As New Jersey prepares to implement the most restrictive contact limitations in high school football, a pair of legendary coaches from other states are saying the move may be a step forward, though it’s missing they main issue.
They also advocated additional education and training as more efficacious measures that could supplement or supplant time limitations on a nationwide basis.
Before we go any further, make sure to take a look at precisely what the New Jersey limits impose, via USA TODAY High School Sports colleague Logan Newman. The largest takeaway is that in-season practice contact drills are to be limited to 15 minutes, while offseason training is capped at six hours from a previous unlimited amount.
Those guidelines shouldn’t be too restrictive for coaches to handle, according to longtime St. Ignatius High School (Cleveland, Ohio) head coach Chuck Kyle.
“If you have a drill, say it’s a 15 minute or 10 minute drill, for each kid it’s probably 3-4 minutes of contact. If you’re saying that, that has to be enough in most of the United States,” Kyle told USA TODAY. “In Ohio, I think we’re an hour at the most, and I think we don’t do that. There’s a lot of things done under control with bags with tackling and blocking because the coaching part of it is teaching technique. If you bring the proximity closer and slow it down, you can still teach technique without really having any contact at all.
“I wish parents would come and see these drills and see how it’s being taught, because I think a lot of the concerns now are based on when people played back in the 1970s and 1980s. Obviously, with the research, coaches and USA Football listen to the research. If you teach it properly you don’t need so many live drills.”
The emphasis on teaching tackling “properly” was noteworthy not only from Kyle, but also Greenwood (Ark.) High School football coach Rick Jones. Like Kyle, he is a firm believer that the solution to football’s contact and head trauma issues has more to do with education and teaching, not restrictive limits.
That’s not to say that the two efforts to minimize contact incidents can’t go hand-in-hand, of course. They just have to work together, according to Jones.
“My default is that we shouldn’t be legislating this and should be working to educate and teach the coaches better,” Jones told USA TODAY. “I believe with all my heart that if our profession doesn’t make the changes we’re not going to have a profession in a number of years.
“We can still coach a great game, a great sport that will always be a tough physical sport. We can do things to make things safer, and I believe that’s what we as a profession have to do. I don’t like being told that we have a certain number of hours to do this, but I do understand the purpose. I could say it’s overreaching or too much, but even then I have to agree that we need to do things better. If that isn’t the mindset for everyone in the profession, then we have to be legislated to. It’s always too easy to say they have gone too far or not far enough.”
In this case, the legislation may be more of a harbinger of where the sport is headed nationwide. Both Jones and Kyle stressed the importance of the research into concussive and subconcussive head trauma, and the subsequent impact those findings have had on both human lives and the game itself.
While the two coaches who hold a combined career record of 648-160-1 are adamant that the most direct path forward is through increased learning and education — like they’ll be leading as speakers at the 2019 USA Football National Conference in Orlando — they also recognize that the most important thing is that any gradual tide drawing athletes away from the sport because of perceived risk is stemmed.
“Of course I’m concerned. I’m concerned that we’re losing the value of sports, and many doctors will tell you, the concern is that if we don’t have these kinds of activities, the younger generation will have health problems,” Kyle said. “What we’re working on with the youth is setting up more of a controlled environment in practice and at youth games. Kids have fun playing, and that’s good and that’s healthy, but it’s our job to make sure that they’re doing it in a controlled environment that is safe for them.”
Added Jones: “We must make football as safe as possible. Last year was statistically the safest year in football in many years in terms of major catastrophic injuries, or so I read. The targeting rules, the hot tackling, the heat restrictions we’re under now. It would be great if you could just say ‘head coaches, you’ve been trained forever to do this and just use common sense,’ but it’s not practical.
“What we’ve found (at Greenwod) is that by following the principles set by USA Football and its Heads Up Tackling program and others, we tackle more efficiently than ever before.”
In essence: coaches need to keep searching for ways to make their players safer, regardless of contact limits, and accept the limits as they come as a way to improve safety and the future of the sport. That should be comforting to players in New Jersey, Michigan and even farther afield as other states look at ways to limit head trauma and improve the safety of America’s most popular sport.
St. Ignatius coach Chuck Kyle and Greenwood coach Rick Jones spoke with USA TODAY on behalf of the 2019 USA Football National Conference, which is being held in Orlando from Feb. 22-24. The conference’s keynote speakers are Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who will address the conference alongside Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck and Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt. More info can be found here.