Calling an audible: Changes for Dartmouth football

by Baily Deeter | 10/26/18 2:40am

At a college that prides itself on being on the cutting edge, it’s only natural that the Dartmouth football program fosters a culture that stands out from the rest. In the last decade, head coach Buddy Teevens ’79 has implemented multiple changes to benefit his team on and off the field.

Teevens emphasizes multiple critical innovations and bold choices that the Big Green has made to improve safety, productivity and fairness. These include the elimination of live tackling in practice, the adoption of virtual reality technology outside of practice and the hiring of Division I college football’s first full-time female coach. So far this year, these changes have worked to perfection. As of Homecoming Week, the Big Green stands at 6-0 and has won 14 of its last 16 games since the beginning of the 2017 season.

The first of these changes was the elimination of live tackling in practice. With football being such a physical sport, it is common for teams to tackle extensively during practice to prepare for the intensity of a game.

However, about eight years ago, Teevens decided that the team would no longer employ live tackling during team practices. Dartmouth was the first team in all of college or professional football to make this change and is still, to Teevens’ knowledge, the only team to have completely eliminated tackling in all practices.

Teevens’ decision stemmed largely from a desire to limit concussions. He cited a concussion study that determined that multiple former NFL players suffered from a football-induced brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which causes symptoms of cognitive dysfunction similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Initially, the team struggled to simulate live-game action because they were forced to tackle inanimate objects. After failed experiments pulling tackling dummies along on golf carts and ropes, the team came up with the solution of a mobile tackling device, known as a “Mobile Virtual Player” or “MVP”. The device was developed by Dartmouth graduate students and Thayer School of Engineering graduate professor John Currier.

The mobile tackling devices are built to resemble an actual football player; they are six feet tall, 190 pounds and complete the 40-yard dash in a stellar 4.7 seconds. Most importantly, they can take an unlimited number of hits, allowing the team to practice tackling more frequently.

“Our guys are more efficient and technically-sound ... because they [tackle] probably more than anyone in the country,” Teevens said. “I consider ourselves to be the best tackling team in the Ivy League.”

The on-field results certainly back up Teevens’ assertion. Dartmouth’s defense has allowed the fewest yards of any of the 125 teams in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. Safety Kyran McKinney-Crudden ’19, who has the second most total tackles on the team for the 2018 season, attributes much of the team’s defensive success to its techniques in practice.

“We really break down how to make a [sound] tackle as opposed to just running around like crazy,” McKinney-Crudden said. “I think it’s actually harder to tackle the MVP than a live player because [the MVP can change direction faster], which makes it easier to tackle an actual person.”

The MVPs have become popular across multiple levels of football. According to Teevens, 18 NFL teams are using them, as well as approximately 70 colleges and numerous high schools, indicating that teams are beginning to limit live tackling for technical and safety purposes. Other teams have been hesitant to officially eliminate live tackling, but Teevens never practices it, even during the offseason.

“I don’t tackle in the spring and the preseason, which [college football coaches call] ‘concussion season’ because the greatest number occur in those time frames,” Teevens said. “Our numbers of head injuries and concussive hits dropped; we really don’t have many concussions, if any.”

On top of utilizing the MVPs for contact in practice, the team has also adopted other key technology that players can use to their advantage outside of practice. Dartmouth brought in virtual reality technology called STRIVR to simulate in-game scenarios from the confines of a player’s dorm room.

“You can replicate plays, pressures and different looks an opponent will run, and [you can] react in real time,” Teevens said. “You’re basically training your vision.”

STRIVR is used by seven NFL teams and many major college football programs, including second-ranked Clemson University. The Big Green, the only Ivy League squad to use the technology, has placed a unique emphasis on STRIVR. Quarterback Jack Heneghan ’18, who spent the summer on the San Francisco 49ers’ preseason roster and had a stellar performance in the NFL team’s final preseason game, remains an ardent supporter of the technology.

“STRIVR helped me improve my game even when I wasn’t taking physical reps and [it] helped me better prepare for games once I started to play a bigger role on the team,” Heneghan said. “If Dartmouth didn’t have STRIVR, I don’t think I would have had the chance to keep playing football after college.”

The aforementioned technological changes have brought attention to the Big Green in the past few years, but the team’s latest splash may be its most significant. In September, Dartmouth hired Callie Brownson as its offensive quality control coach, making her the first full-time female college football coach.

Brownson had spent her previous few years playing in women’s football leagues, and she interned for the New York Jets in the summer of 2017 before working at the Manning Passing Academy this past summer. Multiple women were asked to coach at the camp, but Brownson’s resume immediately set her apart.

“Callie stood out organizationally; she had meticulous preparation and detail about what she wanted to do,” Teevens said.

Teevens got to know the female coaches over the course of the camp, which inspired him to create internship positions for women for the beginning of Dartmouth’s football season; Brownson was chosen to be one of the interns.

Soon afterward, Teevens happened to have an opening in his staff, and Brownson stood out enough to receive consideration for the role. As Teevens considered hiring Brownson, a group of receivers approached him and asked if he would consider hiring her to fill the staff opening.

“I thought this was a supreme recommendation,” Teevens said. “I didn’t know [that no other college team] had hired a woman. What I knew was [that] she was a good coach, she was knowledgeable, she was passionate and she communicated effectively. Those are all the qualities I look for when hiring a coach.”

Brownson has loved the job so far, in large part due to her broad role as a quality control coach.

“My job is all-inclusive in so many different departments; I do a lot of operations and player personnel stuff as well as handling my job as a coach,” Brownson said.

While she’s honored to be the first female full-time college football coach, Brownson isn’t hoping for any special treatment.

“Coach Teevens didn’t hire a female, he hired a coach,” she said. “The expectations on me to do my job are the same.”

While Brownson was able to earn her current job and the support of the players, she is aware of the difficulty for women to break into a largely-male dominated industry.

“It’s hard to be competitive when, no matter what your knowledge is, a lot of the men you’re going up against have been around ... for a lot longer than you have,” Brownson said. “I want there to be no hesitation and no doubt in a coach’s mind that female coaches can contribute. This is all about creating a positive example and a positive blueprint that [having a woman on a coaching staff] works and helps.”

Teevens is optimistic that this hire will provide more opportunities for women in the future.

“My hope is that people will emulate the internship program,” Teevens said. “If we can help women access information they may not have access to, they [can] make football a safer and more technically sound sport.”

While it is difficult to attribute a team’s success or failure to any one factor, the football team’s changes certainly have had no ill effect on the team’s performance this season. More importantly, however, the football team’s changes can help to pioneer a shift in the culture of football as a whole, creating a safer and more inclusive sport that can withstand the test of time.