August 12, 2014

A Bad Experiment: The Year Without a Faceoff

College lacrosse grinded to a halt in 1979, when the NCAA eliminated faceoffs. Thirty-five years later, the debate rages on.

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thirty-five years ago, segments of the men's lacrosse world rallied for removing the part of the game equivalent to the jump ball in basketball. Lacrosse needed to be faster and could do without a lengthy midfield scrum ensuing after every goal, two players raking or clamping and pushing and shoving to determine possession.

"There was a lot of dancing around," Hall of Fame official Fred Eisenbrandt said of the faceoff. "The ball was in play, but out of play in a sense."

There were problems before it started, like players taking longer than the allotted 30 seconds to sub in and out of the game, cheating or gaining an advantage (however you want to phrase it) and using trick sticks.

A good faceoff man had too much importance, some said, like when then-Johns Hopkins freshman Ned Radebaugh won 20 of 22 faceoffs in the Blue Jays' 1978 NCAA championship game win over Cornell. That game drew 13,527 fans to Rutgers Stadium in New Jersey, a record at the time, and was broadcast by NBC. Lacrosse on TV was a new frontier, eliciting thoughts of expanding what was a niche sport to one with mass appeal. Could the game be better?

The similarities to today are striking, except for one big difference. It was 1979, the year without a faceoff.

***

Hall of Fame midfielder Dave Huntley started possessions for the Blue Jays during an undefeated 1979 national championship season. (US Lacrosse)

It happened. It really did. For one season only — and exclusively at the NCAA level — after a goal, the team that was scored on got possession automatically at midfield. A circle with a five-yard radius was drawn around an X at the center of the field, and a player from the scored upon team started with the ball inside the half-circle on his end. He couldn't go backward into the defensive zone, as not to delay the game, and no one from the defense could enter the circle, even after the whistle to restart play.

What happened next was largely a non-event.

"It wasn't very exciting. You kind of walked the ball into play, almost like bringing the ball up in basketball," said Dave Huntley, the 1979 USILA Midfielder of the Year at Johns Hopkins and deputized possession starter for the Blue Jays that season, and current Team Canada general manager. "I don't ever recall being double-teamed there. Nothing really happened. The idea that teams would play guys 50 yards from the goal was a bad bet."

Eliminating the faceoff also led to more substitutions and grinded game flow to a halt. With a team knowing beforehand it would play defense or offense, entire units were swapped in and out prior to play starting at midfield, thus leading to the same thing happening in the opposite direction after goals, saves or when the ball went out of bounds and a horn blew.

It may have shortened games from the roughly two-plus hour average cited at the time, as was the intent, but a game without a faceoff was largely met with disapproval. It didn't look good. Johns Hopkins fans, for example, in an amended version of the post-goal chant that carries on today at Baltimore's Homewood Field, yelled "One! Two! Three! ... We want more... faceoffs!"

A Sports Illustrated article from April 1979 declared, "The no-faceoff rule has shortened the game, but speeded up the controversy."

Several organizations opted to retain the faceoff that same season, including high school leagues in Maryland and on Long Island, and the U.S. club lacrosse association, which went its own route to speed up play by replacing the substitution horn with on-the-fly subs. It was short-lived at the college level as well. The NCAA rules committee brought the faceoff back in 1980. When that decision was announced toward the end of the 1979 season at Homewood, the crowd erupted in cheers.

"It was weird," said current Denver coach Bill Tierney, the Hall of Famer who was then just getting started as high school coach on Long Island. "It was just weird. It was an experiment that went awry."

***

The decision stemmed from a survey mailed to college coaches the season before. Sixty-two percent of coaches who responded voted to do away with the faceoff.

But there was no clear majority on where the ball should be put back in play. The area behind the goal got the most votes and the midfield the fewest. The USILA rules and equipment committee, chaired at the time by Washington and Lee coach Jack Emmer, discussed the results and went with a compromise at the restraining line, which was their recommendation to the NCAA rules committee when it convened in June 1978.

Fearing that weak teams would be unable to clear the ball from their own end against quality opponents, the NCAA committee chose to put the ball at midfield after a goal.

Between them, the rules committees deliberated for more than 15 hours on the issue, according to one of the USILA advisory rules committee members, Caleb R. Kelly Jr., who wrote about the initial decision in the summer 1978 edition of Lacrosse Magazine in an article titled, "Off With The Face-Off."

"Whether this decision will benefit the game of lacrosse only history can decide," Kelly wrote. "Reason dictates that the lacrosse game will be speeded up by these innovations. So, those of you who strongly oppose elimination of faceoff after goals, bear with this change for one season of experimentation."

***

Plenty of people opposed. Then-UMBC athletic director Dick Watts and Navy coach Dick Szlasa organized an effort to overturn the rule, calling themselves "saviors of the faceoff."

Szalsa accurately predicted the rampant offensive and defensive substitutions that came, and said, "There are unique phases of the game that make it great. If you were to ask what part of the game spectators enjoyed at the Hopkins-Cornell game, it would be the faceoff."

Both called for a revote of USILA members before the season.

"I am convinced this rule will be detrimental to the future of lacrosse," Watts said.

The sticking point for most was where the ball was put back in play, and the interrupted flow of the game. Goalies stalled with the ball after a save until all of the proper offensive parts shuttled onto the field. Fast breaks diminished, and the game's momentum swings were gone. How would a team trailing by few goals late in the game have a chance to make a comeback?

"If the people who voted against the faceoff had known where the ball was going to be placed, most of them wouldn't have voted the way they did," Maryland coach Bud Beardmore told SI.

At the annual lacrosse convention in December before the 1979 season, many coaches pleaded to end the change before it happened. They took straw polls.

"You couldn't find the guys who voted to take it out," Emmer said.

The NCAA rule book table of contents in 1979 with "elimination of the faceoff after scoring of goals," one of the major topics.

The NCAA committee — chaired by Bowdoin coach Mort LaPointe and including Bowling Green coach Mickey Cochrane, Virginia athletic director Gene Corrigan, Adelphi coach Paul Doherty, Hobart coach Jerry Schmidt and Johns Hopkins athletic director Bob Scott — which normally met once a year, held a special meeting after the convention to discuss reversing course. But they upheld the rule as written.

All these years later, Emmer said the biggest mistake was the decision to start play at midfield after a goal, but not the removal of the faceoff altogether.

"If we put the ball in on the back line after a goal, like in basketball, with no horn, and just went with it, I'm confident it would have worked out," he said. "My opinion is it's very difficult to take the faceoff out of the game. It's a traditional part of the game, and creates a fast break, which is exciting. But it's also been extremely frustrating to officiate. Every year, we tweak the faceoff a little bit to do what may be better... If they just take the ball out on the back line, even if they take it out from the goal, have another ball available, I think it would speed up the game and create a two-way middie. I do think eventually our game will come to this conclusion."

***

There were limited exceptions to the rule, relative to certain penalties, and a faceoff still started the game, each quarter and overtime. But otherwise, teams needed to rely on their half-field efficiency.

For conspiracy theorists, if Radebaugh's faceoff proficiency for Johns Hopkins had any influence on the voting base of opposing coaches, it didn't work out for them. The Blue Jays won their third straight NCAA championship in 1979, going undefeated at 13-0 with an average margin of victory of 8.3 goals.

"If somebody wanted to say, 'Let's change a single rule to ensure that the Hopkins team in 1979 goes 13-0, and doubles the score on everybody we play,' that would have been the rule change," Huntley said. "It effectively ensured that the other team would have to play 6-on-6 on us. They would never be able to put any runs together. We were really good in the half-field. By eliminating any chance for possession advantage, it just wasn't going to work well for people. It kind of made our season a lot easier."

Huntley led Johns Hopkins with 22 goals that season. "In some ways, by scoring goals it took away from your playing time in a bizarre way," he said.

Steve Stenersen, now the president and CEO of US Lacrosse, was a high school senior at St. Paul's (Md.) and a midfielder who faced off in 1978. He was headed to play at North Carolina. After getting injured during a fall scrimmage, he saw limited time on the Tar Heels' extra-man offense that spring. But he said the year without faceoffs was awkward, strange and comical at times.

"It completely impeded the flow of the game, it seemed," Stenersen said. "There was something considerably missing from the game. It was incredibly orchestrated and awkward. I don't know that anybody liked it."

An unintended long-term consequence of the year with no faceoffs was the evolution of long-stick midfielders. Teams started putting six long poles on the field, a trend that continued even when the NCAA reinstated faceoffs the following year. Punch in the 1980 NCAA championship game between Johns Hopkins and Virginia on YouTube, and you'll see it. As an assistant at Loyola in 1983, Huntley recalled scouting a Rutgers-Penn game and counting 18 poles on the field, nine on each side.

Eventually, in 1986 the NCAA limited the amount of long sticks on the field to five per team, and then to four in 1989. For every action, a reaction.

***

The great faceoff debate has raged on, bridging two centuries. Most publicly, Syracuse coach John Desko, whose team has struggled to win faceoffs in recent years, said before the start of the 2014 season, "I don't mean it as a knock, but you probably have the team's worst lacrosse player being the most important player on the field. Rarely do you see a faceoff guy stay out there and play and offense. Rarely do you see a faceoff guy stay out there on defense. You have a guy that doesn't play offense or defense, but may have the most effect on the outcome of a game."

Faceoff men predictably don't see it that way.

"I could see why those coaches say that, too, because [faceoffs] make big changes in games," Maryland's Charlie Raffa said. "It's all on one person's shoulders, so it's a big role to play. For me, obviously I like it the way it is, but everybody has their own opinion whether they want to have it or not."

Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said after the Irish's two-goal loss to Duke in the NCAA championship game that he thought Blue Devils faceoff man Brendan Fowler went early on a key faceoff in the waning moments with Duke ahead by one. Critics say it's a common problem with faceoff specialists who are so good, it looks like they're ahead of the whistle, even if they're not. Others bemoan techniques that force rules tweaks or considerations every two-year NCAA cycle.

The debate has come a long way since a picture of former Delaware All-American Alex Smith palming a ball during a 2007 regular season game led to that type of action eventually being ruled an unsportsmanlike penalty. Three "early" violations per half result in a man-down penalty, a rule implemented two years ago. The NCAA men's rules committee meets this week to discuss changes for 2015.

"As much as I hate all the cheating that goes on with the faceoff game, I still think that it's an exciting part of the game," said Denver's Tierney, who will sit in on the meetings as the Intercollegiate Men's Lacrosse Coaches Association's liaison to the NCAA rules committee. "You can get some momentum from it. I just wish we could clean it up. I wish it a little easier for the refs and wasn't so much cheating going on. All the coaches know their kids are cheating and everyone allows it."

In the final seconds of this year's title game, after a timeout with Duke in possession, the Blue Devils' speedy attackman Jordan Wolf won a footrace to an empty goal off a restart to provide the final margin. If it were 1979, without a faceoff, it probably would have looked very similar. Since Notre Dame midfielder Sergio Perkovic scored to pull the Irish within 10-9, Duke would have started with the ball with 49 seconds to go. Pencil 6-foot-4, 240-pound midfielder Myles Jones in for starting play in the center circle, and the ball making its way to Wolf, who could then kill time or go to the goal.

Which brings us to the next big hot topic: the shot clock.

A version of this article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse today to begin your subscription!


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