The driving force behind the 10-second rule: Bret Bielema
House of Cards is one of my favorite shows. I think it's amazing television.
For those of you who haven't seen it (and considering it airs exclusively on Netflix, that's the vast majority of you) here's House of Cards in a nutshell: Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a Congressman from South Carolina that ruthlessly outworks and outmaneuvers his rivals in an effort to arrange Washington's political chessboard in an effort to serve his most important constituent: himself. Underwood is a master at playing people right in front of their faces without them even suspecting they've been played.
With season two of House of Cards debuting tomorrow, I've been thinking about Underwood a lot lately. It turns out Underwood has a college football counterpart, and his name is Bret Bielema.
The Arkansas head coach is all-in against the tempo offenses that have engulfed the sport in the past two years. Wednesday's proposed rule change has been dubbed by some as the Saban-Bielema Rule, but Bielema has beaten the drum harder than anyone.
He proposed a 15-second substitution period after every first down to the NCAA last June. "Not to get on the coattails of some of the other coaches, there is a lot of truth that the way offensive philosophies are driven now, there's times where you can't get a defensive substitution in for 8, 10, 12 play drives," Bielema said at the time. "That has an effect on safety of that student-athlete, especially the bigger defensive linemen, that is really real."
He was at it again during SEC media days in July. "All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break," he said. "You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15. If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that's my fault. I can't do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in whether I'm on offense or defense.
"The problem that people have is you look at it just from an offensive or defensive point of view. I'm looking at it from a head coach's point of view, that the personal well-being and safety of my players is paramount."
Like a Capitol Hill veteran, Bielema has framed his war against tempo offenses as a safety issue. Player safety is the "our children are the future" issue of college football, partly because it is an important issue, and partly because no one can disagree with it without risking political suicide. And Bielema has been very good about transitioning the conversation to his version of player safety, a version that just so happens to benefit him competitively.
Bielema has built his career on his brand of ground-and-pound football, and anything that slows down the wave of tempo offenses - on the field and in recruiting - is good for him. The rest of the SEC is getting faster by the year, but morphing to match everyone else is not a realistic option for Bielema. He's dug in. So he has to change the rules. In the adapt-or-die nature of college football, this is his path to survival.
Fast forward to Monday. Arkansas held a Monday morning press conference to introduce new defensive coordinator Robb Smith. The press conference was in the morning because Bielema had a flight to catch.
Bielema on early Smith presser:"I have a plane to catch. (NCAA) rules committee meeting in Indy that takes place the next three days."— Thomas Murphy (@TomMurphyADG) February 10, 2014
Hold on a minute. There are two FBS coaches with voting privileges on the NCAA's football rules committee , Air Force's Troy Calhoun and Louisiana-Monroe's Todd Berry. Bielema was in Indianapolis purportedly to represent the interests of the AFCA.
Let's recap what we have here. A coach that's submitted legislation before and has been outspoken about formatting the game to fit his style - Arkansas was 118th in total plays in 2013 - is not on the rules committee but manages to get a seat behind closed doors with the committee.
So who was Bielema ultimately stumping for in Indianapolis?
Cincinnati's Tommy Tuberville said about pace-of-play proposal: "This came out of left." Said it was never discussed at AFCA. Not for it.— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) February 13, 2014
Voila. Bielema's master plan worked.
Can confirm Nick Saban & Bret Bielema were in the room (but not voters) for the rules committee discussion that produced 10-second proposal.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) February 13, 2014
The NCAA Football Rules Committee formally recommended assessing a five-yard penalty for any team that snaps the ball before the 29-second mark on the play clock on all snaps except in the final two minutes of each half.
The rule is still a ways away from formal adoption, but this was Bielema's Frank Underwood moment. In a world that was bending away from his worldview, Bielema campaigned and lobbied to bend it back. For the coach of a 3-9 team, this was the only move he had to play. And, so far, he's played it to perfection.