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Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

Give the game back to the kids

By Jim Nowlan

Whenever I go to a high school or college football game, I cringe at the sight of players on the field, standing as if witless (which they aren’t), looking to the sidelines for instructions from the coaches for the play to call and defense to mount.

I fear that coaches have taken the game away from the kids. Let’s give it back to them.

When I played high school football (badly) 60 years ago, we called our own plays in the huddle. It was a good learning experience. In addition to using our own wits, we learned how to work together and make our own way on the field.

Quarterback Dan Carrington was the final word on play calling, yet players often chimed in with such as, “Go off left tackle, Dan. I know I can handle this guy.”

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Jim Nowlan

Then we went off tackle, and “this guy” reared up, pushed our left tackle aside, and smote down our halfback for a loss. Thus, Dan learned how to measure his teammates and figure out whom he could trust. Dan later became president of Western Union.

According to coaches and veteran football officials I talked with, those days are long gone.

Digital technology now gives coaches the capacity to learn instantaneously during the game, from assistants up in the press box, about opponents’ defenses and of stuff players on the field can’t know. The team playbook is an order of magnitude more complex than it was in my day, when we passed the pigskin maybe three or four times all game.

Winning is apparently even more important to parents than it was in my day. A losing coach won’t be around for long, as he might have been back when. So, coaches are under pressure to take advantage of every tool available, including calling the plays and defenses.

Though they wouldn’t admit it, the coaches probably love being a greater part, maybe the dominant part, of the action.

In effect, high school players have become pawns under the Friday night lights.

At the big-time college football level, the top five conferences, such as the SEC and the Big Ten, are really professional businesses.

Recent University of Illinois coach Lovie Smith made $4 million a year, and former Athletic Director Ron Guenther received half a million in annual pension payments—with teams that couldn’t beat the Little Sisters of the Poor, adding insult to injury. Current coach Bret Bielema makes even more than Smith did, and the team is 2-5 thus far in his first season.

When I was teaching at the University of Illinois in the 1990s, the political science adviser helped the UI players as much as possible. They had trouble scheduling a fifth course each semester, because from noon until 8 p.m. or so each day they were at work: weight training, practice, travel, games.

Then, when a player used up his eligibility, his scholarship was yanked, often long before graduation. Sister Marie Golla (Ph.D, St. Dominic OP), the adviser, would raise holy hell with the athletic department, sometimes getting scholarships reinstated until the student athlete graduated.

I would now and then help Sister Marie by taking a few players into independent studies, their fifth course in a semester. We met right after the post-practice meal at the training table, then located under the stadium. Not a good idea. The half-starved players had typically each stabbed from the chow line, and gulped down, at least a T-bone, a half chicken, two baked potatoes and more. Exhausted and stuffed, they were not ready to learn.

The players also lived in separate dorms, secluded from other students. They were rarely a part of campus life.

Now and then a player made it to the pros, but average tenure in the Sunday game is just three years, I am told. Few make really big bucks.

Here is what we can do to protect players from being pawns in a larger, adult game:

The U.S. Tennis Association prohibits coaching from the sidelines, from the pros down to the juniors. In high school tennis, players even make their own in-or-out line calls, which has to build a sense of integrity.

I say: Let the high school players call their own games, and learn from the experience.

Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three un-indicted Illinois governors. A retired professor of American politics, he writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.

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