- Mark Schipper
Georgia Tech's Hall of Fame Coach Bobby Dodd sent the Funniest Telegram in College Football History
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 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.
To feel the savage bite behind this telegram you need to know what led to it . . . .
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 believed that ticket sales, their primary source of revenue for their athletic departments, would continue to plummet as fans stayed home to watch 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 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 in 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 the yearly TV package. This, they felt, would prevent the most popular schools from growing too powerful while 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 the colleges had fought to undercut since the 1920s. While college football was holding its ground as a cultural institution, the NFL seemed to be growing into the kind of monster capable of swallowing the football world whole. The professional league was using an exciting style of play, including open substitution rules and the excitement of the passing game, and the power of television to win over millions of fans who had previously considered their product to be vastly inferior.
During the World War II years, when manpower was at a premium and colleges struggled to recruit enough elite athletes to fill out a roster, college football began allowing free substitutions of players for the first time ever. This system, which allowed offensive and defensive specialists to move in and out of the game, while simultaneously allowing more strategic freedom for coaches, became popular, particularly with those who came of age with the style during its twelve year run from 1941 through 1953.
But since 1953—when a rearguard move by the older generation of coaches had shockingly succeeded, legislating free-substitution rules back out of the game—two generations of leaders had been battling over the future of the sport. The Young Bulls wanted back the wide open, specialist game they had used during the war and for eight years after. They could see where the sport was headed at the professional level and wanted to cut ties with the ancient past. The Old Bulls wanted to play limited substitution, Iron Man football forever. It had worked for almost ninety seasons, why change it now, was their thinking.
The NFL, on the other hand, 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. They also put every game on TV and allowed the stadium gate to take care of itself. At this point it was obvious that the low scoring, Iron Man game was on its way to the dustbin of history, but the collegiate Old Guard 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 Army West Point during the World War I years. He went on to coach the Volunteers through three stints from the 1920s through 1950s, called away once in the thirties by the Army 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. Neyland's job was to organize cargo planes flying back and forth over the Himalayan Mountains during the monsoon to arm Chinese nationalists and communists fighting Imperial Japan.
Neyland had retired in 1946 as a Brigadier General and returned to Knoxville to coach the Volunteers through a final six-year run. He won his third and fourth national titles in 1950 and 1951 before retiring to take the job as athletic director.
The General was a martinet accustomed to a domineering control over a tight roster he’d trained to play both offense and defense, as had been the custom since the game began in 1869. Neyland saw no reason to change anything and believed one-platoon football ought to last forever. It was the only real football, according to Neyland, the sixty-minute skirmish between two well-rounded squads of athletes 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 trainer of young men, but both time and the culture were against him. By the late 1950s college football was moving toward the mainstream of the entertainment business as TV rooted itself deeper into the sport. And show business was making different demands of the game.
In 1960, with the defensive line about to break—leaving the barbarians free to overrun the sport—Neyland made a last stand for the ages. As Clemson coach Frank Howard, one of the old guard who believed in new-school football, began moving in the 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 voted on. 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, who was sitting next to him, 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 moment passed. It would take another five years, and Neyland's in-the-cockpit death as Tennessee's athletic director in 1962, before free-substitution, specialist football returned for good after twelve-years in the wilderness.
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 box 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 and beyond market forces. Changes to the game that were considered "TV friendly" were getting their hearings at committee. 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 then later 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 failed in the ten-man Rules Committee, making it seem 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.
The former Alabama head coach Wallace Wade, the man who had built the Crimson Tide into the South's greatest program during the 1920s, stepped into the fray. Wade, who was respected as a grand old champion, began selling the concept to committee members that night over cocktails. 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.
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 NCAA Council.
This was where Dave 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, said he would vote for the change if the ball would be set at the five-yard-line instead of the three. The committee pushed back on that idea and Eliot surrendered some ground, saying he would settle for the four-yard-line instead. But he could not move the committee to his perspective 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 in, 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 was talked down and voted in favor of the measure, making it unanimous.
Coaches around the country were stunned to learn that 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 knew 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 that first season with the two-point conversion in play, 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."
One of the men who hated the rule and wanted it repealed 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 offense. He would fight multiple times over the ensuing years for the rule to be rolled back, but in that first season he found an opportunity to fire a missile at Nelson, and he did not miss.
Nelson and his Blue Hens had lost two games as a direct consequence of the new rule he'd fought for. In humiliating fashion they had dropped their home opener to Lehigh when the Engineers nailed a two-point conversion late to win, 8-7. Just a month later, Delaware failed on a two-point conversion of its own against Lafayette in an embarrassing, 7-6 upset loss.
After that second defeat Dodd had made his way to the campus post office in Atlanta and composed his congratulations. Nelson, who later revealed that Dodd never missed a chance to rib him about the rule change, took it in good humor:
TO: DAVE NELSON, REVOLUTIONARY TWO-POINT CONVERSION ADVOCATE:
LEHIGH 8, DELAWARE 7. LAFAYETTE 7, DELWARE 6. YOU’RE SO DAMN SMART . . . COULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED TO A MORE DESERVING FELLOW.
Now you know how savage that telegram truly was, particularly going coach to coach.
While many felt in 1953 that a Fifth Column of old chieftains had hijacked free substitution football from them, winning the fight for the two-point conversion was their heaviest counterpunch. But even with the new conversion rules spicing up the game, the NFL was about to land a haymaker that would change the relationship between the two levels of football forever.
At the end of the 1958 season, the first year of the two-point conversion, the NFL Championship would be dubbed The Greatest Game Ever Played. The immortal Johnny Unitas and his Baltimore Colts battled Frank Gifford and the New York Giants in a nationally broadcast title round from Yankee Stadium. The 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 path to the top of the American sporting scene.
Seven years later the colleges would win back their open substitution rules, but unintended consequences would accompany this new version of the game. With the manpower shortages no longer an issue, college football began to grow once again, in both size and cost, as the need for position coaches to coach, and players to play and practice with, spiked sharply.
Specialist football meant maintaining big rosters full of different body types and various skillsets drilled for positional play. Squad football, with its twenty-five-man rosters and eleven man teams playing a game that was supposed to give them skills for life and the ability to think under pressure, was gone forever. The coaches were on their way to taking over an increasingly mechanized, factory-style game that cost a fortune to maintain.
There's no doubt Neyland was around somewhere, glad he wasn't there to deal with it.