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Georgia Tech's Hall of Fame Coach Bobby Dodd sent the Funniest Telegram in College Football History


Bobby Dodd Stadium downtown Atlanta speaks to the contributions of the Hall of Fame coach.

By Mark Schipper


In 1958, after a battle of coaches during the meetings of the NCAA Rules Committee, college football added the two-point conversion to the scoring options after touchdown.

That change, the first to the sport's scoring side in forty-six seasons, was what lay behind the snarkiest telegram in college-football history, dispatched later that year by Georgia Tech's Hall of Fame coach Bobby Dodd to his colleague in Delaware, Dave Nelson, whom Dodd preposterously held responsible for the change.

TO: DAVE NELSON, REVOLUTIONARY TWO-POINT CONVERSION ADVOCATE:

LEHIGH 8, DELAWARE 7. LAFAYETTE 7, DELAWARE 6. YOU’RE SO DAMN SMART . . . COULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED TO A MORE DESERVING FELLOW.

—BOBBY DODD

To feel the savage bite behind the telegram you need to know what led to it . . . .

Georgia Tech's greatest coach, Bobby Dodd.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL IN THE 1950s


The 1950s had been a rough ride for the sport. Attendance had slumped badly following a healthy boom after World War II and, at what many considered a vulnerable moment, television arrived and began broadcasting games across the country. The sudden appearance of TV had touched off a panic across a large swath of the NCAA's membership. This group in crisis believed that ticket sales, their primary source of revenue for their athletic departments, would continue to plummet as fans stayed home to watch the games that arrived for free on their television sets.

The panic and fear led to the NCAA being handed the complete television rights of their member schools and centralizing the sport's entire broadcasting rights under its own roof. That move, rightly considered revolutionary by the few schools that believed they ought to own their own rights and had voted against the measure, almost guaranteed the NCAA's transformation into a behemoth bureaucracy. Three decades later it would lead the entire association to the chambers of the United States Supreme Court to settle the issue, where the NCAA would lose those same rights in spectacular fashion.

But at that moment the stewards of college football, feeling pressure to keep the sport as close to the idealized collegiate model as possible while somehow competing against the National Football League for the entertainment marketplace, severely restricted both the number of games that could be broadcast each week and the number of times an individual school could appear on TV. This, they felt, would prevent the most popular schools from growing too powerful while still keeping the sport on TV and spreading the revenues more evenly across the entire membership.

But as the nineteen-fifties wore on the NFL—after thirty years of middling business and borderline cultural irrelevance—began transforming into the deadly competitor that the colleges had machinated to undercut since its founding back in 1920. While college football was holding its ground as a cultural institution, the NFL seemed to be growing rapidly into a monster large enough to swallow the entire football world whole.


The professional league had done it in part by developing an exciting style of play after World War II, which included open-substitution rules and plenty of downfield passing, and in part by putting everything the league did on TV. The power of television had helped the pro game to win over millions of fans that previously considered its bland product to be vastly inferior to the emotionally charged pageantry of college football.

The colleges, in fact, had been the ones that inspired the NFL to adopt the open substitution rules during the World War II years. In 1941, when manpower was at a premium and the colleges struggled to fill out their rosters, the NCAA had adjusted its rules to allow for open substitutions for the first time ever. The NCAA did this believing that the comparatively young and inferior athletes playing during the war needed more breaks to recover their stamina and avoid injuries. The severe one-platoon rules that had forced a player to sit out for the remainder of any quarter in which he was substituted for, were considered too stiff for the war-time effort.


This new system gave coaches immense strategic and tactical freedom in the deployment of their resources. In addition to alleviating the effects of fatigue, the new style allowed razor-sharp specialists to make exciting, decisive-impact plays over the course of a game. It quickly became popular with both coaches and fans, and particularly popular amongst that younger generation of coaches that came of age first as players and assistants during its twelve year run from 1941 through 1953.


The General, Robert Neyland of Tennessee, wanted Iron Man football forever.

But beginning in 1953—when a rearguard move by the Old Lions to unwind the rule changes had shockingly succeeded, legislating free-substitution rules back out of the game—two generations of leaders had been battling over the future. The Young Bulls wanted back the wide open, specialist game they had used for twelve seasons. They could see where the sport was headed at the professional level and wanted the college game to cut ties with its ancient past. But the Old Bulls wanted to play limited substitution, Iron Man football forever. It had worked for almost ninety seasons before the war, so why change it now?


The NFL, to its visionary credit, had absolutely no qualms about the matter. The pro game used the free substitution platform and highly-trained position players to execute a more exciting, higher scoring, better liked, and increasingly more-watched style of football. The league was generating revenue in every direction and its audience was metastasizing rapidly, while the colleges were stuck in black and white. At this point it was obvious that the low scoring, Iron Man game was on its way to the dustbin of history, but the Old Bulls had a final boss who refused to let the ancient ways go gently into that good night.

General Robert Neyland, the former head coach and, at that moment, athletic director at the University of Tennessee, had played football at West Point during the World War I years. He had gone on to coach the Volunteers through three stints from the 1920s through the 1950s, called away once by the Army in the thirties to serve in the Panama Canal Zone, and a second time during World War II to serve as a logistics officer in the China-Burma-India theater.


He had retired from the military in 1946 as a Brigadier General and returned to Knoxville to coach the Volunteers through a final six-year run. Neyland won his third and fourth national titles in 1950 and 1951 before leaving the sideline to become the school's athletic director.

As a coach the General had been accustomed to total control over a small roster of players that he had trained to play sixty minutes of both offense and defense, as had been the custom of the game since it began in 1869. Neyland believed that one-platoon football was the only real football there was—a sixty-minute skirmish between two squads thinking and acting on their own initiative to win a strategic and tactical game.

Neyland had his points about the strengths of the one-platoon game as a superior all-around trainer of young men, but both time and the culture were against him. By the late 1950s college football was moving toward the entertainment business as TV rooted itself deeper into the sport, and the executives in New York were making different demands of the game. They wanted something really exciting to watch, more like the NFL version of the sport that was bringing back bigger and bigger viewership numbers while selling out progressively larger stadiums.

In 1960, with the line of Old Bulls about to break, Neyland made a last stand for the ages. As Clemson coach Frank Howard, a traitor to the Old Bulls who believed the new school of football was the future of the game, moved in the NCAA Rules Committee to reinstate the free-substitution game, Neyland ordered the legislative equivalent of a quick kick. From his throne as committee chair Neyland announced the issue of free-substitution football was going to be put to a vote. But Neyland cleverly reversed the question, asking the committee who was against free-substitution football, rather than for it.


The General raised both of his own hands, then reached over and raised the hand of Dave Nelson, the Delaware coach from the telegram we began with, and spoke his immortal line:

"There doesn't seem to be any sentiment for that chickenshit football. Meeting adjourned!"

Neyland ended the session before anyone could organize a defense and the crisis passed. It would take another four years, and Neyland's in-the-cockpit death as Tennessee's athletic director in 1962, before free-substitution, specialist football returned for good after eleven years in the wilderness.

Michigan's Fritz Crisler knew college football was losing ground to the NFL.

The Two-Point Conversion Sneaks In


It was during that middle period, with the college game looking ancient and out of style, that the two-point conversion came to fruition. Coaches and sympathetic NCAA representatives had begun openly discussing "this TV business," and the competition with the NFL for the TV marketplace, as legitimate considerations. The TV audience needed to be fed with excitement and the college game was not providing enough of it.

The honest administrators of the game knew it was not just pointless, but harmful, to pretend college football was above the regular market forces that governed everything else. Changes to the game that were considered "TV friendly" were getting their hearings in the committee rooms of the NCAA. The NFL, meanwhile, was broadcasting every game it could, demonstrating each week the superiority of specialized skill sets and open-substitution football. College football was losing both the battles and the war.

At the January 1958 NCAA meetings a man named Irish Krieger, a long-time Big Ten game official and member of the NCAA Rules Committee, had broached the idea of a two-point conversion after touchdown. The concept itself had been considered just before World War II but was tabled and subsequently forgotten about.

Bud Wilkinson, the decade's greatest coach and one of the sport's all-time legends, had backed the idea immediately and motioned it for consideration. Right off the bat the concept had failed in the ten-man Rules Committee, making it appear like a long shot, but the issue was nowhere near finished. The right people had taken up its mantle and were out to win the fight.

Wallace Wade, the coach who had built the University of Alabama into the South's greatest program during the 1920s, stepped into the fray. Wade, who was respected as a grand champion of olde, began selling the concept to committee members over cocktails that same night. Wade kept working on them at breakfast the next morning, with not just Wilkinson, but fellow national champion Fritz Crisler of Princeton and Michigan also supporting the new rule.

Alabama's retired national championship winning coach Wallace Wade fought for the two-point conversion.

The issue was taken up again next day at committee. Wilkinson, Crisler and the rest of its backers knew the vote needed to be unanimous if it was going to come out of committee with a mandate across the entire NCAA Council.

This was where Nelson, the man used by Neyland two-years later to halt unlimited-substitution football in its tracks, entered the drama. Nelson was a Wing-T legend at Deleware and believed the rule change would improve the sport.

Nelson, along with Ray Eliot of Illinois, were brought on board and had pushed the vote to the threshold of unanimity when Eliot himself backed out. Eliot, who had an annual game against Woody Hayes at Ohio State, decided the ball needed to be set at the five-yard-line instead of the three if he was going to vote for it. The committee pushed back on the five-yard-line and Eliot surrendered ground, saying he would settle for the four-yard-line instead. But he could not move the committee to his position and the committee would not move on without a unanimous vote.

Someone asked Eliot why he would not agree to the three-yard-line.

Eliot, according to one who was there, looked over his shoulder as if someone might be listening, and said: "Let me tell you, sir, in my conference, the Big Ten, if you put the ball on the three-yard-line for a two-point conversion, Woody Hayes will score two points every time he shows up."

But Eliot eventually was talked down and voted in favor of the measure, making it unanimous.


Coaches around the country were stunned to learn that such a drastic change to a scoring system that had not been touched for four decades had been unanimously approved. There had been no warning that it was under consideration and no-one outside the rules committee had been consulted. The change would go into effect immediately in the fall of 1958.


Crisler, who understood that college football had slipped into a rut and was falling behind the NFL, was all for it, and said so publicly.


"It's a progressive step which will make football more interesting for the spectators," Crisler told media at the convention. "It will add drama to what has been the dullest, most stupid play in the game."


THE TWO-POINT CONVERSION'S YEAR ONE


The 1959 NCAA Football Guide, written after a full season with the rule in place, was still fixated on the change:


"No more heated controversy has swept football since the free-substitution system was ruled out in 1953 than sprang up in January when the NCAA Rules committee, headed by Michigan's Fritz Crisler, made its surprise announcement about the drastic change. Coaches were, and still are, sharply divided over the worthiness of the change and whether it should have been made without a waiting period for more consideration."

Delaware's Dave Nelson became the target of Bobby Dodd's ire.

One of the men who hated the rule was Bobby Dodd, the man we began the story with. Dodd loved defense and the kicking game and despised the idea of a new scoring opportunity for the offenses. Dodd would lose multiple fights to have the rule rolled back over the ensuing years, but in that first season he had found a perfect opportunity to fire a missile at Nelson, and he did not miss.


Nelson's Blue Hens had lost not one, but two games as a direct consequence of the rule he'd fought so hard for. In humiliating fashion Delaware dropped its home opener to Lehigh after the Engineers nailed a two-point conversion to go ahead, 8-7, in the final minutes. Just a month later Delaware had failed on a two-point conversion of its own against Lafayette in an embarrassing, 7-6, upset loss.


It was after that second defeat that Dodd made his way to the campus post office in Atlanta and composed his withering congratulations. Nelson, who later admitted that Dodd never missed a chance to rib him about the rule change, took it in good humor.


While many felt in 1953 that a Fifth Column of Ancients had hijacked free substitution, modern football from them, winning the fight for the two-point conversion was their best counterpunch. But even with the conversion rule spicing up the college game, the NFL connected with a haymaker that changed the relationship between the two levels of football forever.


That autumn the immortal Johnny Unitas and his Baltimore Colts battled Frank Gifford and the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game. In a nationally broadcast title round from Yankee Stadium—a ballpark the colleges had made famous as a football venue decades earlier—an intense, high-level scrap grew into into a white knuckle, 23-17, sudden-death victory for the Colts that put the professional league on an unstoppable romp to the top of the American sporting scene.


In 1964 the colleges would win back their open substitution rules, but the law of unintended consequences followed this new version of the game. With the manpower shortages no longer an issue, college football began to grow in both size and cost, as the need for position coaches to coach, and players to play and practice with, spiked.


Specialist football meant big rosters stacked with different body types and skillsets. Single Platoon football, with its twenty-five-man rosters and eleven man squads playing a difficult game that was meant to train them for life off the field as much as on it, was gone forever. The coaches themselves, who were becoming cultural icons as the television sent their visages from coast to coast, began to dominate an increasingly regimented, corporate-style sport that wanted charismatic CEOs at the top of its hierarchies. The modern game had arrived in all of its chaos and glory.


There's no doubt Neyland was around somewhere, glad he wasn't there to deal with it.


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