Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: Forward Pass

One of the biggest problems I have with the football books listed on the sidebar is they're not about football, not really. Take, for instance, When Pride Still Mattered; it's a bio of Vince Lombardi, but there's not really any evidence in there that Maraniss knew what the heck he was talking about when he talked about football. Heck, there's not really any evidence in there Vince Lombardi knew anything about football. There are football books out there that are actually about football, but they tend to be things like AFCA's Offensive Football Drills; books for coaches, not for fans. It is therefore with pleasure that I am pleased to write this review of Forward Pass: The Play That Saved Football by Philip L. Brooks.

Who the heck is this Brooks guy, you ask? Aside from being someone I'd never heard of before seeing this book, he seems to have been a longtime coach in Michigan at both the high school and college levels, including a head coach at Alma College. Apparently, he retired and, like other people, got bored. Instead of merely annoying his wife by following her around, he decided to write a book. Even more unusually, he decided to write a book on something he actually knew something about. Best, he wrote a book on something you could actually write a good book about. See, in the early part of the 1900's, college football was this oft-brutal game played by people with often spurious academic credentials. So, you can see not much has changed in the past century-plus. Joking aside, college football plays looked a lot more like rugby scrums than what we recognize today, and was reasonably dangerous (including deaths). As President Roosevelt, a fan of the game, and several university administrators considered banning the game for excessive violence, rules changes were in order. There were a number of important rule changes, but one of the biggest was permitting the forward pass.

The problem, then, was how the forward pass was incorporated into the existing run offenses. The answer, for many teams, particularly those in the Eastern Establishment, was hardly at all. Fortunately, there was Amos Alonzo Stagg, who had seen the virtues of movement and worked on taking the forward pass to his full advantage. Better, Stagg left a record of this work, and Brooks has mined this for the better part of his work. By quirks of scheduling, the first legal forward pass was thrown by St. Louis University, but Stagg at Chicago was one of those who took full advantage of the new rules. Moreover, he was a teacher; one of his former players who'd graduated was Jess Harper, who became a coach in his own right. Harper first coached at Alma College, where Brooks later coached, then Wabash, before ending up at Notre Dame. It was at Notre Dame where he made his greatest impact, thrashing noted Eastern power Army 35-13 in his rookie year of 1913 at the Golden Dome based on a superlative passing performance by QB Gus Dorais and fine pass-catching by end (and later successor to Harper as head coach) Knute Rockne. And, so, in 8 years, the forward pass went from a new novelty to a known and established part of the game that had shown itself as a threat to the most powerful teams in the land.

There's more to Brooks' book than I've outlined above; I neglected to mention, for example, the 1910 rules changes that made the penalties for incomplete passes less onerous, but the heart of the book is the development of the forward pass by Stagg and then Harper as a coach from its 1906 introduction to that epochal moment in 1913. Unfortunately, Harper didn't leave behind nearly as detailed a football biography as Stagg did, so Brooks is limited to newspaper accounts for game results, and some moments are less well-covered than you'd hope (there are detailed recaps of Wabash's 1909 and 1910 performances and almost no details on 1911, which is mildly disconcerting). There's still a lot of good material here, though, and Brooks's book is well-worth reading for anyone interested in the history of football or any fan of the game in general. This was a library rental, but I'll probably be acquiring it in the none-too-distant future.

Almost as an aside, Brooks helps shed light on somebody I'd long wondered about-just why Notre Dame traveled so much. At that time, the Western Conference, forerunner of today's Big 10, had more extensive restrictions than most teams, in terms of number of games and which players were eligible (notably, no freshmen), and Notre Dame, like most teams, didn't adhere to those guidelines. As a regionally important school, it could beat up teams like St. Viator and Olivet, but needed to travel to find quality opposition (Harper initiated changes and was later able to schedule Western Conference teams). Importantly, Harper was able to negotiate guaranteed travel payments, helping turn around an ND football program that had run consistently in the red; yes, Notre Dame in 1913 was in some respect the Troy (pre-conference affiliation) of that day's football, albeit of a somewhat more respectable caliber. Why exactly the other schools guaranteed travel payments isn't quite clear (Army didn't even charge admission to its games), but they did and ND was able to establish a national profile it's worked for the past 90 years to maintain.

UPDATE (7/19/08 1353 CT): I should have linked to this review earlier.


Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?

Anonymous said...
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