The sideline is often the worst place to watch a football game. Even for the head coach standing front and center, getting a good look at what is happening on the field can be difficult.
Behind the coach can be 100 players and dozens of assistants and staffers packed into an area 50 yards long, all zipping from play to play.
How is a coach supposed to look for injuries in all that activity, and still run his team? With plenty of help.
Michigan’s athletic director apologized Tuesday after quarterback Shane Morris was allowed to play after taking a late hit that left him wobbly. Morris, who also had a sprained ankle, stayed in the game for one more play after the big hit. The school said athletic trainers did not test him for a concussion because they didn’t see the late hit. Head coach Brady Hoke allowed Morris to go back into the game for one play before he was finally tested for a concussion.
The situation has raised questions about Michigan’s decision-making process and about whose responsibility it is to be looking for injuries amid chaos on the field.
All major college football programs have athletic trainers and team doctors on the sideline, along with a group of student assistants. Assistant coaches are also told to be on alert for injuries.
While coaches are expected to be aware of their players, for the medical staff, it’s the top priority.
“Our trainers and doctors are looking at the game at a whole different perspective than I am,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
Some programs rely on more than just the medical staff. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said his head athletic trainer, Rob Hunt, uses student trainers as spotters to watch the field for injured players.
Between athletic trainers, doctors and student assistants, most big-time college football programs will have around 20 people on the sideline during games who are in some way part of a medical staff.
At a Clemson football game, the Tigers will have seven full-time athletic trainers and doctors on the sideline, plus another 15 student assistants.
“We have a monstrous medical staff. We’ve got doctors for doctors,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Typically, when there is a player being treated for an injury during a game that could compromise his availability, the head trainer communicates directly to the head coach. The same rule applies when a player is cleared to return to action.
“When and if the player can come back in the game, the head coach is the first person to know,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said.
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said the flow of information should be immediate and constant.
“‘He’s down with this, you don’t have him for at least a series, it might be longer’ or ‘He’s down with this, you don’t have him at least to the half, I’ll let you know at halftime,’ or ‘He’s got this, he’s done.’ That way, I can tell the coordinators on the headsets that, ‘Hey, you don’t have him for at least this. Plan you don’t have him for the rest of the game, I’ll let you know when he’s back,'” Clawson said.
Doctors who work with Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin wear earpieces on the sideline to help that communication.
Hoke is one of the few head coaches who does not wear a headset on the sideline. Sumlin said at times he finds out through the headset if a player is being taken to the locker room.
At Michigan, the Morris situation was complicated when quarterback Devin Gardner had his helmet come off during a play and by rule had to miss the next play. Morris re-entered and handed the ball off to a running back. Hoke said there was some confusion about whether Michigan could use a timeout to keep Gardner in the game and in that time Morris went back on the field.
Purdue coach Darrell Hazel said what happened at Michigan got him and his staff thinking about what they might do in a similar situation. Hazel said they planned to have receiver Bilal Marshall prepared to take an emergency snap.
And every coach says that when it comes to deciding on whether a player can play, that is not their call.
“Our trainers and our doctors control who goes back in the game,” Kelly said. “So it’s out of the hands of assistant coaches and the head coach as to who goes back in the game.”
AP sports writers Kristie Rieken in College Station, Texas; Joedy McCreary in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Tom Coyne in South Bend, Indiana, Eric Olson in Lincoln, Nebraska; and Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, Suth Carolina; and AP freelance writer Jim Johnson in West Lafayette, Indiana, contributed.
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