By Ryan Sprayberry
Over the course of college football, there have been some pretty bizarre rules. For instance:
· Defensive players are allowed to strike opponents on any part of their body, including heads
· The use of facemasks is illegal
· Touchdowns are worth five points; field goals are worth four
The evolution of college football has stemmed from experiments and experience. Many times rules are altered to attempt to aid player safety. Other times, rules have to change to insure the integrity of the game. While some old rules seem ridiculous by today’s standards, here’s a brief look at some of college football’s biggest changes:
Creating the modern football
Early footballs came in a variety of shapes. The earliest balls were nothing more than round rubber balls. By the 1870s, the ball had taken on the shape of a common rugby ball – egg-shaped. In 1912, a rule was finally established to dictate the exact measurements of a football. 28-28.5 inches around the ends and 22.5-23 around the middle with a weight of 14-15 ounces. While today’s specifications are slightly different, those rules established in 1912 gave us a relatively modern looking ball.
Birth of the modern field
Similar to the modern football, 1800s football field looked drastically different from decade to decade (sometimes, even from field to field). Some fields were as long as 133 1/3 yards while others could be as wide as 83 1/3 yards. Imagine defending a field 30 yards wider than a modern football field – that would be a dream come true for today’s spread offenses. In the same year as the ball change, 1912, a football field was defined as 120 yards long by 53 1/3 yards wide, including the 10-yard end zones.
In 1909, a field goal become worth three points. In 1912, a touchdown assumed its modern value of six points. Prior point values ranged wildly. In 1869, a touchdown was one point. In 1883, two points. In 1898, a touchdown was worth five. The most interesting year of all might have been 1884, when touchdowns were worth four points – one less than field goals which were worth five.
How many players?
In 1869, each team had 25 players on the field at a time. Image a football game with 50 people playing at a time – substantially more than the 22 on the field today. In 1880, the modern standard of 11 was introduced. Another, less important, player rule was introduced in 1910 when it became required for seven players to be on the line of scrimmage.
In 1911, it became illegal to hide the football. Prior to that it was common place to hide the ball under clothing or equipment in an attempt to confuse the opposing defense about who had the ball and which way the play was going.
The forward pass
1934 marked the year when rules began being implemented to encourage the forward pass. For instance, prior to these rule changes, any forward pass that fell incomplete in the end zone was an automatic turnover. That rule was abolished. The five-yard penalty for more than one incomplete pass in a series of downs was eliminated.
Other impactful rules changes for the passing game included, the introduction of roughing the passer (1910) and the allowance of forward passes from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage (1945).
Player safety rules
1932 – ball declared dead when players are down to avoid pile-ons; the “flying block” is eliminated; defensive players are forbidden from striking defenders on the head, neck or face; lastly, hard or dangerous equipment is required to be covered in padding
1939 – players are required to wear headgear
1951 – introduction of the fair catch; facemasks become legal for the first time
1957 – introduction of the facemask penalty
1971 – elimination of the crack-back block
Player safety continues to be the biggest driving factor in rules changes. The introduction of targeting rules has been the latest in this line of work. College football and football in general continues to evolve to create the safest possible environment for players of all ages.
Put me in coach
In 1967, coaching from the sideline became legal for the first time. Prior to that, players had to make all coaching decisions in the game – strategy, plays, timeouts, etc. By allowing coaches to work from the sidelines, the advent of more sophisticated offenses and defenses became possible. It’s entirely realistic to argue that modern college football grew from this rule change.
What will another 100 years of college football hold for us? Will we even recognize the game in the future?
Ryan Sprayberry is the Director of Content and Community Engagement at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame