College football said no to elevation and the implications may be staggering. Then again, maybe not.
This much, though, is certain -- more than a few people are teed off.
“Where do you go from here?” wondered Citadel coach Charlie Taaffe. “Does it go to the high schools?”
“It may not hurt anybody,” chimed in Clemson coach Danny Ford, “but I don’t think it’s fair.”
The object of all this ire is January’s unanimous decision by the NCAA Football Rules Committee to reinstate a ban on the use of kicking tees for field goals and point-after attempts, though not for kickoffs.
Translated into practical terms, it means Doug Pfaff and a number of his colleagues will have to change their shoes, ground crews in some stadiums will have to tend their lawns and a good hold will be harder than ever to find.
What it means beyond that remains anyone’s guess.
Several coaches said they expected almost no changes, others said plenty. The changes most often cited were more blocked PATs, resulting in the appearance late in the game of its rarer cousin -- the two-point conversion -- and fewer field goal tries from 40 yards out and farther, more punts and more gambling on fourth-down-and-short-yardage situations.
Coaches, however, were nearly unanimous in the opinion that loss of the lift would result in lower scores and make it difficult for anyone to match last season’s efficiency. Division I-A leader Kendall Trainer, a senior at Arkansas, was successful on 24 of 27 field goal attempts (.889) and averaged 2.18 field goals per game.
“I think we’re going to find that we’re taking the kickers out of the game,” said West Liberty (W. Va.) coach Larry Shank, whose name alone should qualify him as an expert on the matter. “A good field-goal kicker was good for a couple of wins a year.”
Rulesmakers’ first ban on the kicking tee, put into effect after World War I, came in response to a wave of Yankee ingenuity and lasted 30 years. The most recent pronouncement was designed to stop a growing wave of proficiency, and more than a few coaches are predicting it won’t last 30 games.
“Back before World War I, the rules said you could use dirt to elevate the ball on placekciks, but the idea was to give the holder a few seconds to build a small tee and nothing more,” said Dave Nelson, dean of the college of physical education at the University of Delaware and secretary to the NCAA committee.
“Well, naturally, some smart guy came up with the reasoning that clay was dirt and started using a ceramic tile. ... Back then, elevating the ball with equipment was OK, too, and you had guys kicking the ball off a teammate’s toe and other such things.
“But the abuse that probably killed (the kicking tee) the first time,” Nelson continued, “were the use of helmets. Back then, they weren’t mandatory and so you had a few guys wearing soft-top, floppy-eared jobs just so they could turn them inside out and make a good kicking tee.”
It was 1948 before vague rumblings about putting the foot back into the game convinced NCAA officials to allow the use of a 1-inch rubberized tee. Eleven years later, they widened the goal posts to 23-feet-5 from 18-5, and seven years after that, let the tee rise an inch.
The NFL allows the use of tees as high as 3 inches for kickoffs, but has never allowed them for field goals and PATs. The pro league, which began to declare its independence from the college game with a number of rules changes beginning in the mid-1930s, also has refused to widen the goal posts.
“We hear some coaches are after us because they’ve heard this was done to get kids ready for the pros, or because we wanted to break up ties ... but that just isn’t so,” said Nelson.
“From 1957 through last season, the score of an average game went from 36 points total to 47, the number of field goals from just 64 to 2,380 and the efficiency for PATs has climed to 96 percent.
“The scoring increased 200 percent because of field goals and only 25 percent because of touchdowns. The real difference kicking got so good is not the tees,” Nelson said, “but the specialists -- long-snappers and holders -- and the liberal immigration laws that let all those soccer players in.”
For purposes of full disclosure, Nelson also revealed that he was the holder for a Michigan team that lost its only game of the season -- a 7-6 decision that may have cost the Wolverines a national championship -- when Tom Harmon failed to convert a PAT on a rain-slicked Minnesota field.
If Nelson’s fingerprints are anywhere, they might be on the provision that allows referees to assess a 15-yard penalty against any holder caught doing some last-minute gardening in the area of the placement.
Most coaches, however, aren’t so much interested in why the rule came into being as how it’s going to affect their game plans.
Besides lower scoring, many hope to block what they anticipate will be kicks with a lower trajectory. To do so, several plan to copy NFL rush patterns and stress cracking the middle of the opposing offensive line instead of cutting its corners.
The new rule also has stoked the already heated debate on the advantages of different playing surfaces.
“I don’t have any clue whether this new rule will hurt the kicker who plays on artificial turf more than the one who plays on natural surface,” said Arizona coach Dick Tomey, “but it will important that people cut their grass.”
Tomey’s placekicker, Doug Pfaff, will change from wearing a pair of cleated shoes to wearing cleats on his “plant” shoe -- the one alongside the ball -- and a smooth-soled shoe on his kicking leg to avoid snagging it in the grass of Arizona Stadium.
Like most kickers, Pfaff said the rule was enacted early enough to give him time to alter his style and now is striking the ball lower to provide the lift previously provided by the tee.
“Actually,” Pfaff said, “the new rule will mostly affect how a kicker thinks. It’s mostly a mental thing anyhow. That’s the whole battle.”
Concurring is John Lee, whose name is most often invoked -- wrongly he believes -- as an example of a great college kicker who couldn’t learn to live without the tee.
Lee established 13 kicking records at UCLA before being drafted early in the second round by the then-St. Louis Cardinals in 1986. Lee’s accuracy deserted him late that season, and complicated by a knee injury, his career was effectively over when he got cut from camp before the following season began.
“A lot of people think the tee was it, but then how do you explain the excellent start I got off to?” said Lee, who now runs a real-estate investment with his father in California.
“The Cards told me they made a commitment to the kicking game. But all of sudden they fire Scott Brunner because he’s making too much money for a second-string quarterback and the guy that winds up holding for me hadn’t done it since high school.
“That upset my confidence and started playing with my mind. And once that happens,” he said, “tees or no tees ... all the tees in the world won’t make a difference.”