Is college football ready to get out of the stone age with signals? Bowl trial run with helmet communication showing promise

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - OCTOBER 07: J.J. McCarthy #9 of the Michigan Wolverines warms up while head coach Jim Harbaugh looks on prior to the start of the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Huntington Bank Stadium on October 07, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Wolverines defeated the Golden Gophers 52-10. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Is a permanent helmet communication solution on the way in college football? (David Berding/Getty Images)

On Saturday night, college football history will be made.

When Utah and Northwestern meet in the Las Vegas Bowl at Allegiant Stadium, the competition will feature two technologies never before used simultaneously in a major college football game. Players and coaches will have the ability to use both smart tablets on the sideline and coach-to-player helmet communications on the field.

In fact, it is one of at least 14 bowl games featuring the use of one or both technologies in an experiment that many believe will result in permanent adoption.

Or, at least, that’s the hope.

“However we can get it passed, we need to get it passed,” said Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire, whose team became the first to use coach-to-player communications in its Independence Bowl win over Cal last weekend. That game did not feature the use of tablets. “We are hoping like crazy it gets passed for next year.”

In a campaign pushed to the forefront by the Michigan sign-stealing saga, college football is springing into the new year in technological style — finally.

Decades behind its professional football brethren in these technological advancements, the college game has resisted evolution mostly because of cost-containment reasons. But even before the NCAA’s investigation of Michigan emerged in October, college leaders had approved the use of these technologies during bowl season as a way to evaluate them for possible permanent use. They are not approved for College Football Playoff games.

Administrators, coaches and even players have spoken publicly in support of evolving play-signaling this year.

“Why would we not want to modernize sideline communication?” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips asked. “These are things that help the game and help players and coaches.”

So far, at least two bowl games have used tablets on the sideline and in the coach’s booth to review in-game video replays; one game — the Independence Bowl — has used helmet communications.

“We are looking forward to getting some really good feedback,” said Steve Shaw, NCAA coordinator of officials. “These two areas of technology are by far and away the thing the coaches talk about and want most.”

In approving the experimental trial, the NCAA Rules Committee created little to no rules around the use of the technologies, leaving the participating bowl teams to each agree on a set of rules.

In most cases, teams using tablets are outfitted with 10 total tablets: eight to use on the sideline and two in the coach’s booth. Tablets are designed with only one capability: to show video feeds of previous plays. The plays are uploaded to the tablet while connected through hardwire. Tablets cannot be taken into the locker room at halftime.

As for helmet communications, teams are taking different approaches.

In its bowl game against Cal, Texas Tech outfitted communication kits in eight helmets. Two on offense (the starting quarterback and backup quarterback) and six on defense — two inside linebackers and a safety and their backups. McGuire and his two coordinators were equipped with a radio pack connected to their waist and tied into their headsets. A simple push of a button opens the line of communication.

Will college football finally embrace helmet communication after experiments in bowl games? (Credit: Maryland Athletics)
Will college football finally embrace helmet communication after experiments in bowl games? (Credit: Maryland Athletics)

As many as three Tech defensive players on the field had capabilities to hear calls from the sideline. On offense, quarterback was the only position with the capabilities.

In its game against Auburn in the Music City Bowl, Maryland will equip six player helmets with the microphone device: three on offense and three on defense. Two offensive players will have the capabilities on the field at the same time: the quarterback and potentially an offensive lineman. The Terrapins will practice with the technology for two weeks before meeting the Tigers on Dec. 30 in Nashville.

Drew Hampton, Maryland’s director of football equipment, has been overseeing the coach-to-player communications operation in College Park. He spent the past 17 years working with the technology in the NFL, where it has been used since 1994.

“I knew it was going to come to college someday,” Hampton said. “This was the time to introduce the new technology.”

In the bowls in which the technology is permitted, both participating teams are opting in for the most part. However, there are exceptions. Maryland’s opponent, Auburn, is using only tablets and not the helmet communications system. In fact, no SEC team is using a helmet communications system in any bowl game, a league spokesman told Yahoo Sports. Auburn coaches agreed to permit Maryland to use the technology even though they will not.

There are concerns from some on overhauling a team’s play-calling system over a matter of days after having used sideline signage for the entire season, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said.

“That’s a half-measure,” Sankey told Yahoo Sports in November of the experimenting in bowls. “Either you get it done or not get it done. It’s difficult in a bowl game to all of the sudden vary, particularly with a technology that is in its first use.”

The SEC and Big Ten have led the push over the past several years to permanently implement such technologies into the college game. As far back as 2019, the SEC introduced a proposal for helmet communications after the technology worked so well with baseball (dugout-to-catcher communications). Over the summer, the Big Ten submitted a request to experiment with the technology this season in league games.

The NCAA Rules Committee denied the request but approved the bowl experiment. A.J. Edds, the Big Ten’s senior director overseeing football, is co-chair of the NCAA Rules Committee and is overseeing much of the bowl season experiment.

“We are working towards 2024 and this being part of the permissive opportunities to be used,” Edds told Yahoo Sports, “but you don’t flip a switch and this starts working.”

It has been a sometimes arduous process to get agreements in place for bowl season, from the participating teams to conferences to equipment manufacturers as well.

Most of the tablets are Microsoft and for video are using DVSport technology, a software company that has long been part of the college game for practice and video replay footage. Schools are using two different companies for helmet communications: GSC, which equips all of the NFL with its coach-to-player communication system, and CoachComm, which is responsible for providing most FBS programs with their coaching headsets.

At Texas Tech, CoachComm communication kits were fastened inside helmets using velcro. Quarter-sized speakers are placed near the ear holes and connected by wire to a battery and signal pack near the crown of the helmet.

For the most part, Tech’s experience went smoothly, but there was one hiccup. Just before halftime, a kit fastened to a defensive player’s helmet went dead. Thankfully, staff members used the halftime break to replace the device, said Cayman Ancell, Tech’s head equipment manager.

“The players loved it,” Ancell said. “Quarterback loved it. He didn’t have to look at the sideline. He could keep his eyes on the field. The defensive guys wished everybody on defense could have had [the capabilities in their helmets].”

Nearly 30 years after the NFL’s implementation, wireless communication is only now in the experimental phase in college. That leaves many baffled, frustrated and angry. Michigan’s sign-stealing investigation triggered another outcry about the issue from the coaching and administrative community.

“We’ve had a sign-stealing problem for a while, and we’ve got the technology to eliminate the issue,” said Todd Berry, the outgoing director of the American Football Coaches Association. “The cost is minimal. High schools are using the technology. Coaches have been frustrated: Why hasn’t this happened?”

There are two reasons, college leaders say.

The NCAA Rules Committee, a group of 12 administrators from Divisions I, II and III, have failed to approve the matter at least in part for cost-containment reasons. While the cost is not exuberant for those in the highest level of Division I (FBS), it is for those in FCS, DII and DIII with fractions of a budget.

This is a long-running NCAA quagmire: The high-revenue-producing football programs feel handcuffed by those with lower resources, preventing the industry from evolving both on and off the field. In fact, in a proposal made earlier this month, NCAA president Charlie Baker provided his solution for such a problem, splitting Division I into a new subdivision.

The Michigan sign-stealing situation is a “reminder” that the conversation around wireless communication remains important, Sankey said, and “it also seems clear the NCAA Rules Committee is going to have to facilitate a change, not stand in the way.

“We’ve tended to be forward-thinking on the use of technology,” he continued. “We haven’t had permission from the rules committee to do so. There are a lot of divisions on that committee. There is one division that likely has this motivation.”

His coaches share in the frustration.

“For those who play in leagues like we do, who have the funds to do it, in the SEC or the Big Ten or Big 12, whatever it is, we should be able to do it,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said in October while on the Pat McAfee Show. “There's such a discrepancy [in budgets and resources] that we shouldn't be living by the same rules.”

The cost is not astronomical, especially for the many college football programs that produce more than $50 million in revenue annually and pay their head coaches millions in salary.

Texas Tech rented 10 helmet communications units for $20,000. Maryland paid a rental fee of $5,000 for six helmet kits.

But there’s another reason for the stall in approving wireless communications in the college game: helmet manufacturers.

Adding a third-party device to a helmet changes the liability protection in that helmet, a significant issue given the ongoing legal challenges against the NCAA over concussions. According to the NCAA, helmets must meet what is termed as the NOCSAE standard, short for the National Operating Committee on Standards on Athletic Equipment. Institutions this bowl season are taking on the additional liability that comes with altering the helmet.

Edds has spent months communicating with the college game’s biggest helmet manufacturer, Riddell, who, he says, is not reluctant but excited to help evolve the game by installing or having schools install the communication devices. The coach-to-player device GSC meets the NOCSAE standard, said Alex Shada, the company’s owner.

“Our equipment has been tested and approved for us in the NFL,” he said. “Most helmets are identical to those that college players are wearing. The NFL is not going to put something in a helmet that has not met the standards.”

EVANSTON, IL - SEPTEMBER 30: Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Ben Bryant (2) looks down while walking off the field and adjusting his helmet during the college football game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Northwestern Wildcats on September 30, 2023 at Ryan Field in Evanston, IL. (Photo by Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Northwestern will use helmet communication in its game against Utah on Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl. (Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

So how quickly after this season could college leaders permanently approve wireless communications? The NCAA Rules Committee meets in late February, but members of the group should have plenty of feedback from bowl season well before that.

Discussions are expected as leaders gather at the national championship site in Houston in the first week of January and again at the NCAA convention the next week.

“We have so many problems right now,” Berry said. “Some of the other problems take the air out of the room. These are easy lifts.”

And yet, the rules committee must determine a permanent policy. That means devising a framework of restrictions around the coach-to-player communication. The two vexing questions:

(1) Should the college game emulate the NFL and restrict any communication from coaches in the final 15 seconds of the play clock?

(2) How many players should have the helmet microphone capability while on the field at the same time?

After using the technology in the Independence Bowl, Wilcox believes there should be a cutoff system like in the NFL. Tech and Cal coaches were afforded the ability to speak into a player’s microphone up until the snap and even afterward.

“What the players don’t need is five coaches telling them what to do,” Wilcox said. “It should be real streamlined. A play-call and maybe a nugget here and there. That’s why the cutoff is important so that the coaches don’t get the player to the line of scrimmage and then play John Madden.”

A constant voice in the helmet can be “crippling” for a player, said Edds, who used the wireless communications system while he played in the NFL for five years.

The NFL permits no more than one player on each offense and defense to have the communication capability. Wilcox believes that more than one designated defensive player on each side of the ball should have the capability, especially defensively.

“If we are trying to get away from sign stealing, it would help to have multiple players,” he said.

It’s unlikely to completely rid the game of signing, coaches say. For no-huddle teams — most of them these days — quarterbacks will be charged with flashing hand signals to other offensive players. The same goes for a linebacker or safety on defense. Audible signs from the sideline are still a possibility as well.

But what if you could get rid of signing all together? Well, you could.

Another decision before the rules committee when members begin to seriously discuss a permanent policy: Will non-audio, wearable play-calling communication be allowed?

Mike Rolih is the founder of GoRout, a visual coach-to-player product that equips more than 1,200 college and high school teams nationwide in a variety of sports. GoRout’s wearable play-calling devices are attached to a player’s waist or wrist, much like an Apple watch. Coaches on the sideline or dugout use a tablet or smartphone to send plays to athletes.

While visual coach-to-player technology is not being used during bowl season, Rolih plans to attend a handful of bowl sites to showcase his system. Several dozen college football teams use the technology in practice, including Washington, Liberty, Auburn and Rutgers, Rolih said.

“A lot of coaches want to use something to speak to their players,” Rolih said. “We don’t look at us competing with the audio [devices]. We look at this as a multi-prong communications structure: an audio component and a visual component.”

At the Hula Bowl All-Star Game this year, players will use Armilla, another wearable play-calling device company that equips DI baseball teams as well. Gerhard De Beer, the founder and president of Armilla, says he has been in communication with the Big Ten and SEC about using their technology if the NCAA allows it. A team’s playbook can be uploaded to a tablet, customized and categorized to make play-calling easier.

“We are not trying to alter the game in any way, shape or form,” De Beer said. “We are taking the current paper on a player’s wrist and making it dynamic for each person or player.”

Some, like McGuire, believe the college game should exactly emulate pro ball: no wearables; a 15-second mic cutoff; one permitted player on each side of the ball; and only still shots on a tablet, not video that’s now being allowed during bowl season.

“Before you screw up the college game, let’s use the highest level of the game,” he said.

Either way, college football can’t turn back now, Ancell said.

It’s full speed ahead into the next era of the sport: wireless helmet communication and sideline replay tablets.

“Since we opened the bag with our coaches already, I don’t see how we can go back,” Ancell said. “It’s going to be tough moving forward to tell coaches, 'Hey, we used this during the bowl game but can’t next season.’”