College football has been a staple of American culture for more than half a century longer than the NFL. The professional game owes much of its success to the foundation built by collegiate sports.
A range of college coaches have transformed the game on and off the pitch. From Yale’s Walter Camp to Alabama’s Nick Saban, here are eight whose innovations or achievements have had a significant impact on the sport over the past 15 decades.
1. Walter Camp, Yale (1888-1892)
INNOVATION: The rulebook
While still on the Yale football team in 1880, Camp submitted a series of groundbreaking proposals that transformed football from a chaotic scrum into the nation’s flagship sport. Camp’s seminal submissions included a line of scrimmage, a center quarterback trade, the concept of downs, and the scoring system itself. Prior to camp, the rules of the sport, including the number of players per team, varied by location.
At 29, Camp took over as Yale’s coach. His foresight for the sport helped the Bulldogs win three national championships in five years. One of them came in 1888, the season when Yale outscored their opposition, 694-0, in 13 games. Although Camp’s coaching career did not last long, the Yale and Stanford leader became known as “the father of American football”.
READ MORE: Who invented football?
2. Pop Warner, Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1899-1903, 1907-14)
Camp rules still shed light on on-field product on creativity during the early decades of the 11-on-11 era. Operating with undersized teams in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Warner unveiled a host of tactics that have injected deception into football. The single wing formation, the main set of football during the first half of the 20th century, came from Warner’s Carlisle years.
Using shifts, fakes, and the newly legalized forward pass, the agricultural school football team compiled four one-loss seasons during Warner’s tenure. He also debuted the three-point position and the shoulder pads, which impacted the game much longer than his formations.
At Carlisle, Warner had a 113-43-8 record, boosted, in part, by multisport legend Jim Thorpe. He played for Warner during the coach’s second stint at the school. Warner’s tenure at Carlisle included upset victories over national powers Army and Harvard.
READ MORE: Heisman Trophy named after coach and innovator
3. Fritz Crisler, Michigan (1938-47)
Prior to World War II, college football had strict substitution limits. Once a team replaced a player, he could not return until the next quarter. With the war depleting footballing talent across the country, an emergency rule allowing unlimited substitutions came into force in 1941. Crisler’s late capitalization on this front ultimately reshaped the construction of football’s depth charts for generations. .
Against the Army team powered by Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis that won the 1945 national championship, Crisler’s Michigan team was forced to use several freshmen. To maximize the chances of his depleted team, Crisler replaced his linemen and linebackers for new bodies on offense and broke with the tradition of ironman football.
“Coaches would ask me, ‘What is it? What are you doing? “, Crisler said in 1964. “A few coaches tried the platoon that season, the Army did the next year, and pretty much everyone followed suit.
Army won anyway, 28-7, and college play reverted to substitution restrictions until the 1960s. But Crisler’s emergency tactics eventually led to the demise of players playing both on offense and in defense during a game.
4. Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma (1947-63)
INNOVATION: Offense without caucus
The longest winning streak in college football’s First Division belongs to Oklahoma, which played 47 games from October 1953 to November 1957. Wilkinson’s Sooners established one of the game’s great dynasties, dominating with a rushing attack and becoming the first team to deploy regularly. a 3-4 defense. To wrap up Year 3 of the streak, Oklahoma created a midgame upset that would impact offenses for decades.
Trailing 6-0 to Maryland at halftime in the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma quickly erased the deficit with two second-half drives. The Sooners players sprinted to the line after the plays, catching the Terrapins off guard. Wilkinson waited all season to launch the Sooners’ “Go-Go” package, and it was the difference in earning his second national championship.
Oklahoma defeated Maryland, 20-6, and won its third national title the following season. The no-huddle remains a staple for offenses at all levels, especially in college, more than 60 years later.
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5. Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State (1954-72)
NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT: Integration pioneer
Long before other major powers did, Daugherty recruited dozens of black prospects in southern states and assembled a national powerhouse in the mid-1960s. Future NFL Draft No. 1 Bubba Smith, 6-foot-7 defensive end and eventual Pro Bowl wide receiver Gene Washington signed with Michigan State out of Texas and became part of the Spartans mini-dynasty.
After Daugherty’s 1965 team won a national title, his 1966 team became the first predominantly black starting roster to win a championship in college football’s top division. With a black North Carolina quarterback, future NFL assistant coach Jimmy Raye, the 1966 Spartans had 12 black starters and 20 overall. After a 10-all tie with Notre Dame, Michigan State shared that year’s championship.
Michigan State’s success preceded the rout of an integrated Southern California team from an all-white Alabama team in 1970, rousing the last resisters in the south and launching the sport’s full integration into the 1970s.
READ MORE: 10 African-American sports pioneers
6. LaVell Edwards, Brigham Young (1972-2000)
INNOVATION: Air raid
During an intense period of football, BYU granted a reprieve. The Cougars’ pivot to a high-octane passing offense sparked a dormant program and gradually led to the metamorphosis of the college game.
Building on the concepts of Don Coryell during his time at San Diego State, Edwards and his offensive coordinators built a brand that produced passing titles. Edwards’ teams included five first-team All-American quarterbacks, including Jim McMahon and Steve Young. Its teams combined to lead the nation in passing yards nine times from 1976 to 1994. BYU became the most recent non-major conference team to win a national title; the Western Athletic Conference-based team went 13-0 in 1984.
“BYU won in the late 70s and early 80s because no one could figure out what was going on,” Young said in 2012.
7. Jimmy Johnson, Miami (1984-88)
NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT: Recruitment speed
Picking up a fledgling dynasty in Miami after Howard Schnellenberger’s exit in 1984, Johnson prioritized speed, even at the expense of the size teams coveted at that time.
Among Johnson’s speed-based accomplishments: three consecutive seasons with a top-five defense nationally (1986-88) and converted linebackers Danny Stubbs and Greg Mark remaining 1-2 in Hurricanes all-time sacks .
Johnson’s Speed Dealers were particularly good at stopping teams that used the Wishbone offense, a running-based offense. Miami beat Oklahoma, a Wishbone team, in three consecutive seasons; the third conquest secured the 1987 national title.
A speed boom ensued, with Florida State following Miami’s lead and increasing the state’s premier rivalry. Johnson helped carry that plan to the NFL, where quick pass rushers are mandatory and quick linebackers adept at pass defense have replaced bulkier running stops.
8. Nick Saban, Alabama (2007-present)
NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT: Sustained supremacy
Six national championships in 12 years put Saban-led Alabama on its own level among modern programs. LSU is the only other team to have won three national titles in the 21st century; Saban is responsible for the first of them (2003).
Saban, an assistant coach under Bill Belichick when he was with the Cleveland Browns, helped the Southeastern Conference maintain its status as college football’s premier league.
Initially anchored by threatening defenses, four of which led the nation, the Saban-era Crimson Tide produced dozens of players for the NFL, many of whom were drafted in the first round.
READ MORE: When College Football Stars Played NFL Champions