Funny photo boards used to call signals from sideline
Oct. 10, 2015
STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — College football, in case you haven't noticed, has its own sideline language. Beyonce. Yosemite Sam. Lee Corso. Dr. Evil. The Seattle SuperSonics logo.
From Alabama to Oklahoma to Southern California, the images of singers, cartoon characters, athletes and many more are popping up on huge sideline signs used to call signals for offenses and defenses. Forget screaming and using hand signals. Photos are working pretty well.
"It's just easier to visualize plays with a sign, I guess," says Alabama quarterback Jake Coker. "That's all I can tell you. Everything just runs smoother with the signs."
The idea of using pictures to call plays and set up defensive alignments has gained steam in the past few years. Chip Kelly — now coaching the Philadelphia Eagles — went to the system five years ago to run his high-speed offense at Oregon, and now, at least 30 programs have the placards.
It all started in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 2008. Glen Elarbee, a 28-year-old graduate student at Oklahoma State at the time, answered coach Mike Gundy's request to find a way to speed up messaging between offensive coaches and players.
"It's one of those things where you see them, and it's a cool story at parties," said Elarbee, now co-offensive coordinator at Arkansas State. "I was part of that. I haven't done too many things in my life that are really that cool. It's kind of neat."
Elarbee remembers his first signs. They weren't fancy — three signs, divided into four quadrants, each a different color, with seemingly random letters and numbers.
"I made it on Power Point," he said. "It was this huge card with four squares in it. It was way too big. It was basically a debacle."
The design was tweaked, and the idea took off and changed the look of sidelines. The photos have identified a who's who in pop culture — and more — and a stage for inside jokes among coaching staffs.
The signs have multiple uses: relaying plays, snap counts, formations, motions, routes or situational details.
Laminated cardstock and light plastic are among the materials used. Most have multiple images on a single card, and they are ever changing. Some have photos, some have odd combinations of letters, numbers and symbols, and others just have colors.
Among the sign users are Clemson, Ohio University and Northern Illinois, which started in 2011. Ole Miss went in three years ago, but most schools using them began two years ago.
Alabama, Louisville and South Florida started this season. Though the cards were originally used for offenses, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Florida, Colorado, USC and Arkansas State are among those using them for defense now.
"When the tempo of a game goes fast, they see you signaling so they can figure what your calls are every down, so we switch our boards each quarter," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "One thing may mean one thing this quarter, this quarter, so we change it. We change the pictures, so we're constantly rotating different calls for different boards, second, third, fourth quarter. So they all mean something different."
Stars ranging from rappers Rick Ross and Jay-Z, actor Will Ferrell, singer Beyonce, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and several former presidents have been featured.
One of Oklahoma State's recent signs featured logos for Eskimo Joe's, a favorite local restaurant near Boone Pickens Stadium. The Cowboys' signs also included logos for Dr. Pepper and Pepsi and a photo of former Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant in a Dallas Cowboys uniform with his arms crossed.
"We would change them week to week, depending on what our schemes were and what our plays were," Gundy said. "You had a picture that was up — I think we started with four, and then we actually went to a six frame, and two could be live and four would be null and void."
The secrecy around the signs adds to the intrigue. UCLA admits to using them, but offered no details. Stoops gave some details, then chose not to elaborate.
Plenty of work goes into fooling teams that might try to interpret what the signs mean.
"It was really good for us, and then people started videoing us, and we did them the next year, and they meant zero," Gundy said. "We kept holding signs up. They didn't mean anything."
Coker said Alabama fell just short of having too much fun with them.
"We were going to have a few signs with coaches' faces on it, that would have been pretty funny," he said. "But they talked us out of it. Decided not to go there."
AP Sports Writer John Zenor and freelancer John Tranchina contributed to this report.
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org
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