Every fall, on campuses across the nation, fans journey to watch collegiate athletes take the field to play America’s most popular amateur sport, football. The appeal of college football lies not only in the intensity of its fans, but in the on-field product itself. The reason is simple. Even though college athletes lead lives that other students would find unrecognizable, they are, in the final calculation, amateurs. Random mistakes that are unthinkable for, or at least less common among, professionals routinely lead to upsets and outcomes that confound even the closest followers of the sport.

A college football program’s success seemingly is predicated on the ability of the coaching staff to overcome the randomness of its sport. They attempt to do so through personnel decisions and strategic innovation.

Programs compete intensely to attract the best high school personnel available. Schools host prospects for lavish recruiting visits and generally do everything within their power, and often within NCAA rules, to make the visiting student feel special. Some programs trade on their tradition of excellence (Notre Dame); some programs can tell of recent successes (Alabama); and still others offer something entirely different, sartorial superiority (Oregon). Yet, talent is only a portion of the formula necessary to foster a winning program.

Successful recruiting is not enough to build a winner because, more than in other sports, the involvement of a football coaching staff is determinative of the in-game success of a team. For this reason, a great deal of attention is paid to a team’s strategy and play-calling. Teams that innovate can succeed in spite of talent deficits.

The evolution of football strategy has moved, seriatim, from days in which blocking patterns exclusively set-up running plays, to the development of forward passing options, and now to a point where play calling occurs from the sideline and requires no pre-play huddle on the field.

That last development is a revolution that has the conservative, old-guard making a goal-line stand. The “no huddle offense” has raised the cadence of the game dramatically. Some programs, in fact entire football conferences, perhaps out of a sense of tradition, have failed to adapt.

For instance, with some exceptions, the Big Ten Conference, well-known for a grinding, slow, and deliberate playing style, has failed to effectively embrace new offensive strategies. Unsurprisingly, in 2013, the Big Ten posted the worst out-of-conference winning percentage of the five major conferences. A repeat of that ignominy is a real possibility. Perhaps it’s tradition that keeps many Big Ten teams mired in futility. It’s not so much that innovation has been considered and rejected… it’s as if it never arrived.

More curious is the case of one of the nation’s top programs, the University of Alabama, that is coached by one of the nation’s most successful coaches, Nick Saban. In 2012, a year that the Crimson Tide would win a national championship, Coach Saban made a point of decrying the use of “no huddle” offense.

I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety.

Later that season, Alabama would lose to Texas A&M, a team well known for its use of a speedy no-huddle offense.

Outside of its humane, laudable and situational concern over player safety (and isn’t football an affront to human safety simply by the acts required to play it? Micro-aggressions be damned, smash-mouth subtleties rule in football!) why in the world would a successful program take such a public stand against innovation that has made the game much more exciting and entertaining? Would only an embittered cynic suggest that, perhaps, the program fears more nimble competition and would rather defeat it through regulation than on the field?

Nope. From a conservation of a dominant organization’s resources standpoint, to reduce competition’s chances of overtaking the dominant organization, this retrograde strategy makes excellent sense. Even outside of the walls of athletic academia, one does not have to look far to find real-world examples of protectionism. The dimensions of such protectionism change from the massive, in international trade disputes, to the local in situations where taxicab stakeholders fight to stifle ride-share innovations, and hotel owners fight to kill accommodation-sharing innovations.

Hopefully, for the sake of innovation, Saban’s campaign to enshrine go-slow football will fail.  Should Alabama fail to win the national crown this year, he might find himself available to assist his anachronistic soulmates as they selfishly but understandably try to buck progress. One can imagine the very-well-qualified-to-do-so Mr. Sabin speaking out to limit private sector innovation with noble sounding expressions of concern about car rider and house guest safety. In the meantime, the public pays more and is limited to services it no longer wants, by such efforts.


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