Troy Calhoun is willing to take measures to slow down college offenses, but only if he sees hard evidence that defending an up-tempo offense creates genuine health risks.
Six days after asserting a rule change would be made "to enhance student-athlete safety by guaranteeing a small window for both teams to substitute," the Air Force coach and NCAA Football Rules Committee chairman backtracked in a conference call with reporters, saying he has seen no such data.
"The key is this: I think the only way that it can or it should become a rule is if it is indeed a safety concern. And that can't be something that's a speculation or a possibility," Calhoun said Tuesday afternoon. "I think there's got to be something empirical there where you realize, 'Yep, this truly is a health matter' in terms of not being able to get a defensive player off the field."
Calhoun hasn't seen such data because it doesn't exist, according to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, one of many hurry-up, no-huddle proponents who became outraged last week when the committee proposed a controversial rule aimed at slowing down such offensive schemes -- a measure allegedly intended to improve player safety.
"There's absolutely zero documented evidence that is hazardous on the pace of play, only opinions," Malzahn told reporters Tuesday.
The proposed rule would prevent offenses from snapping the ball within the first 10 seconds after the 40-second play clock resets, allowing a defense to substitute even if the offense does not. Alabama coach Nick Saban and Arkansas' Bret Bielema reportedly addressed Calhoun's committee last week, urging members to support such a measure because of player safety concerns.
Malzahn said that would be a "huge change" for teams like Auburn that use an up-tempo attack, and he is one of many coaches who claim the rule change would needlessly remove some of the competitive advantage that comes with operating at a high speed.
"It's just a complete rule change," Malzahn said. "It would change the dynamics of traditional football in a lot more ways than anyone would think, not just if you get behind by a couple touchdowns and it's late in the game and you couldn't properly come back, but the way you'd coach your quarterbacks. It would just change the dynamics of football."
The rule proposal will not go into effect unless passed March 6 by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which will discuss all of the committee's proposed changes. Coaches on either side of the discussion have until March 3 to comment or present any evidence that supports their safety claims.
"I think more than anything else, you just want to make certain that what are some facts you can lean on. And if there's some certainty that there's a concern, then yep, push it forward as a rule proposal," Calhoun said. "If it's not, and try to take the next 10 days or so and kind of what you gather from experts and they say, 'No, at this time it's only speculative,' then the rule should not get pushed up, should not be a rule because now it's not a safety concern."
The NCAA did not designate this as an offseason where rules changes could be made, with the exception being any that relate to player safety. Malzahn said he encouraged the committee chairman to table discussion over the rule until next offseason rather than make a possibly premature decision in two weeks.
"What I asked [Calhoun] to do was move this to next year, where it is a rule-change year, that we can hear both sides and have a healthy debate on moving forward with the rule."
Calhoun said the committee discussed several options, such as adding an extra timeout, that might help prevent player injuries by making it easier for defenses to substitute. He said a trainer from the U.S. Military Academy also addressed the committee regarding a variety of medical issues.
The heated reaction to the rule proposal convinced Calhoun that it would be advisable to have more widespread involvement with his committee, which includes six coaches and six administrators who represent all levels of NCAA football.
"I think what you learn, especially after going through this, is I think you need to have more and more coaches involved in terms of possibilities," Calhoun said. "Probably the other thing too is just, if it really is a safety matter, to have more medical people present too."