Bill Hughes Talks Football
as told to
I DID NOT see that spectacular Dominion Championship football game Ottawa Rough Riders lost to Sarnia Imperials at Toronto Varsity Stadium on the afternoon of Saturday, December fifth, last year, by a 26-20 score, but I did have my ears pinned back against the loud speaker of my radio in Montreal. It took two days to gef my pulse back to normal.
The Ottawa Rough Riders of 1936 made history in Canadian football. A scrubby bunch of home-town kids, they were counted out by the experts after losing the first two games of their short schedule. Under Bill Hughes’ inspired leadership they fought their way back to the heights with amazing courage and defeated Argonauts in Toronto to win the Big Four title.
Against Sarnia, rated the most skilful, most intensivelydeveloped squad of experienced players in the Dominion, the Ottawa youngsters were twelve points down in the first five minutes of play. They smashed their way back to tie the score. Once more the Sarnia steam roller flattened them, and still they had enough left to batter their way down the field. In the last few seconds of play they were on their opponents’ eleven-yard line, the equalizing points within sight, when the final whistle blew. Such blasé radio commentators as “Shag” Shaughnessy and “Red” Foster became hoarse and hysterical in the blazing excitement of that frantic final quarter.
Here was Canadian football at its best. After the game. Bill Hughes told his boys that he was prouder of them in defeat than he luid ever been of any team he had coached to victory—and he meant it.
For a quarter of a century the name of Wilfrid PerryHughes has been important in our football. He played right inside for Shaughnessy’s McGill Intercollegiate champions in 1912, and a few seasons later began his coaching career with Montreal. He coached Queen s to
four successive Intercollegiate titles and three Dominion championships. Montreal, Hamilton and Ottawa squads won Interprovincial titles under his guidance, and he captured another Dominion championship with his Hamilton team. Seven senior and four Dominion championships are in the records as held by football teams coached by Bill Hughes.
He will coach no more. Business affairs demand all his attention, and he is giving up the job of teaching young Canadians how to play football, but he retires without regrets, for he regards last season’s Ottawa club as the highest achievement of his entire football career.
All the rest of this and succeeding articles belong to Bill Hughes.
Bill Hughes Speaking
AS THIS 1937 football season opens, fans are still
Z-V talking about the Ottawa Big Four of 1936; JL especially they recall that play-off game with Sarnia for the Dominion championship. Sports writers and Monday-morning quarterbacks agree that the 1936 edition of Rough Riders was something that comes along only once in a football lifetime—a miracle team. Some of the more extravagant profess to regard me as some sort of a magician, that I pulled that squad out of a hat. like a conjurer’s rabbit.
On the face of it. the team I was privileged to coach in my last season of active association with football, established an amazing record. We started the season very
much Ihe underdog. We were so deep in the dumps we’d have had to reach up to catch worms if we had wanted to go fishing.
But we won that Big Four title, then went into Toronto last December and gave that big, hard-hitting, cleverlycoached, experienced Sarnia team the scare of their lives. Just one or two lucky breaks in our direction, and we would have knocked them off, too. I’m not moaning. In many ways—but especially because of its sheer, stark fighting spirit and courageI look on my Ottawa squad of 1936 with affection as the grandest team I ever coached, greater than the perfect Queen’s teams of 1922-1925, which won four Intercollegiate and three Dominion championships.
All the credit does not belong to me; only a small portion of it. The coach’s functions in any football organization are circumscribed by a number of contributory circumstances. Under certain conditions, I could have easily finished in the cellar with a squad of more brilliant stars, on paper. Fans often forget, in defeat as well as in victory, that all football clubs are necessarily made up of three component parts—executive, players, and coach. Each of these elements carries its own particular responsibility toward the club; unless all three fulfill their obligations, and a bit over, there’ll be no winning team in that town.
The cornerstone of the structure is confidence. Above everything else it is confidence that counts.
It is elementary that a successful coach must know the
game thoroughly, must love it devotedly, and must possess
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a special ability to teach it, to impart what he knows to the eager youngsters under his care. But that alone is not enough. He must be able to give confidence and to inspire confidence in others toward himself—in executive as well as players.
Last year’s Ottawa club was a shining example of what I am getting at. We had a few experienced players to act as a balance element in a squad of youngsters. We had Dave Sprague, Arnie Morrison and Tiny Herman. We had Rocky Roccano too, but we didn’t know how good that kid was until after the season was under way. For the rest we had a grand group of stout-hearted, keen young athletes, but most of them had only intermediate or junior football experience.
No squad ever worked harder in preliminary practices and pre-season exhibition games than those boys did. Then, as luck would have it, we were beaten in both our first starts. I hat was a bad time. Football experts in Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton, had us figured as certain tail-enders. The race, they wrote, was now between Tigers, Argos, and Montreal. Ottawa was out of it. Even our own home town critics were carrying their chins on their chests. 1 don t blame them. The gloom at the corner of Sparks and Bank Sts. was so thick you could have cut slices of it for sun-glasses.
But we came back. We won three games, each by a single point. We went into the play-offs and mowed down Argos in Toronto—a tough assignment at any time—for the title. In six weeks we climbed from below sea level to the peak.
The answer was confidence. Even in the darkest hours executive, players and coach held staunchly to their faith in each other. We had confidence in ourselves, personal pride in our abilities, and a grim determination to justify that pride before the world.
There was nothing miraculous about tire way Ottawa was coached last year. I am no magician. I employed the same methods —especially the same fundamentals—I have always used. We had no repertoire of mysterious or complicated trick plays, designed to dazzle our opponents, because that is not my system, and never has been.
The Hughes System
THE HUGHES SYSTEM, if you want to call it that, is based on three simple principles:
First: Plays should never be so intricate or so numerous that the players are unable to grasp them thoroughly.
Second : Plays should be adapted to the particular type of individual players the coach has on his squad.
Third: Any formation should lend itself to a wide variety of attacks.
To my mind, the first contention is obvious, although I am aware that many good coaches differ. Even with the huddle system now in vogue, a player keyed up to a high pitch of excitement, or perhaps groggy under heavy pounding, is not capable of any great amount of spontaneous thinking. Such a player, unless his part in the play is very clear to him, so firmly fixed in his mind that lie responds automatically to the signal, will make but a negligible contribution, and he may upset a well-intentioned manoeuvre altogether. Never in any one season have I taught more than three formations to my teams; but the boys learned those three so thoroughly that they could make their moves if they were sleep-walking.
The duty that rests on every good coach to study his players as individuals is generally recognized, although all good coaches do not carry it through to the fullest extent. I have always devoted a great deal of time and lain awake nights often enough, planning ways and means to develop the especial aptitudes of indivi-
dual players to the greatest advantage of team attack.
My last two seasons in Ottawa provide an excellent illustration of this principle.
I had big Dave Sprague on my squad. Dave has developed a real and valuable ability to knife through an opposing line, but he is a “natural” in a broken field, probably the finest exponent of this method of attack in Canada today. To get that ball on the run, and then go places with it, is instinctive in this big fellow. Once he gets going, just let anybody try to stop him.
Plainly it was up to me so to adapt my attack that Dave would be given every ¡possible opportunity to demonstrate his remarkable talents in this specialty. From many hours of deep thinking, blackboard graphs and conferences, the Rough Riders at last came up with the Right Shift play shown in the accompanying diagram. It caused a lot of grief to Big Four clubs last season.
To simplify the diagram, I have eliminated variations in which Dave was used as the fake. It begins with the quarterback running as he receives the ball from centre. Dave McCann may take a bow. I got that from him. While the quarterback was running parallel behind tlie line of scrimmage as he took the ball, Sprague was circling behind, coming up very fast and well outside the opposing middle wing position. If my linemen did their stuff, the enemy’s middle wing was boxed, their outside wing was cut out of the play, and as the quarter reached the end of the line, Sprague was about eight feet outside him, coming up on his flank. The quarter cut to the inside of the oncoming secondary, drew the tackle, then shot the ball to Dave, who was in full stride with only a tertiary to beat. Of course it did not always work out to this theoretical perfection, but even when secondary and tertiary did not come up on him together, Sprague was quite capable of taking them one after another—and how he gloried in it !
This was the play that, in mud and slush at Montreal, took the ball to the Indians’ twenty-yard line, from which spot Tiny Herman hoisted the place kick that won the game. We used the same play against Sarnia, only this time Arnie Morrison carried the ball. He faked the pass, held on to the ball and went over the line for a touchdown, standing up.
The other dubs in the Interprovincial had a wholesome respect for Dave Sprague, especially on this particular attack. I have been told that the play was elaborately diagrammed on the blackboards in both Tigers’ and Argos’ dressing rooms, with the solemn inscription; “He must be stopped!” The trouble with that is that there are not many players, or combinations of players, who can stop Dave Sprague once he gets rightly started.
That is the sort of thing I have in mind when I say that plays should be adapted to the particular type of individual players the coach has on his squad. As to my third basic principle, that any formation should lend itself to a wide variety of plays, let me state quite truthfully that I would not have been worried at any time even if I had thought my opponents possessed a complete set of my plays to study. I have always maintained, and I still stick to it, that any formation worthy of a good coach will be capable of developing such a variety of attacks that, unless they knew the actual play called for in the huddle, opposing teams could not call the turn. A sound basic formation, skilfully handled by a quarterback who knows how to think, combined with a proper running of fakes on the part of his team mates, will compel every opposing player to stop, look, and listen before he dares make a move.
This theory is so important in my mind that, in the second article of this series, I
am going to demonstrate its possibilities. Before we get that far, I want to emphasize the vital importance of a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of the game.
The Religion of Fundamentals
PHIS FUNDAMENTAL stuff is a sort of football religion with me. Some of my friends think 1 overstress it. Many players whom I have sent to plod wearily around the track as a punishment for forgetting a fundamental point in practice, have certainly cussed me out for a slavedriver. But in eighteen years of coaching 1 have never handled or observed a consistently winning team that lacked a complete knowledge of the fundamentals, plus the ability to apply them automatically.
Physical condition is the first fundamental in my book. Football is a rough, hard game, and it has to be taken seriously.
1 Iowever big or muscular a player may be, unless he is in perfect physical shape he will not be able to give his best for his team. A regular and stiff routine of physical jerks, short sprints with sudden stops and starts, automobile-tire-running to teach weaving and footwork, and the bucking sled are all useful for pre-season conditioning. Different coaches employ different methods. Whatever pet notions a coach may nurse as to how the thing is to be done, he must get his boys hardened up. toughened, so that their bodies can absorb hard knocks and bruising, battering contacts without serious effects.
Ball handling, the line buck, blocking, tackling, the forward pass, punting, dropkicking and place-kicking, catching the ball from a punt or a forward pass, dribbling a loose ball and falling on it—all these are fundamentals which must be drilled into every individual player through many weary hours of pre-season practice, before any game is played. It is a long, hard grind, but football is no game for slackers, and without the gruelling routine of these pre-season drills it is not possible to develop a championship team.
The most elaborately-designed trick plays, the most complicated formations, cannot compensate for superficial coaching in these basic principles. Not only must they be thoroughly learned before the season begins, but my players have been urged to rehearse them continually throughout the schedule. To forget any one of them at a critical moment may mean all the difference between defeat and victory.
Take one of the most spectacular plays in the game—the forward pass. Since our Rules Commission adapted this American play to the Canadian game it has become enormously popular with players and spectators alike. Perhaps it has been overemphasized in some instances, but the fans eat it up. It is the ambition of nearly every youngster playing football with school and junior clubs these days to become another Warren Stevens or another Hal Baysinger.
The Forward Pass
BUT IF these boys think that throwing a successful forward pass is just a matter of grabbing the ball and chucking it away again, they have plenty of disappointments ahead of them. Study the picture of Johnny Ferraro, the former American
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college star now coaching Montreal, posed in the act of throwing a forward. Every component part of his posture is carefully calculated to produce the greatest possible degree of accuracy and distance in the throw.
Johnny’s stance is much like that of a baseball pitcher as he toes the slab, and, after his wind-up, delivers the ball with a body follow-through.
The ball is balanced, slightly behind centre, over the hollow of his hand, but controlled by his widespread fingers and thumb. Notice that his forward foot, his outstretched left arm, his eyes and his chin all point in the same direction, along the line of the throw.
As he takes the ball back, his hand turns outward and his wrist is bent. When he starts his forward whip across his shoulder his wrist turns naturally, and his fingers give a spiral motion to the ball as it leaves his hand. The forward point of the hall is tilted slightly upward. All these seemingly trifling details must be learned and practiced through many hours of drudgery until each little item is firmly fixed in the mind of the player who hopes to become a really great passer.
A successful forward pass is a beautiful thing to watch, and a valuable ground gainer when it is successful, but its success or failure depends as much upon the receiver as upon the thrower. A potential receiver must get himself into the enemy’s territory uncovered, if he is to have a fair chance to gather in that ball; and he must know how to catch it when he gets there. Generally speaking, the hall comes to him over his outside shoulder, and it is not easy to control. The receiver’s arms should be raised, held fairly close together facing the ball, with hands open and fingers slightly bent. It is important that hands and arms should be limp, relaxed, never tensed. As the ball arrives he gives with it, cushioning the impact much as a baseball player or a cricketer takes a fast ball. He gathers in the ball and brings it down securely held in his possession.
Some of the boys get so enthused over catching the ball successfully that they forget to go places with it when they’ve got it. I have often found it necessary in practice sessions to penalize severely the player who, after a catch, takes time out to pat himself on the back.
The instant he gets the ball safely, the receiver should start lickety-split for the enemy’s goal line; on the other hand, he will make a fatal error if he anticipates his catch and starts running before he has actually grabbed and held the ball. As many forward passes are incompleted because the receiver gets under way too soon, as because he actually fumbles the catch.
The problem of getting the receiver down the field and into the open is another of those things that turns a coach’s hair prematurely grey. The generally adopted strategy is to send two attackers against one defender, so spaced that it is impossible for the single player on defense to cover both runners. One acts as a decoy, the other is the actual receiver. When it is a case of a single receiver against a single defender, a change of pace or of direction, a sudden stop and run hack to the ball are all useful tactics.
A Play That Works
HT HE FORWARD PASS diagram illustrates a play that has worked beautifully for me. The outside wing from the short end goes straight down the field to his opposing tertiary, then angles out, carrying the tertiary with him deep into enemy territory. In the meantime, the halfback from the side of the line has run straight down the field, approximately five yards, has then cut sharply across the centre zone, headed for the spot where the tertiary stood before he was taken out of the play. The throw is made to this point. Player and ball should reach it together.
It is a split-second performance, but if it is properly taught and assiduously re-
hearsed, it works. To keep other defenders out of the receiving position, one player is sent down to taire the short-end secondary defense man into the flat zone, while another heads for the second tertiary and takes him out in the opposite direction.
Your average fan takes it for granted, as he has a right to do, that every senior football player knows how to handle a ball. Surely that should be the very first thing a coach will teach his squad. Yet I have seen experienced players tear into the enemy’s line with the ball clutched around the middle in so sloppy a fashion that the first contact with an opponent knocked it out of their grasp.
Johnny Ferraro’s second pose shows the right way to carry a ball. The old egg should be tucked away securely, one end under the armpit, the other held tightly in the palm of the hand with fingers widespread. With a straight arm forward to ward off tacklers, and the weight evenly balanced with body bent slightly forward, feet apart so that the runner can shift instantly in either direction, the ball carrier has a fair chance to break through for yards. It is elementary that the ball must be held properly if it is to be held at all.
Unlike a sprinter, who has only to travel the shortest distance between two points,
your football player must be ready to drive in three directions at once under a full head of steam. He must know how to exert his full physical power, whether he has to make his move to the right, the left, or straight ahead.
He gets this power by means of a broad stance, with his feet separated about the width of his shoulders, his toes pointed directly down the field and his weight on the inside cleats of his shoes. In his crouch, his tail is down, and his head up, so that when he charges his cover to block him away from the ball carrier coming behind, the power of his drive is through and upward ; and he must be very sure that he brings his feet right along with him. If he leaves them behind, as some players have a tendency to do, his drive is weak and he is easily evaded.
All right. Class dismissed. At our next session I am going to try to demonstrate just what I mean by a general purpose formation. With the aid of Doug Kerr, who coaches McGill, I want to show you how a tackle should be made.
This is the first of three articles by Bill Hughes and Frederick Edwards. The second will appear in the next issue of Maclean’s Magazine.