The “Oklahoma Drill” is as divisive as it is dangerous

The “Oklahoma Drill” is as divisive as it is dangerous
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It’s been 70 years since Bud Wilkinson invented the Oklahoma Drill. Like many things created that long ago, people will argue that it is no longer relevant. However, some still hold the opinion that it is an important rite of passage in the game of football. With all that we know about the inherent risks attached to the drill, it is still as divisive as it is dangerous.

The most powerful force in the game of football, the NFL, banned the Oklahoma Drill from the league back in May. Despite being as out of touch with the athletes they represent as any other organisation in the world, even the NCAA are in discussion to ban the drill from college football. Why, then is it so divisive?

Let’s start with what the drill is, and what makes it so dangerous.

Back in 1947, new Oklahoma head coach Bud Wilkinson invented the drill. It basically consisted of a corridor being formed using blocking bags. The bags would be set out in a way that gave a 3 foot wide, 9 foot long channel. Two players would be placed in the channel. At around a distance of 3 yards apart, facing each other, they would initiate contact on the sound of a whistle. Head to head contact. The “winner” of this contest would be the player who knocked his opponent to the ground first. Alternatively, “winning” could be achieved by driving your opponent out of the corridor.

In a game that signified the ultimate in physical toughness, the drill was designed to discover if young men were tough enough to compete.

We know now, what the devastating impact of these head to head collisions can be.

The NFL, the NFLPA, and the NCAA are all trying to find ways to make the game safer for players. They understand that eliminating head to head contact in the sport is a major component of this. Concussions suffered in these collisions are ruining the futures of young men. The game is no longer about sheer brutality. It’s an appreciation of the skill set of these athletes while maintaining a tough edge. Fans of the sport want to see the best players on the field, not sidelined by injury.

This is the reason the NFL has moved to ban the drill. It is outdated. In all fairness, it hasn’t been common practice at the top level of the sport for a number of years. It was most recently used in 2018. As the new Detroit Lions head coach, Matt Patricia used it during his opening practices as a way to lay down a marker of what he wanted to see from his players. Other than that, it has only been used fleetingly since the early 2010’s.

It is, however, still prevalent in college football.

This is where the subject is so divisive. It came to light in the recent Southeastern Conference (SEC) coaches meeting. A number of coaches were asked for comment on the drill, in light of the NFL banning it. There were many different opinions on the matter, and they seemed to show a split between more modern coaching thinking and some of the “old school” coaches.

Georgia head coach, Kirby Smart, led the way when he said “I don’t see it culturally bonding to put two men 10 yards apart and ram them.”

His comments were particularly apt when you consider that football is considered a brotherhood, like family.

“I don’t know how it makes you a better football player” was the opinion of Tennessee Volunteers head coach, Jeremy Pruitt.

Again, particularly apt when you consider that all the time spent practicing is intended to make you better at the game. Practice makes permanent.

However, one coach in particular takes a very different view point.

Whilst acknowledging the need for safety in football, South Carolina Gamecocks head coach, Will Muschamp, believes the drill is still greatly relevant in the game.

“It’s a drill that teaches offensively to finish a block, to get your hands inside, to play with pad level, to do all the basic fundamentals you do on every single snap in a football game” he told The State “Defensively, same thing. Great pad level, great explosion. Teaches you to get off a block and make a tackle. It teaches a running back to finish a run, to run through contact. The basic fundamentals of what you would say happens on every single football play goes into that drill.”

It’s his next, final, statement that shows the difference in mindset that divides opinion on the drill. It is very much a case of what you believe defines football as a sport.

“It’s man-on-man, and lining up and whipping somebody’s ass. That’s what it all comes down to.”

There are many variations of the drill.

At Louisiana State University (LSU) they run the “Big Cat Drill”. When Pruitt arrived at Tennessee they ran the “Bull in the Ring”. South Carolina have their own version of the drill called “The Cock Drill”. Whilst at the NFL UK media day at the new Tottenham Stadium, I had the opportunity to ask former Gamecock, and current Houston Texan, Johnathan Joseph, for his view on the drill.

“It’s probably the dumbest drill that has nothing to do with football, ever, honestly. When I was a kid back then, that was the time we were in. It was all about how hard you could hit somebody. As I became a parent, and got a little older, I started saying “I don’t want my kid doing no Oklahoma drill” because I just don’t see how that translates to football.”

Joseph goes on to make another interesting point where the drill is concerned. At a time when we should be encouraging kids to play sport, the drill can have completely the opposite effect.

“It’s a way for kids to get concussions and at the same time, take a kid and make him terrified of the game of football. You have a lot of young kids, and they go out there and get in those drills, get banged up the first couple times and never want to go out there and play football again. So, I definitely think it’s something that we can get away from football.”

The NFL banning the drill is a step in the right direction. However, for as long as it isn’t outlawed in college football, it will remain as a dangerous and divisive issue.

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