NCAA committee endorses ‘coach-to-player’ electronic communication in football games

Georgia coach Kirby Smart talks with Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) during their game against Mississippi at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, November 11, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 52-17. (Jason Getz /



Georgia coach Kirby Smart talks with Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) during their game against Mississippi at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, November 11, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 52-17. (Jason Getz /

ATHENS — The NCAA’s football rules committee conducted a video conference call Friday afternoon to discuss with reporters the implementation of its exciting new “coach-to-player” communications rule that will allow play-callers to speak directly to their quarterbacks or other players over headsets.

The irony was not lost on the call participants when rules committee chief Steve Shaw for a long while could not hear co-chair A.J. Edds speaking, and neither of them could see Georgia coach Kirby Smart, co-chair of that same committee.

“That’s a good question,” said Shaw, when asked what happens in the event of equipment failure during the heat of competition. “We’ve talked about that. Like with coaches’ headsets, the rulebook says that there’s no policy as far as the rule, but conferences can develop policies.”

Got that?

In a nutshell, depending on the conference, if one team’s communications are down, the other team will have to put their headsets down, but only in the case “there’s 100 percent failure.”

That’s only one of several convolutions awaiting college football next fall. But, ready or not, the FBS is continuing on its widening road to emulating the NFL.

Amid conference expansion, playoff expansion, new TV broadcast rights agreements, unlimited transfer policies and paying players, FBS now has approved in-game, electronic communication between a coach and one player on the field and, yes, a two-minute warning with two minutes left in each half (except college football will call it a two-minute timeout).

Those and other new rules for 2024 still have to be approved by the NCAA’s playing-rules oversight panel at its April 18 meeting. That’s considered a formality.

It’s enough to leave coaches’ heads spinning. Yet, they’re trying embrace the “progress.”

“A lot of coaches have already used it. I think everybody in the country that plans to use it will be using it this spring in some way, shape or form,” said Smart, who is entering his ninth season at the helm of the Bulldogs’ football program. “But for efficiency of practice, a lot of people have used it before one way or another, whether that’s walkie-talkies or whatever. There will be a lot of experimentation in spring games, scrimmages and fall practices until everybody figures out the best way to use it.”

The Bulldogs practiced with it during the offseason and plan to fully implement the technology during spring practice, which begins March 12.

FBS teams were allowed to experiment with electronic communication during last year’s bowl season. As will be the case this fall, schools can choose to utilize the technology or not. For instance, in the Music City Bowl in Nashville in December, Maryland chose to utilize the new technology while Auburn did not. The Terrapins won 31-13.

The NFL has, of course, utilized in-game communication in various forms since 1994. Likewise, college football will allow the use of computerized tablets to view in-game video only among all three divisions of football. The video could come from the broadcast feed and or the coaches’ sideline and end-zone camera. Teams could have up to 18 active tablets for use in the coaching booth, sideline and locker room.

Tablets could not be connected to other devices to project larger additional images and could not include analytics, data or data-access capability or other communication access. All team personnel would be allowed to view the tablets during the game.

The two-minute timeout is being incorporated “to allow end-of-half and end-of-game timing rules to be simplified and “sync up with broadcast partners” while avoiding back-to-back media timeouts. Shaw does not think it will lengthen games, which has been a major initiative the past few years.

We’re not adding a break. We’re installing a known interval,” he said.

As for the headsets, Edds said they expect “most of FBS” will choose to use them. The NCAA’s lower divisions will be allowed to “experiment with it” on a case-by-basis upon mutual agreements with opponents.

Last year, when Michigan was investigated for employing an individual to study the Wolverines’ opponents in an effort, it was revealed that Smart’s own Bulldogs had been the subject of such subterfuge, executed by the now-infamous Connor Stallions.

Stallions was fired by Michigan, and coach Jim Harbaugh was suspended for the final three games of the season. However, the Wolverines went on to win the 2024 national and Big Ten titles.

Smart insisted Friday’s landmark decision was unrelated.

“There shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction to what happened in our game last year or those accusations that were out there. That’s not what the sole intent was. I’ve been on this rules committee three or four years now and coach-to-play communication has come up every single year. It’s been talked about, we’ve been evolving, we’ve been trying to get closer to it. This is not going to stop people from signaling or have cardboard signs on the sideline. It’d take 11 headsets to take that away.”

Actually, the original proposal was to have three headsets on the field at any given time. But the committee chose to stick with one, at least to start with, to limit any confusion among the referees. The player on the field who is in communication with the coaches’ box – it is permitted on defense as well – is designated by a green dot on the back of the helmet. The communication will automatically be cut off with 15 seconds on the play clock or at the snap of the ball if it’s before that.

Implementing the technology will not be cheap. Edds called it a “significant investment” that will also require an “ongoing maintenance component.”

“I would be hesitant to throw out numbers,” said Edds, who is the Big Ten’s vice president for administration. “We have talked with two major manufacturers that we have been working with. But there are many others out there that are very interested. Some conferences may approach it as ‘we’re going to buy the same technology for the entire conference,’ and hopefully there will be some economies to scale. Some will let individual schools make the decisions.”

Glitches usually come with any new technology. But between the NFL’s success and the enormous amount of financial resources pouring into FBS at the moment, the NCAA believes the timing is right.

“We’re confident we can implement it successfully,” said Edds, after his communications issues were cleared up five minutes into Friday’s conference call. “That’s the most important thing. If we do put it out there, we want it to work and to be done well.”