Innovation, Integration and the Birth of Modern College Football

Innovation, Integration and the Birth of Modern College Football

Paul Gipson, playing against Tulsa in 1968.

SourceJim Cox/Chronicle

Why you should care

A half-century ago, Black talent changed the complexion of the game — and opened up offenses.

By and large, the first 100 years of major college football were a sea of White. Until the late 1960s, Black players got just a sprinkling of opportunity at predominantly White institutions, while historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) served as a cultural and athletic haven for Black stars of the day.

But 50 years ago — in a scintillating fall of 1969 that tested the integrity of scoreboard lights across the country — the college game saw a statistical surge in points per game, total offense and passing yardage. As college football celebrates its 150th anniversary this season, a look back to a half-century ago reveals the true birth of the game we know today. Innovation, specialization and, most importantly, integration are to thank.

The specialization was first to come. Before its arrival, college football had been a one-platoon sport, with the majority of athletes playing both offense and defense. That started to change in 1958, when Louisiana State University coach Paul Dietzel developed a three-platoon system: the “White team” would start, and play both ways, and the coach would counter the restrictive substitution rules of the era by swapping out all 11 players for another unit.

As schools integrated, there was an influx of talented receivers and running backs who helped change the game.

Jerome Solomon, Houston Chronicle columnist

In those days, if a player was subbed, he could not return until the next quarter. Dietzel reacted by inserting his “go” team for the last offensive series of a quarter while his “bandits” would come in for the last defensive stand. Rested kids would face fatigued foes who were playing both ways. The result? The Bayou Bengals won 15 straight games during 1958 and ’59, and that ’58 team were undefeated national champs. By 1964, the NCAA was allowing unlimited substitution.

The next big shift began that same year, when the University of Houston signed the first Black players — backs Warren McVea and Paul Gipson — at a major conference. Both would go on to play in the NFL.

But Houston didn’t take off until it added the third piece — innovation.

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University of Houston Cougars (from left) Tom Beer, Ken Hebert and Warren McVea.

During some 1964 games, Cougars head coach Bill Yeoman employed a split-T offense, with a full-house backfield and linemen gapped. At a 1965 spring practice, when Yeoman became frustrated with his blockers, he barked, “If you can’t block, simply get out of the way.” The next play, the protection scattered, resulting in a 15-yard gain. This continued, and the offense piled up yardage. Yeoman plotted a means of maintaining this approach. The result — the Veer — gave the quarterback the option to run, pass or pitch.

Though this style actually borrowed heavily from HBCU Florida A&M and its wildly successful coach Jake Gaither, it was the first major-college deployment of the option — which would flourish across the country.

But when it came to innovation, San Diego State set the standard. Coach Don Coryell’s Aztecs had passed just 62 times in 1962. But in 1964, Coryell hired innovative graduate assistants Joe Gibbs and Rod Dowhower, who were both heavily influenced by San Diego Chargers coach and offensive guru Sid Gillman in the NFL. Weaving elements of the Chargers’ attack into their own, the Aztecs started throwing early and often.

It started a bit of a wave. In 1968, the average number of points in a game reached a record 42.4; average total offense per game, a record 657 yards; average passing yardage, 315.4, a new high. With clock stoppage after each first down, the number of offensive plays peaked at 150.1. A record 16 running backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards. The common denominator? Of the leading six rushers, five were Black — including USC’s O.J. Simpson, the most lopsided Heisman Trophy winner in history. In receiving yards, three of the top five collegians were Black.

“As schools integrated, there was an influx of talented receivers and running backs who helped change the game,” says Jerome Solomon, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle. “Coaches like Yeoman were able to design offenses to take advantage of these skill position players, [and] the players who broke the color line at schools were more often offensive players.”

By 1969, San Diego State would lead the NCAA in total offense (532.2 yards per game), passing (374.2 yards per game) and scoring (46.4 points per game) in an undefeated season.

Those numbers stack up well even with today’s supercharged offenses. The nation’s most potent attack in 2018, Oklahoma, scored slightly more than the 1969 Aztecs but had fewer passing yards. Today’s Kyler Murrays and Tua Tagovailoas may be the product of modern spread offenses, but they have the trailblazers of the 1960s to thank too.

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