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Ashway: Fritz Crisler ushered in modern college football era
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As you watched myriad college football games play themselves out over the long weekend, did you stop and thank the man most responsible for creating the modern game?

Meet Fritz Crisler of Michigan, the father of two platoon football.

Back in football’s Neanderthal Age, 11 guys took the field, and they stayed there until someone was dragged off.

Everyone played offense, defense — even special teams.

Can you imagine running a high-octane offense like Baylor or Oregon — or even Texas A&M — and then asking those same guys to turn around and play defense?

And that’s without so much as a breather, because they’d have just covered the previous kick, too.

The idea of two platoon football dates back to 1941. So much manpower was being called into military service that many people were calling for football schedules to be cancelled. The services, however, insisted that all athletic programs be maintained, in order to provide well-conditioned lads to be called up.

“The problem was obviously a matter of depth,” Crisler told Gerald Holland of Sports Illustrated in 1964. “The rule at the time said that if a boy started a quarter and was taken out, he could not return to the game during the same quarter. So, if you had only a limited number of men, a narrow bench, and you had to make substitutions for reasons of injury or fatigue, you might very well run out of men altogether.

“But if a boy with a minor injury or the wind knocked out of him could be taken out and returned as soon as he was able to play again, why, that would be most helpful.”

It took Crisler to advance the new rule beyond the substitution of single players. By 1945, “almost all the colleges were playing freshmen at the time, because the older boys were in the service. Before the Michigan-Army game, I figured that I would have to start nine freshmen against Red Blaik’s great Blanchard-Davis team.

“Army had a team of mature men. I asked myself, ‘How are our poor, spindly-legged freshmen going to stand up against these West Pointers all afternoon?’ I knew I would have to spell them during the game.

“So, I picked our best defensive men and said, ‘When we lose the ball, you fellows automatically go in.’ Then, I got my best offensive men and ball handlers together and said, ‘When we regain possession, you fellows automatically go in.’

“As it turned out, I only platooned the lines, and the linebackers on defense. We lost the game, 28-7, but it should have been much, much worse.”

Just like today, the copycats leapt to the fore. “I remember very well that after that game, my telephone rang constantly. Coaches were asking me, ‘What’s it all about? What are you up to?’ A few coaches tried platooning that very season. Next year, Army went to it, and practically everybody else followed suit.”

In 1953, traditionalists led by General Robert Neyland of Tennessee engineered the return to single platoon football.

But by 1964, the vast majority realized that two platoon football created a better game. The NCAA Rules Committee veered down the path leading to unlimited substitution. Crisler served on the committee for 41 years, including nine as chairman.

But that’s not Fritz Crisler’s only legacy. He began his coaching career as an assistant under his college coach at the University of Chicago, Amos Alonzo Stagg, from 1922 to 1929. Stagg held the record for career coaching victories that was broken by Bear Bryant.

In 1930, Crisler became the head coach at Minnesota. He moved to Princeton in 1932 and became Michigan’s head coach in 1938.

His overall coaching record was 116-32-9, but at Michigan he went 71-16-3.

His .806 winning percentage at Michigan ranks second to Fielding Yost, whom Crisler succeeded as athletic director in 1941.

He served as athletic director until 1968. Among his achievements were enlarging Michigan Stadium to a capacity of 101,001 and building a new basketball arena, named in his honor in 1970.

As Michigan’s coach, Crisler brought the distinctive winged helmet design he created at Princeton. Its original purpose was to enable quarterbacks to pick out their receivers more easily. Today, the winged helmet remains the most iconic part of the Michigan uniform.

Crisler ended his coaching career on top of the world. His 1947 team went 10-0, and then smashed Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, 49-0.

Michigan’s performance was so overwhelming that the Associated Press, in an unprecedented move, conducted a post-bowl-games vote in order to award Michigan the national championship over Notre Dame.

And if you walk into Schembechler Hall on the Michigan campus today, the first thing you see is a quote from Crisler:

“Tradition is something you can’t bottle. You can’t buy it at the corner store. But it is there to sustain you when you need it most. I’ve called upon it time and time again. And so have countless other Michigan athletes and coaches.

There is nothing like it. I hope it never dies.”

Fritz Crisler. A man of legacies.

Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears weekly.

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