Gallaudet University went undefeated this year for the first time ever. Not since the Beatles told Pete Best to take a hike has firing the drummer paid off so quickly.
The Northeast D.C. school, renowned as the world’s only university for the deaf, possesses one of the oldest football programs in the country: Teams have been dressing out in Bison blue and gold since 1883. There haven’t been many gridiron glories at Gallaudet, particularly recently. In the mid-’90s, the program was demoted from NCAA Division III—where it once attained respectability by defeating such rivals as Georgetown and Marist College—to a sub-NCAA status called “club” level. And even at that lowly grade, the competition generally proved too stiff. Before the 2005 turnaround, there hadn’t been a winning season at Gallaudet in this decade, and years of Saturday-afternoon drubbings had occasionally prompted school administrators to consider dropping football altogether.
These days, however, everybody at Gallaudet is pointing to a return to D-III for the 2007 season. But even through the darkest days of the team’s club-football tenure, true Bison fans could still recite certain things about the Gallaudet program that set it apart from those at schools peopled with hearies.
Gallaudet, for example, gets credit as the birthplace of the football huddle. Legend holds that in the early 1890s, a Bison offensive player named Paul Hubbard grew weary of his team’s defensive players’ stealing his sign language while calling plays during practice. So Hubbard began asking his teammates to bunch up together while receiving instructions. Gallaudet also had other deaf schools on its regular-season schedule at that time, so Hubbard started making everybody come together during game time, too. Soon enough, everybody in the then-burgeoning college-football world was huddling up before each snap.
A more frequently noted trademark of Gallaudet football, however, is the sideline drum. The typical snap count for nondeaf teams is something along the lines of a combination of colors, numbers, and “hut!”s barked by a quarterback. But until recently for the Bison, offensive plays had long been triggered by the beating of a drum on the sideline at the line of scrimmage; it was pounded in measured beats by a Gallaudet assistant, who swung hard enough for players to feel the drum’s vibrations. The center would snap the ball to the quarterback after the number of drumbeats prescribed by the quarterback in the huddle.
During the 2005 season, losing wasn’t the only mainstay of Gallaudet football that was cast aside. The drum and huddle were gone, too.
“The first month I had the job, we got rid of both of them,” says first-year Bison head coach Ed Hottle. He shifted to a hurry-up offense, in which players go directly to the line of scrimmage after each play. The play calls were then made in sign language by quarterback Jason Coleman.
Hottle learned of the Gallaudet job from a posting on an NCAA Web site, just after coaching Calvert High School, in Prince Frederick, Md., to a 1-9 season in 2004. He had no college head-coaching experience when he took over the Gallaudet program, which was coming off a dismal 3-5 year of its own.
“I didn’t speak any sign language, either,” he says. “But I worked hard to pick it up fast.”
Hottle found even in the earliest days that the language barrier between him and his players was surmountable so long as he stuck to football. And he stresses that the idea to drastically overhaul Gallaudet’s offense—and flout the school’s gridiron tradition—came not from him but from his players. From Coleman, to be specific.
“Jason came to me, and said, ‘If you use the drum, I can’t read defenses and change the play,’” says Hottle. “I could understand that. Because with the drum, the snap count is fixed—that took away his ability to make any kind of play-calling adjustment based on what he sees in the defense. You’re basically stuck with whatever play you called. So I told him to go with it.”
Coleman, a senior, also told the coach he saw no need for huddling up anymore. He pointed out that Gallaudet doesn’t have any deaf teams on its schedule, so defenders wouldn’t be able to understand what instructions Coleman was giving his teammates any better than Hottle could on his first day on the job. And for a snap count, Hottle let Coleman and the center work out a silent count system, which relies on the sense of touch and a good ol’ hand-to-buttocks tap. Gallaudet offensive linemen, as defensive linemen have always done, just move with the snap.
“It doesn’t matter what I’m signing in front of the defense,” says Coleman via instant messaging. “They don’t know what I’m saying, unless they’re deaf. It’s an advantage.”
(Coleman confesses that he cracked up the team all season with imitations of the horrible signing technique Hottle initially showed. “He picked it up fast, though,” the quarterback adds.)
Coleman says that he and his teammates understand the special place the drum and huddle have in Gallaudet football but that nobody took any offense at the offensive transformation that took place in the program this season.
“We were aware Gallaudet does have a long football history,” he says. “We felt it was time to make history, and we did.”
The student body appears to be better-prepared for the school’s football resurgence than administrators are. The squad may not yet be Division III–caliber, but Gallaudet fans showed this year that their post-game-celebration skills are already of Rose Bowl quality. At the afterparty for the team’s homecoming game, in which Coleman led Gallaudet to a 35-21 comeback win over the Maritime College, State University of New York, students created a major ruckus at the Hyatt Regency downtown, with reports of revelers running through hallways, pulling fire alarms, and generally behaving as if they went to the University of Maryland.
And even though the season-ending, 51-0 blowout of University of North Carolina at Greensboro came on the road, students waited until the football players returned to join them in attacking the goalposts at Gallaudet’s Hotchkiss Field. The insurgents’ first sortie was rebuffed by school security, with help from D.C. police. But a night later, the students used dormitory fire alarms to draw law-enforcement attention away from the football field, then tore down the goalposts. (A charity flag-football game featuring congressmen and police officers at Gallaudet on Nov. 16 was played on a goalpost-free field.)
“Such behavior is not only offensive; it is completely out of order,” wrote school Provost Jane Fernandes in a letter to students about the Gallaudet Goalpost Massacre. Students responded by putting Fernandes’ picture on a T-shirt, along with the slogan “Know Thy Enemy.”
No punishments have yet been doled out, but several students alleged to have had a role in the football-related donnybrook have been ordered to appear before the school’s Judicial Board next semester. Gallaudet spokesperson Mercy Coogan says that the Hyatt Regency and Hotchkiss Field incidents are being taken seriously by the administration but that they will not affect the football program’s planned move to Division III status.
“We’re using this as an opportunity to discuss righteous behavior,” Coogan says, “on the part of athletes and others.”—