September 6, 2018


How Buddy Teevens '79 Transformed Football Forever: A few years ago, Coach Teevens looked like a goner. Then he reorganized his staff and started a radical experiment: no tackling in practice. (BRAD PARKS '96 | SEP - OCT 2018, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine)

No one expected a quick fix. Still, as the years went by and the 2-8 seasons piled up, Teevens was in trouble. "I never doubted that what we were doing would work," says Teevens. "It was just whether I would be around to see it through." Coming out of that 0-10 season in 2008, Dartmouth did what institutions often do when they need to fire someone they don't really want to fire.

The College hired a consultant.

His name was Rick Taylor. An assistant coach at Dartmouth in the 1970s, he'd had a long career as a football coach and athletic director, finally retiring from Northwestern.

Taylor's report noted improvements to facilities and in admissions. But Dartmouth's nonconference schedule was too difficult. The team needed more money for recruiting. And Teevens, who also served as quarterback coach and offensive coordinator, needed to relinquish those duties and concentrate on being head coach.

In other words, the College didn't need to fire Buddy. It needed to help him. The team lured two longtime Ivy League assistants to Hanover by offering them better salaries: Don Dobes came from Princeton to be defensive coordinator, and Keith Clark came from Yale to coach the offensive line. Teevens, who admits he can be "a micromanager," says being forced to step back from a more hands-on role was "frustrating at times, professionally." But it also freed him to focus on his strengths: recruiting and fundraising. "I was very, very fortunate to be allowed to continue," he says. "If it wasn't my alma mater, and if people didn't look deeply in terms of what we were doing, I would have been unemployed."

Teevens' position remained tenuous entering the spring of 2010. Having digits at the end of his name would not help him much longer if he didn't start winning. This was probably not the moment to embark on a radical experiment to dramatically change the entire sport of football.

Yet it was around this time that CTE was bursting into the national conversation. Football entered the bizarre paradox where it finds itself today: It's the most popular sport in America, by a wide margin, and it's also in deep crisis. As injuries mount, nervous parents are steering their kids away, causing participation levels to plummet.

The Mike Webster story hit a nerve with Teevens. So did conversations with fellow coaches--including his former boss at Florida, Steve Spurrier, and his mentor at Stanford, Bill Walsh. His players were going on to careers in medicine, finance, and engineering, where they would need their brains. Researchers were finding that repeated subconcussive hits, such as those that doomed Webster, were leading to later-life CTE.

And the majority of those hits (60 percent, according to studies) didn't take place during games. They happened in practice, during barbaric-but-common drills such as "Oklahoma," in which a defensive player lines up 10 yards from an offensive one, then attempts to knock the snot out of him--a time-honored method of teaching tackling.

But what if they could find a new, less-violent way? One that took player-on-player contact out of the equation?

"It was a cumulative thing. And the sum of it all was, why are we doing this?" says Teevens. "And so I just decided we're not going to tackle in practice anymore."

The reaction was something less than universal recognition of his genius. Teevens says fellow head coaches called him an idiot and told him he was going to get fired. Even his own assistant coaches asked him what the punchline was.

Then they got to work. No college program had ever eliminated tackling from practices. Dartmouth's coaches started breaking down film, studying tackling like never before. They learned that the historical archetype of a so-called "perfect form" tackle--which begins when the defensive player drives the crown of his helmet into the opposing player's chest--almost never happens in a game. Most tackles were, in fact, distinctly imperfect.

Back out on the field, they used dummies and crash pads to replicate what they'd seen players do on film. No human athletes. "It was a learning process," says Teevens. "There was no template to steal from. It was just coming up with stuff as we went along."

Then a funny thing happened to the team that no longer tackled in practice. Players started tackling much better in games. In 2010, missed tackles dropped by half, according to Teevens. The players were also healthier, fresher, and missed far fewer games due to injuries. Dartmouth finished 6-4 that year, its first winning season since 1997.

The coaches kept tinkering. Before long, Teevens used what he now called "the Dartmouth Way" of teaching tackling to win something else: recruiting battles. Take, for example, linebacker Jack Traynor '19. The leading tackler in Illinois high school history, he was wooed by Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. Late in the process, he got a visit from Teevens, who sat down with Jack and his parents, Carl and Darcy.

"Jack has been a fan of contact since he was in the second grade. When Jack heard about the no-tackle thing, there was disbelief," says Carl. "For Darcy? Holy smokes. She was sold. When Coach Teevens left our home, Darcy just looked at me and said, 'Jack needs to go to school there.' "

Posted by at September 6, 2018 7:22 AM


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