetings are held throughout the season, for purposes of discussion and instruction by the head coach. An eminent football strategist once said that forty percent. of the effectiveness of a certain Harvard team was due to the proper coaching of the coaches. This is not obtained without protracted discussions and heated arguments, but with the observance of certain parliamentary decorum which all sensible coaches respect. The author attended one football session which lasted from seven p. m., until two a. m. Adjournment then took place until ten a. m. next day, when the meeting continued until eleven o'clock that night. During that time there was no deviation from the subject of "offensive line methods.,, As a result of the deliberations certain decisions were reached which had a marked bearing on the successes of Harvard teams for many years.
A coaching corps being organized, the next step is to get the candidates into such physical condition that they can stand the wear and tear of daily scrimmages. This stage may be termed the period of the individual, because all effort is directed toward drilling each player in the art of quick starting, handling and falling on the ball, tackling, interfering, blocking and breaking through for the linemen, kicking and passing for the backs and ends.
Gradually a semblance of team play emerges from this chaos. The quarterbacks and centers link together, and combine with a backfield. Finally, a team is completed by the addition of a set of linemen. These impromptu elevens are furnished with simple signals and a sufficient number of plays to indulge finally in short scrimmages with each other. After a thorough try-out of all candidates in the fundamentals and simpler forms of team evolutions, the material is divided tentatively into varsity and second squads. The men, retained in the former group number about forty players, consisting of three centers, six guards, six tackles, eight ends, four quarterbacks, and twelve other backs. In this way three complete elevens can practice separately, with a fourth "skeleton team" left over, - a quarterback, three backs, and two ends, with perhaps an assistant manager to act as center. The objects of retaining so many men on the first squad are, first, because sickness and injuries make serious inroads into the ranks when hard scrimmages and games begin, and, second, because frequent substitution is necessary, both for the physical welfare of the men and in order that the coaches may judge of the ability of all of the players. Moreover, this plan maintains keen competition throughout the season.
The second squad is organized along similar lines, having its own coaches, signals, and plays, and a separate schedule of games. In order that no player of promise shall be overlooked the second squad is kept intact throughout the season. It is divided into teams A and B, each having a full set of substitutes for each position. Although there are constant changes in the personnel, the total roster will probably average fifty players. Besides the varsity squad and the second squad there is also a freshman squad, which starts the season with practically the whole freshman class as candidates and is gradually reduced to about fifty men, organized on the same lines as the varsity and second squads. The sum total of the three units is about one hundred and fifty men, who are actively engaged in football throughout the entire season. The coaching policy of all three squads should be under the supervision of the head coach.
Not infrequently a player who shows unexpected ability is promoted from the "scrubs" to the varsity squad. It often happens that some players "show" well at first, but cannot stand the mental and physical strain of the season. Others flourish on hard work and seem to possess the ability to perform at their best when under stress. It therefore behooves the coach to study constantly the characteristics and personalities of the candidates. In some cases, if a player is of recognized skill, it is well to treat him leniently and to encourage him, in order to instill and maintain self-confidence. In utter contrast, others have to be driven at all times to bring out their latent possibilities. It is only by thus differentiating the treatment of individuals that the best is obtained from all. Herein lies a subtle factor which often makes or breaks a football team.