Football is not like hockey, thinking back to the clever line of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield: “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out!”
And as for the old school cheer, “Fight, Fight, Fight!”, don’t take it literally.
A week or so ago Florida Coach Jim McElwain suspended star cornerback Jalen Tabor and tight end Cyontai Lewis for fighting in practice. They have rejoined the team, but won’t be allowed to play when the Gators open the season against UMass next week.
It is difficult to believe that the suspension is only for a fight in football practice, but it does make the point that fights among teammates are discouraged by coaches. There are any number of reasons that football practice fights are counterproductive. It is wasted energy and wasted time in an era of two-hour practices. A player could break a hand with a wild swing at a helmeted adversary (and no one who has a helmet on should take it off when the fight begins). It can lead to bad habits, and remember that a fight in a game is not just a penalty; it can lead to ejection, even into the next game.
Football fights in practice don’t usually last very long. Coaches get them broken up as quickly as possible in order to get on with the business of football.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban said, “I tell them I’m getting too old to go over and pull somebody off, so stay out of a fight.”
Saban was joking about that, but he is serious about the issue.
He said, “I think it’s really important that players respect other players on the team. Have a respect for what that player’s trying to do to be successful.”
That extends from teammates to opponents.
“We have a rule on our team where you don’t talk to the other team, you don’t talk to the other players,” Saban said. “Part of that is when people talk, sometimes they lose focus on what they’re supposed to be doing. The other part of that is when people talk and they sometimes make other people emotional – and when you get emotional I think you make emotional decisions which can lead to loss of control.
“Which means all of a sudden, I take a shot at somebody or a punch at somebody. The last I checked those things are all penalties. Some could lead to ejection.”
That fits into Saban’s philosophy of the practice process. “What you’re trying to practice is good habits so you can do it in the game,” he said. “I know you guys probably think practice is ‘I’m going to practice until I get it right.’ I think practice is you practice so much you can’t get it wrong. “So for me there’s never a time for guys to lose their cool. I think those are selfish decisions that are emotions decisions that don’t really help your team. And if you get into the habit of doing that, then you are more apt to doing it in the game because a guy gets under your skin and the next thing you know you throw a punch.”
Saban has been at this game a long time, and had a couple of examples. The first was in his first year as a coach, a graduate assistant a year out of playing for Kent State. The Golden Flashes were going for a second straight MAC championship and seemed to have the game in hand when a Kent State player threw a punch. That led to a first down which led to a touchdown and a loss for Kent State.
In the Paul Bryant Era at Alabama, most practice fights were quickly ended by coaches stepping in. But Bryant was not above sending a manager to the equipment room to fetch a couple of old pairs of boxing gloves. By the time they arrived and the players were strapped up, the emotions of the fight were over and the “boxing match” was mostly entertainment for the teammates with nothing approaching a knockout punch.
Saban saw a similar tactic when he was defensive coordinator under George Perles at Michigan State in the early 1980s.
Saban said, “We couldn’t have a pIay without a fight. There was a fight every play. We couldn’t even have practice. So he was looking for a solution and he got Everlast championship boxing gloves and put them on a table at the 50-yard line. So if you got in a fight, we’d stop practice, took the helmet off, put the gloves on. Everybody got to watch the fight. It was so embarrassing for the guys that had to fight, they didn’t even want to fight. They wouldn’t even fight when everybody rounded up to see them fight. So that sort of ended the fighting.
“So different people handle it different ways. That wouldn’t be my way of doing it. We haven’t had a big issue with that. Our guys do a pretty good job of that. But I don’t think it’s a habit that you want to create in practice.”