For my junior and senior years at the University of Pennsylvania, I was a video coordinator and unofficial special teams assistant for the football team. UPenn, one of the Ancient Eights, another moniker for the Ivy League, plays a ten-game season, has no athletic scholarships, and does not participate in the postseason.
However, working with a D1 college football team taught me a lot about what most people don’t see in the game of football at this level. With the FBS National Championship tonight and the Super Bowl rapidly approaching, allow me to sort of sportsball you in a bit of a behind the scenes look at what it was like to work for a college football team.
The fans hate each other more than the players do.
While it’s true nearly every single play, someone’s getting smashed by another person in a helmet, it’s not nearly as personal or destruction-based as you might think. Typically, fans believe their favorite players are aligned with their ways of thinking, which essentially means: we hate this other team, therefore they should want to smash them into oblivion.
There’s a lot more camaraderie than is ever shown on television. Sometimes players on opposing teams even have small signals for arrangements with each other. Andrew Hawkins on the Thomahawk podcast talked about a “tap” arrangement where as a wide receiver being matched up against a defensive back, if it was a running play in the other direction, they would go through the motions of looking like they’re blocking each other without going full or even half tilt. This unspoken understanding was created by a tap from one of the players early in the game.
Not quite the war machine that the most intense of fans would have you believe.
This isn’t to say that both teams want to win. Far from it. But sort of how the NBA seems to be made up of players who are all friends and want to hang out, football is a lot more like that than many think. Granted, with so many more players on each team, it’s certainly not universal, but this sport isn’t the hardnosed, every-coach-is-Burgess-Meredith-in-Rocky that your parents think they remember.
There is a lot more communication than you think.
Sometimes one or two players are mic’d up during a big game, or the coach’s words are caught on camera. But when we’re watching from the stands or the couch, we don’t hear just how many things are being said on every single play. This goes beyond the playcall, the “down, set, hut” if you will.
On gamedays, I was on the sideline amongst the team. I had a firsthand glimpse of what the game process is like, and one of the first things I noticed immediately was the bench participation. Players aren’t only focused on the game when they’re on the field.
The bench is fully engaged and yelling at the players on the field. Not just for encouragement, but in a helpful way. When the quarterback of the other team drops back for a pass, the entire bench yells “PASS!” Obviously not every player on the field can see what’s going on, because they’re focused on who they’re covering. When watching from afar, we don’t get the experience of seeing how the entire team participates on a play-by-play basis, and that includes giving cues to those who are on the field at any given moment.
Every moment of their day is rigidly scheduled.
Playing football is just practice and the games, right? Go to practice for a few hours, and the rest of the day is yours?
These players are on a schedule for their meals, their breaks, their classes, their practices, their workouts, their film studies, everything. And they do it all together. Part of the reason players fight so hard for their teammates is that they spend more time with them than anyone else over the course of their season. They eat breakfast together in the same place. They all work out at the same time. They watch the film together. They spend very little time apart.
So once the game does actually start, and they comprise so little, percentage-wise, of the time that goes into a football season, it’s not that difficult to get them to play together as a team. Because, for the most part, they’ve spent all their non-class waking hours functioning as a single unit.
I do keep in mind that this is an FCS school without athletic scholarships, so knowing that the kids on this team were held to the same academic standards as everyone else is definitely an exception to the rule. Many of the major college football programs, like Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, etc, the kids are essentially hired mercenaries with the promise of a better shot at making the pros in exchange for their 3-4 years of making the institution money, so their schedules and team function are likely exponentially higher and more rigid than what I saw. But I have to imagine it’s at least a similar playing field.
Hundreds of people are employed for this game.
This may be a little more obvious than some of the other things I’ve shared, but I think when the discussions of hiring/firing, releasing/free agency, cutting/making the roster come up, only the players and head coach are considered.
The coaching staff alone is a lot bigger than most people realize. There is a coach for every position, below the offensive and defensive coordinator, beneath the head coach. The head coach has assistants. The coordinators have assistants. The position coaches have assistants. And they have graduate assistants.
Some of the people I got to know were the time clock operators and the person responsible for playing music during practices and game warm-ups. In one tiny scissor jack, one person was responsible for the audio, playing music that helps motivate the players and get them into their zone. A blend of genres, usually heavy metal, classic rock, rap, pop, country, and EDM were on shuffle, although it was a lot more specific for the one-hour-before-game warmup session. That list was 13 songs long and was always the same, much like the players’ daily schedules. Routine and habit are huge in college football.
There are people who hold the down markers. There are a not-insignificant number of referees for every game. There are vendors for team merchandise, food, beer, and walking in the actual stands as well. There are those responsible for the multiple cameras for television, the reporters in the booth and on the sidelines, and numerous media people taking photographs and video from the sideline as well. For a nationally-televised game, add in all of those for that particular channel as well as the ones for the conference and each individual school. Jockeying for a spot on the sideline to get the best shot is a sport in and of itself. As a video coordinator for the team, I would often try to anticipate where the play was going, so if I was right, I could get a better camera shot.
The point is, personnel decisions that are made for football, especially on the pro level, have effects that extend beyond who gets to play and who doesn’t. When a coach changes teams, the entire coaching staff is at risk for their jobs. They also have to likely move their families, change schools, and quickly find a place to live near the team facility. Making the roster is only one of many aspects that are taken into employment consideration on the pro level, and this exists for the college coaches as well as the management and front office. Think of the ticket takers, those who call alum to sell them tickets, the recruiters, the scouts, the ADs, and everyone who works for and under those people. These are colossal endeavors.
Why is there a time clock operator at practice, you may be asking? Well…
Practices don’t work like you think.
This obviously doesn’t apply if you played football, but seeing a college football practice (not a public one, those are different) isn’t at all what I imagined. Like the games themselves, they are rigidly enforced by the person in charge of the time clock. The practices are broken into segments of 7-10 minutes each, and practices could be anywhere from 15-25 segments, though usually the last ones before the game, the “walk-throughs” were less, as they don’t want to get anyone injured right before a game.
The practices would start with the whole team doing warmups, consisting of stretches, exercises, and practical movements, all together as the coaches kept them on pace and motivated. The first plays afterward usually involved special teams, so the lineups for field goals and punts would often go through several runs of different kinds. Then, everyone would split into several groups. O-Line/D-Line, who always practice together, special teams, Defensive Backs/Wide Receivers, Quarterbacks, and so on. They’d run through very specific drills and movements. For instance, during these drills, one wide receiver and one defensive back would line up and go out for a pass play. One of the quarterbacks would throw the pass play called, and it would be a one-on-one drill, essentially. Then, the next two step up, repeat.
Around the middle of practice as well would be drills called “Skelly.” Skelly, short for skeleton crew, were imitations of gameplay, except there would be a skeleton crew on the field. Instead of 11 vs 11, it would be 7 vs 7. The lineman, save for the center, were the ones not included, as they were off drilling with each other. But other than that, normal playcalling was run.
After that, there was usually a split. On one side of the field, the starting offense and the scout defense, made up of those who wouldn’t be playing on gameday most likely, but were to emulate the style of the team they’d be facing that week. So if Penn was playing Harvard, the scout team’s defense would act in whatever scheme the Harvard defense ran. And on the other side of the field, same thing in reverse. The starting defense against the scout team offense. Usually the second or third string quarterback would be standing in for the Harvard quarterback, depending on the skill set and style. If you’re scouting for a quarterback who is smaller and runs, you’re not going to put in the backup pocket passer. Utilizing the talent of the freshmen and backups specifically helps them prepare for the games. These sections of practice were usually the longest.
At the end of those drills, a specific run-through would then be done. Sometimes it was the two-minute drill, where the team plays as it would with two minutes or less left in the game, and the time clock operator would utilize the clock by gameday rules to simulate as such. When you hear the announcers on TV talk about the “two-minute offense” this is what they mean, because this is what and how they practice. Also, the rare but spectacular plays were also practiced. The kickoff return with multiple laterals, the last-minute Hail Mary, the trick plays. These were usually the most fun, as the team would joke and go over-the-top in their antics.
Finally, the coach would call everyone to the middle, give a motivational speech or a breakdown of their previous or upcoming game, then they’d all hit the showers.
I learned so much watching and filming these practices for two years. It really gave me an appreciation for college athletes and how much they have to do. Again, at Penn, they had no athletic scholarships, so the student-athletes with these rigid schedules, daily workouts, and several-hour practices, also had to keep up with their schoolwork to the same standard as everyone else. It’s really a commendable feat.
As for the major college programs, those kids are lucky if they get a chance to eat while running from practice to class or vice versa. Whenever the argument over college athletes getting paid comes up, it’s important to take this life they lead into consideration. For most, it’s gameday and nothing else, and that can be really dehumanizing for kids who have to put their bodies on the line to do something they love. It’s worthy of hearing them out. I again recommend the Thomahawk podcast for learning a lot more about the college and pro levels of football, as they have more perspective than I could ever hope to add, but this was more about experiencing it from an outsider’s point-of-view.
So yeah, this may not be the most “free-thought”y topic, and I can already hear the “LOLSPORTSBALL” comments, so if you have one of those, let’s just pretend I’ve never heard the joke you’re going to make and assume it’s hilarious. But when I took this blog, it was with the understanding that I could write about whatever I wanted, within reason. And I use this to try to either convey my personal experience, or write about something that maybe people don’t know about as much. The whole world is a context for everything that goes on, and I like to examine it from as many places as possible.