November 26, 2022


Jim Nowlan: Give the game back to the kids

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. And it was a good learning experience. In addition to using our 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 thoughts such as “Go off left tackle, Dan. I know I can handle this guy.”

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 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 stuff that 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.

And winning apparently is 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 I played. So coaches are under pressure to take advantage of every tool available, including calling the plays and defenses.

Though they wouldn’t admit it, 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 football coach Lovie Smith made $4 million a year, and former Athletic Director Ron Guenther received $500,000 in annual pension payments while fielding teams that couldn’t beat the Little Sisters of the Poor. Current coach Bret Bielema makes even more than Smith and has a worse record.

When I was teaching at the University of Illinois in the 1990s, the political science adviser helped the football 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.

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 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 typically had 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 rarely were 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. 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 retired professor of American politics. He writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan is a retired professor and former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.