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Notre Dame Football: Ara Parseghian’s “Spy in the Sky”

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The Big 10 didn’t want Notre Dame to succeed. So they took away one of its most helpful aids.

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Let me tell you a fun story about how the Big 10 was so scared of Ara Parseghian succeeding at Notre Dame that they pressured the NCAA to ban a modern coaching technique.

In 1964, Parseghian used his first spring game as Notre Dame Fighting Irish coach to field test a potential solution to an enduring problem.

“The worst seat — and the loudest seat — in a stadium is on the field,” the coach would say in a newspaper column years later. “The overhead view is much better for scouting and for determining formations or positioning on the field.”

WNDU, then university-owned, installed a camera atop Notre Dame Stadium and transmitted the picture to a portable television monitor held by a staffer shadowing Parseghian on the field. In addition to showing formations, it could also handle replays.

The Associated Press dubbed it Notre Dame’s “spy in the sky” following the May 10, 1964 spring game.

The technology wasn’t exactly new. Delaware coach Dave Nelson said he used sideline television and other electronic coaching aids when he was at Harvard University during the 1948 season.

But technological advancements in the early 1960s led to smaller monitors, which allowed the entire operation to be portable.

Parseghian thought the closed-circuit system could modernize coaching and improve the game.

“We are figuring out a way so my offensive and defensive coach can look at the monitor the same time I do. Eventually, a player I want to send in or explain something to can watch with us. It simplifies everything,” the coach told the AP. “Another great thing about it, we are taping the closed telecasts. During the half time, I can pick out plays where we made mistakes and show them back to the players. There is no end to what can be done with the set-up.”

The coach would be able to use the system for just three years, until the cries of foul from the Big 10 and other technology-averse schools overwhelmed the NCAA. Their rules committee put a kibosh to sending video down to the field, a ban that still exists to this day.

BADGERS SET ‘NO CAMERA’ POLICY

The Irish opened the 1964 season on the road against the Wisconsin Badgers, who had beaten both Notre Dame and the Parseghian-coached Northwestern Wildcats the prior year.

Four days before kickoff, Parseghian revealed Wisconsin had denied Notre Dame’s request to bring its closed-circuit system to Camp Randall Stadium.

“Ivy Williamson (Wisconsin athletic director) told WNDU there was no space for the equipment. It’s a closed incident for us,” the Irish coach told the Chicago Football Writers Association.

(Camp Randall would add an entire upper deck to its stadium two years later. I guess they found space for that.)

Bill Reed, the Big Ten commissioner, said his conference had no policy against the devices. And yet, Big Ten schools seemed to be the only ones objecting.

“Now comes another group to argue that the Big Ten is in decline, slipping toward eclipse,” wrote the Detroit Free Press’ Bob Pille in the paper’s Nov. 10, 1965 edition. “The Big Ten won’t buy. In this era of the automated, computerized, germ-free, plastic-wrapped man, the conference chooses to bumble along in an old-fashioned football manner.”

You see, Big Ten coaches wanted all the same information as Parseghian was getting from the overhead camera. They just didn’t want to pay the $25,000 required to get a better view.

“Around the Big Ten, pictures techniques don’t go beyond shooting Polaroids of formations,” he wrote. “End coach Cal Stoll snaps away early from the press box for Michigan State, then sends a runner to the bench with a handful of pictures for [Spartans coach] Duffy Daugherty.”

(That method is also against current NCAA rules, in case you’re wondering.)

PARSEGHIAN SUCCEEDED WHERE OTHERS DID NOT

While many colleges purchased cameras and closed circuit-systems for their coaches, there was a dubious correlation with wins.

J.T. King, the head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders, said instant replay helped him guide his team to victory over the TCU Horned Frogs in the 1965 season.

The Texas Longhorns head coach, Darrell Royal, said he didn’t like it.

“I can’t be watching television while my team is out there playing,” he told the Associated Press in November 1965. “I get too nervous.”

Susquehanna, Army and Rutgers also tried to incorporate the equipment into their game planning in 1965. They went a combined 7-20-1.

“I think we should outlaw it,” said Scarlet Knights coach John Bateman at a New York Football Writers luncheon that fall.

There was one guy who seemed to be able to process a replay and make quick adjustments: Ara Parseghian.

Parseghian compiled a 25-3-2 record between 1964 and 1967. One of those losses and one of those ties came in road games against Big 10 teams.

RULES COMMITTEE - LED BY A MICHIGAN MAN - BANS PARSEGHIAN’S AID

When the NCAA rules committee met in Phoenix in January of 1967, the Associated Press noted a “mounting concern over electronic scouting devices.”

In a survey, the group found that 60 percent of high school and college athletic officials were opposed to using electronic scouting during games.

“Our concern is that these devices are making football more of a push button game by taking it away from the players,” an anonymous committee member told the AP. “They’re changing the whole philosophy of the game.”

Oh, heavens! Coaches trying to gain an advantage through technology?!

The source added: “We’ve found just about everybody is opposed to the use of video tape if the other guy is using it and he’s not.” It was inconsequential that the equipment had produced uneven results. The perception was that it helped teams win, and that trumped reality.

Even with this “mounting concern,” the Associated Press wrote, “Sources here were doubtful that if the rules committee takes action, it would be more than a recommendation to limit the use of electronic gear, rather than a rule prohibiting it.”

The ink was barely dry on that report when the NCAA committee, headed by Michigan Wolverines athletic director Fritz Crisler, decided to ban the equipment because “of an underlying concern that if one or two teams use it, then others will do it too.”

Crisler said the main concern was economic, but I’ve got an alternate theory: The Big 10 just didn’t like that Ara Parseghian and Notre Dame were succeeding. (The ‘66 Irish were national champions.)

“The committee wasn’t exactly thinking modern when they changed another rule,” wrote Parseghian of the ban in a national column that October.

“The closed circuit monitor gave us a look at the formations and an instant decision on the position of the ball. Many times from the bench we can’t tell whether it’s a third down and a foot to go or maybe third down and three or four yards. By looking at the overhead view in the monitor, we knew what the yardage situation was,” the coach wrote. “All of this has change for us. Now we must rely on our depth perception on the field or a quick telephone call from our spotters in the press box.”

RULE EXISTS TODAY

St Louis Rams v Oakland Raiders Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The NCAA is expanding this season what video and Internet technology can be used, but only in the press-box level coaches’ booths and in the locker rooms.

However, “video images, photographs and computers ... are not allowed in the team area, on the playing field, or on the sideline. Television monitors may only be used in the press-box coaching booths to view the live broadcast or webcast ... Television replay or monitoring equipment is otherwise prohibited at the sidelines or other locations within the playing enclosure for coaching purposes during the game.”

The NFL has long allowed coaches to receive static images from a birds’-eye view to diagnose formations. In 2014, it rolled out the Sideline Viewing System on Microsoft Surface tablets. They display high resolution color images of formations at least 30 seconds faster than the old printer system and also allow coaches to zoom in and make annotations.

“The league is also looking at expanding the use of tablets to allow coaches to review video during the game, a concept that is currently being tested,” the NFL Operations web site wrote.