SLU was the pioneer
By Vahe Gregorian
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Like his peers, first-year St. Louis University football coach Eddie Cochems harrumphed at most of the newfangled rules initiated in the wake of the game's crisis in 1905.
"The game this year is one full of trickery," Cochems said in a 1906 edition of a SLU student magazine, the Fleur de Lis. "Instead of finer and substantial (football), we now have a game of chance."
Yet Cochems had a hunch about a few of the changes and embraced one in particular.
"I think that the ...
pass will develop many beautiful spectacular plays before the season closes," he said.
Thus, unlike his brethren who dismissed the pass as too risky or merely an appeasement for those outraged by the game's viciousness, Cochems became consumed by the possibilities to be exploited.
His fascination with the aerodynamics of the so-called blimp, a ball that more closely resembled a watermelon than the spheroid of today, was so keen that he convinced SLU to allow him to take his 16 men to a Jesuit sanctuary in Lake Beulah, Wis., for "the sole purpose of studying and developing the pass," he wrote to the Post-Dispatch in 1940.
Out of that unheard-of two-month training camp bloomed what, according to one historian, Cochems called the "Overhead Projectile Spiral Pass."
So it was that 100 years ago Sept. 5, SLU's Bradbury Robinson uncorked the first legal forward pass, first misfiring but then connecting with Jack Schneider for a touchdown in a 22-0 win over confounded Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis.
"We were loaded with a sort of atomic football bomb that astounded and wrecked all opposition," SLU star Frank Acker told the Post-Dispatch in 1945.
The innovation unveiled and put to incomparable use by SLU that season would leave observers somewhere between "popeyed" and "kerflummoxed," in the parlance of the day, and ultimately transformed the game, which today is predicated more on passing than ever before.
The school, not yet nicknamed the Billikens, went 11-0, outscoring opponents 407-11 -- and 824-87 in Cochems' three seasons.
But while former NCAA football historian Steve Boda says SLU's place as pioneer of the pass was undisputed in his 40 years on the job, dust and mythology have largely obscured Cochems and his fascinating first team.
The squad was made up almost entirely of future doctors whose jobs during school included a milk route, waiting tables and lamplighting. At a time when eligibility rules were less than universal, that legacy perhaps made up for the fact that several reportedly had already played four years of college football. Even as SLU is celebrated in a display marking the anniversary at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind., the program that was shut down for budgetary reasons in 1949 seldom is thought of anymore.
Neither Cochems nor Robinson is in the hall, and many mistakenly attribute the advent of the forward pass to the school a few miles from there, Notre Dame, whose lore indeed includes a pivotal point in the development of the pass, but not its birth.
That moment, in which the then-obscure football school defeated mighty Army 35-13 behind the unprecedented aerial extravaganza of Gus Dorais to Knute Rockne, reverberated throughout college football because of the East Coast-centered nature of the game -- and the media -- at the time.
Adding to the misperception was the movie "Knute Rockne: All-American," which made that game appear to be an inauguration of the play. Never mind that it came seven years after SLU's prosperity through the air -- a fact that Notre Dame and Rockne himself acknowledged.
"As with most revolutionary movements in established practice, the forward pass came in quietly, almost obscurely," Rockne wrote for Collier's magazine in 1930, according to Allison Danzig's 1971 book, "Oh, How They Played the Game." "Eddie Cochems ... enrolled a few boys with hands like steam shovels who could toss a football just as easily and almost as far as they could throw a baseball."
While Cochems was the first to harness the potential of the newly legalized pass, he hardly was its architect or inventor.
Forward passes, for one thing, had been attempted before, most recently in an experimental game in late 1905 between Washburn and what would become Wichita State before the new rules were approved in early 1906.
Passes also had been carried out successfully but illegally several times, including the 1876 Yale-Princeton game in which Yale's Walter Camp threw forward to teammate Oliver Thompson as he was being tackled. Princeton's protest, one account said, went for naught when the referee "tossed a coin to make his decision and allowed the touchdown to stand."
Still, there was no movement to add the play, even though the game was appallingly violent -- to say nothing of rife with fraud. Even after the lethal flying wedge was outlawed in 1894, its offshoots were perilous, and gouging, biting, and kicking were common features of the game.
By the end of 1905, when the Chicago Tribune reported that 18 college football players had died and 159 were seriously injured that season, universities were beginning to act against the "boy-killing, man-mutilating" sport, as University of Chicago Divinity School dean Shailer Mathews reportedly called it.
Schools such as California, Columbia, New York University, Northwestern, and Stanford dropped football, and the clamor to reform or abolish the game reached the White House.
While President Theodore Roosevelt considered a broken bone to be of no consequence "when balanced against the chance of showing ... physical prowess and courage," he was persuaded that the game's character-building aspects were being compromised by its excesses.
Roosevelt summoned representatives of highly influential Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to Washington to address the foul play.
"I demand that football change its rules or be abolished," Roosevelt has been widely quoted as saying. "Brutality and foul play should receive the same summary punishment given to a man who cheats at cards! Change the game or forsake it!"
In the months to come, with Roosevelt nudging, the much-scrutinized death of a Union College player against NYU, and Harvard threatening to drop football if radical changes weren't made, the future of the game hovered in the balance.
But from a December 1905 meeting of football's guardians came a commitment to overhaul the game, and from a meeting of more than 60 schools late that month came the essential foundation of what would become the NCAA.
Out of that blossomed a rules committee that enacted drastic changes in early January 1906. In addition to the forward pass, perhaps most robustly promoted by John Heisman, they included changing the yardage for a first down from five to 10 (in three downs -- the four-down concept didn't come until 1912) and establishing a neutral zone on the line of scrimmage.
Stagg disdained pass
The changes left University of Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg grumbling that football would resemble "a parlor game," football historian John Sayle Watterson wrote. And Camp, regarded as the father of American football but no fan of the pass, received a letter from a colleague agonizing over the "forward passes and other dream-like things."
But Cochems was in no haze about the play, which Stagg once said Cochems had been advocating for years. Cochems, a University of Wisconsin graduate, came to SLU after one year as coach at Clemson, where he replaced Heisman. He later said he had spoken with Heisman about the notion of the pass, which Heisman had been advocating since at least 1903.
Meanwhile, Robinson's development of the pass came inadvertently. During the 1904 season at Wisconsin (Robinson would later transfer to SLU for med school), teammate H.P. Savage startled Robinson by throwing the ball overhand to Robinson almost as far as Robinson was punting it to him. Robinson implored Savage to show him how he heaved and spiraled the ball.
It helped that Robinson was said to have an oversized hand, marked by a crooked right little finger that he would say helped his technique.
"From then on, my football hobby became forward passing," wrote Robinson, adding, "I was, thanks to two years of almost continual practice, perhaps the only finished passer in the country" in 1906.
A passion for passing
Before and during the Lake Beulah camp, Cochems' passion also became forward passing.
"I studied the proportions (of the ball) . . . and discovered, of course, that it had been designed to fit the instep of the shoe for kicking and the pit of the arm for carrying," he wrote the Post-Dispatch in 1940. "Then I lit on the seven lacings as the only physical part of the ball for finger purchase in throwing the ball on its long axis.
"Just before the first practice I told the players to put their fingers between the two lacings nearest the end of the ball, where the diameter was shortest, and throw it with a twist of the wrist, on its long axis ... (Soon) Robinson, all excited, came back and said, 'Coach, I can throw the danged thing 40 yards!'"
Just because SLU could throw it, though, didn't mean it should.
Among the reasons the pass was initially disdained was that the rules dictated turning the ball over at the spot of an incomplete pass and the pass having to be thrown from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage and five or more yards to the left or right of center.
Further, there was no such thing as pass interference, so common strategy was to tackle an intended receiver before he could catch the ball. While the ball wasn't streamlined significantly until the mid-1930s, most of those rules were tweaked in the next few years, leading to ND's outburst.
A sensation at Yale
Nevertheless, SLU unveiled the pass against Carroll a full month before Wesleyan's Sammy Moore threw for a touchdown against Yale, which some contended was the first pass.
The spectacle in New Haven, Conn., the Post-Dispatch wrote, evoked a "breathless stillness" among Yale fans and then "such an ovation as never before greeted a visiting team at Yale field." In fact, Post-Dispatch microfilm indicates several schools making at least token use of the pass then.
But as most others reportedly were passing the ball basketball style, underhanded or even end-over-end, SLU was throwing spirals and bullets and apparently executing with precision and finesse. So accomplished was SLU that Camp asked Cochems to write an article about the pass for the rules committee, and Cochems would later say that the passing technique Yale used to beat Harvard that year had been wired to Yale by him.
After SLU's 59-0 victory over Cape Girardeau State Normal on Oct. 20, the Post-Dispatch focused on the method.
Almost "every time the ball was passed, the thrower threw it to a certain spot just as a baseball catcher whirls the ball expecting the player to be Johnny on the spot," the paper wrote. " 'Hike!' and the man would stop, expecting the ball to be right at his hands."
The highlights of the season, though, were a 34-2 win over favored Kansas and a 39-0 victory over Iowa on Thanksgiving Day at Sportsman's Park.
The statistics could not be clarified through primary research, but various historians have written that SLU completed seven of nine passes against Kansas and eight of 10 against Iowa, with Schneider at times passing as well as Robinson, leaving referee "Lt. Hackett of West Point" marveling.
"It was the most perfect exhibition of the new rules ... that I have seen all season and much better than that of Yale and Harvard," he told the Post-Dispatch after working the game. "The St. Louis style of passing differs entirely from that in use in the East. ... The St. Louis players shoot the ball hard and accurately to the man who is to receive it ... The fast throw by St. Louis enables the receiving player to dodge the opposing players, and it struck me as being all but perfect."
"The pass," he added, "is destined to revolutionize the game."
And so it would, even if the prototype has been neglected by history.