By Bill Bradley, contributing editor
The Pac-12 Conference has been at the forefront of safety in college football in recent years. The league adopted strict full-contact practice guidelines last year -- no more than two contact practices a week during the season and postseason, and a limit of four contact practices a week during the preseason -- which the NCAA is considering for all of its membership.
With a similar eye on player health and safety, the Pac-12 became one of the first major college football conferences to endorse the Heads Up Football program two years ago. Woodie Dixon, who formerly served as the general counsel for the Kansas City Chiefs, is the senior vice president for business affairs for the Pac-12. He is credited with spearheading the partnership with USA Football.
As part of USA Football Month, Dixon talked with NFL Evolution recently about why Pac-12 officials thought it was important to endorse Heads Up Football, what their coaches are doing to promote the program and how the "role model" is important to the league.
Why did the Pac-12 become one of the first college conferences to buy into the Heads Up Football program?
We wanted to be cutting edge (in player safety). Part of that process was that Heads Up was a good program that went that way. It helped us getting to a bigger part of the youth movement in football and that was critical for us. ... The idea of getting a safer, better playing environment for people across the board was something we wanted to be associated with. We have a few coaches -- Jim Mora of UCLA and David Shaw at Stanford -- that have been a part of Heads Up Football and they wanted us to do the same. It was a natural fit.
How has the program been added to schools around the conference?
Every one of our coaches have done multiple (public service announcement videos). They did them on media day (earlier this month) again for our third year now. ... We run them on our school websites. We run them at games. We run them on our Pac-12 Networks and the conference websites.
Are the Pac-12 coaches teaching the Head Up program to their student-athletes?
I don't think they're doing the actual program, but they are teaching the Head Up techniques, like tackling.
Was there any aspect in particular of Heads Up Football that appealed to the Pac-12?
I think it's all about connecting with the youth football players. Being in Pop Warner; being in junior high; being in high school. It's important to us that the coaches that are teaching these youth athletes know what they're talking about in tackling, knowing how to fit equipment, and know how to teach proper techniques. I think that's the key. I've got a 5-year-old that's going to play flag football for the first time. We've found that a lot of times these coaches are just people who are volunteering their time. No one knows if they actually have any history or background in coaching. ... When they go through the program, that says this person is a Heads Up certified coach. It at least gives you the understanding of what he knows or he doesn't know, so that's helpful.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott already was changing the league's practice protocols when the league adopted the USA Football program. Did this dovetail into Heads Up Football?
Yes. We were first conference to create contact rules that were different from the NCAA's. I think it all seams together as part of trying to be a safer environment for our student-athletes. The problem is so much of the science and medicine is still being learned and still unknown that you want to do the things that you think you can control. I think teaching players and young people to not use the crown of the helmet in tackling and have the head up when they tackle helps to make everyone understand how we want to make the game safer.
The Heads Up program was created mainly for youth and high school football players. Why was it so important for colleges to adopt it?
You hope that our guys know how to tackle at this level. But I think it's helpful to reiterate that fundamentals are the core of the game. The more time you spend on fundamentals and the core way to tackle, the safer you'll be. Also, it's a role model perspective. If you're 13 and you're playing football, you're trying to be like the guys you see on Saturday and the guys you see on Sunday. If those guys aren't doing it right, then those kids will notice. ... The game has changed. Being a safety now is about being fast and nimble, covering ground and wrapping people up. I think a couple of years ago being a safety was about blowing guys up. It's important that we change for safety at our level so that it can filter its way down.
When do you think the Pac-12 will start seeing recruits that follow the Heads Up Football program bubble up into college football?
It happens quickly. I think the more schools that Heads Up Football can get into on a younger level, those guys will come to college already knowing those fundamentals and we won't have to try to teach them something new. If you talk to some of our older players, they think they're at a point where they're coming to college and they're having to re-learn how to play football (because of the safety emphasis). They were playing in high school with their head down. You can't do that at the college level. So I think that you get that style of play out of the high school game and it will move up (to college football) from there.