The man at the top of arguably the largest program in college football doesn't think anyone should play the game -- not in in its fullest form, at least -- until they become a teenager.
“If I was czar, I would eliminate tackle football until the age of 13,” Smith said in an interview with the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “I would be your worst enemy to the pee wee league. I don’t think anybody should be playing tackle football until they’re 13 years old. You learn all the requisite athletic skills that you need to learn through flag football.”
Smith argued flag could and should be a growth avenue to be embraced at the highest-level of tackle football.
Tackle participation has dropped nation wide, falling 10 percent over the previous decade.
To help bridge that gap, flag could be treated as 11-man football's greatest outreach arm. For families who never have any intention of letting their sons play tackle, flag can still be an introduction to the game, deepening their son's (or daughter's) understanding and developing a lifelong relationship with the sport -- even at arm's length.
And to Smith, a defensive end on Notre Dame's 1973 national championship team and later a Fighting Irish assistant, flag is the proper on-ramp for players who do plan on buckling a chin strap in their middle and high school years.
“(A)t the end of the day, how many of (the linemen) couldn’t be in other sports if they were provided the opportunity?” he continued. “And just because a kid is big doesn’t mean they can’t run a route (in flag football) and help their athleticism. I’m just a big believer in flag football as an alternative to the contact because you could teach kids how to tackle later in life.”