Why doesn't college football use helmet communication like the NFL? Inside a new system that could change that

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Why doesn't college football use helmet communication like the NFL? Inside a new system that could change that

David Shaw remembers what it’s like to talk to his quarterback out on the field.

As a Baltimore Ravens assistant from 2002 to ’05, he could speak to the QB through his headset and into the speakers in the helmet.

“I know what that feels like to not just call the play, but to also say, ‘Watch out for the corner blitz,’ and then call the play,” said Shaw, who has been Stanford’s head coach since 2011. “It’s invaluable.”

In the NFL, this is normal. The league has had one-way helmet communication since 1994. In 2008, the system expanded to add a defensive player.

Nearly three decades since the NFL first put a speaker in a helmet, college football still hasn’t followed suit.

“Most conversations have been in favor of adding helmet communication,” said Shaw, who sits on the NCAA’s football rules committee. “Most coaches are in favor of having this.”

For a long time, the concern was about the logistics and cost. The NFL is one organization of 32 teams owned by billionaires, while college football at the Football Bowl Subdivision level has 10 conferences and 131 teams. Implementing it has been considered too complicated or expensive. Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said he used headset communication at Arkansas in practices, where there aren’t limitations.

“I’ve been a big believer in it,” Bielema said. “When I went to the NFL, I saw it’s a great tool.”

But one company has come up with a plan and a system that works within the current coaching headsets — and it’s already run a successful trial run in a college football game.

CoachComm, the company that produces the coaching headsets for nearly all of Division I, has developed an additional helmet communication through the CoachComm system already in use. In late November, Grambling and Southern tested the system in their Bayou Classic matchup, and people involved described it as a success. National coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said the rules committee would approve a request for a conference that wants to test any helmet communication system league-wide.

So why hasn’t it happened? The SEC had conversations about it last spring, but there was disagreement among coaches, a source familiar with the conversations said. There’s also a concern about helmet liability and warranty. Sources in each Power 5 conference confirmed there have been brief discussions at some point in recent years in their leagues.

CoachComm’s new system, called Player X, works as part of the coaching headset system already in place, so the frequencies work together. The large box that controls frequencies includes a cue light at the top that can show everyone when the player communication system is on and when it’s not. Steve Shaw noted that, like the NFL, there would be a time limit around the play clock in which a coach could talk to a player, and it would automatically shut off at a certain point. The system was developed last year and shown off at the American Football Coaches Association convention in January.

“Our message to the industry today is we’re ready with a product that can deliver that voice and do what it needs to do,” said CoachComm owner Peter Amos.

CoachComm demonstrated its helmet communication system at the AFCA convention. (Chris Vannini / The Athletic)

Through their relationship with CoachComm, Grambling and Southern asked the rules committee last fall to allow the use of the Player X system for their rivalry game. It was approved, making it the first college football game to use helmet communication. Despite taking place in the Superdome in New Orleans, considered one of the toughest stadiums for consistent frequencies, both teams said it went off without a hitch.

“I’m not gonna lie, it was perfect,” Grambling quarterback Elijah Walker said. “It helped me be more of a coach on the field, get the play in faster and communicate better.”

College football uses up-tempo offenses more frequently than the NFL, and some wonder if helmet communication would speed up offenses even more. But defensive coaches see a value in the communication as well. It allows them to speed up their adjustments and alignments, instead of solely waiting for the offensive set first.

“You can make in-drive adjustments instead of waiting for them to come to the sideline,” said former Southern interim head coach Jason Rollins, who called in the defensive plays in the game. “It’s like a walkie-talkie, where you hold the button and you can talk. … I loved everything about it.”

A move to use it at the FBS level almost happened earlier. The SEC had conversations at its coaches meetings last spring about implementation. A source said former LSU head coach Ed Orgeron was one of the staunchest supporters for it, and several others were on board. There were concerns about conference vs. nonconference play, as in using headsets for some games but not others, especially when it came to the postseason.

Orgeron told the group that if the SEC went ahead with it, most other conferences would quickly follow. It’s similar to instant replay, which started in the Big Ten as an experiment in 2004. By 2005, nearly every FBS conference had implemented it, and it was codified in 2006.

Another concern among some SEC coaches wasn’t expressed publicly but has been suspected privately: Headsets would eliminate the ability to steal signals. The concept of stealing signals is an open secret in coaching, and some programs have elaborate operations. In a sport in which most rule changes benefit the offense, this could put the sides on the same level of an issue.

Told of that suspicion, David Shaw said it was comforting to hear someone admit that stealing signals exists. Bielema brought it up as well.

“There are certain places that put a premium on stealing signals, and that gets some people known as great play callers, but you can be a great play caller if you know what the other team is doing,” Shaw said. “For me, this is one of those balancing things. You might not be able to get all the information you want, now you have to call the game with some doubt and trust in your preparation and your players.”

One other issue is the helmet liability and warranty, something Steve Shaw has continually pointed to. The concern is if helmets are modified to fit the communication system, the liability or warranty could be voided, opening up potential issues in lawsuits for head injuries. The NFL has a players union and collective bargaining and a limit on the number of different helmets a team can use in a season. College football has no players union, and some schools use several different helmets in a season. One helmet manufacturer told The Athletic that modifying certain helmets is difficult, and there may not even be space to put it. (Both Grambling and Southern used Riddell helmets and received a waiver for their game.)

“The long pole in the tent on this is getting the helmet authorization from the manufacturers and making sure they meet all standards and are totally supportive,” Steve Shaw said. “That’s our big issue.”

Amos echoed a similar sentiment from CoachComm’s perspective.

“The barrier right now is the helmet manufacturers,” he said. “They are rightfully concerned about liability when you change the helmet. At the end of the day, they’re worried about who’s going to court. … It’s an odd situation. But on our side, we have the technology that works.”

The technology is now there for college football, and many coaches support it. Yet it’s not high on their agenda right now. Steve Shaw said the SEC and ACC seemed furthest along, but one source told The Athletic that it didn’t even come up at the last SEC head coaches meeting, as all the focus was on transfers and name, image and likeness. (In addition, Orgeron is no longer there to push for it.) An ACC source said there have been conversations but no movement.

It wasn’t long ago that topics like tablets and other technology rules were the major conversations in rules meetings. But now, other issues around sport have taken priority.

“The biggest hindrance I believe was COVID,” David Shaw said. “Technology was at the forefront of our conversations for multiple years. Then everyone got shut down and we were in survival mode. Now we’ve got transfer portals, NIL, so many things piled on each other.

“Technology was at the forefront of our conversations three or four years ago, and now we’re just starting to pick those things back up.”

It’s possible the development of CoachComm’s system and its relationship with so many schools and coaches could push the process forward again. David Shaw said perhaps there could be a test game in every conference to get the ball rolling. The pieces appear to be in place, but someone will need to take the first leap at the conference level.

“Now it’s just about fine-tuning it,” Shaw said. “There will be questions about providers, warranties and all those things to get worked out, but I think it’ll be a positive thing for college football.”

(Photo of David Shaw: Michael Wade / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)