Unbeaten Gallaudet aims for 1st NCAA berth
Gallaudet invented the huddle, uses a drum to signal the snap count and loses a lot of games.
For years, those were the only things anyone seemed to know about the football team at the university for the deaf and hard of hearing.
This year's Bison are dispelling more than a few perceptions with a shot at the first NCAA berth for a men's team in school history.
And they rarely huddle anymore. And they only beat the drum when the other team shanks a punt.
A team once high on novelty and low on competitiveness suddenly can't be beat, with a 7-0 record and a defensive end who has the attention of NFL scouts.
"We're also playing for the deaf community all over the country," senior running back Ryan Bonheyo said through an interpreter. "A lot of the deaf people across the country are following us. 'Nobody cares about our football team.' 'We always follow volleyball, basketball.' Football, it was like a sorry team. No chance was given to us.
"This year it's really just been different. A lot of people ask me around campus, 'Are you ready for Saturday?' 'Are you going to go on to be in an NCAA playoff?' The environment here on campus has changed."
Football got so bad at Gallaudet that the school gave up on the sport at the NCAA level in 1995 after winning just four games over five seasons. It became a club sport until the return to Division III in 2007.
The program was revived as part of a stronger financial commitment to sports and the coaching prowess of Ed Hottle and now Chuck Goldstein, a hearing coach who took over the head job in 2010 and is still mastering the nuances of American Sign Language.
"I had to change my coaching style," Goldstein said. "It was little things. Like if you're standing on the field and the sun's behind you? The players can't see you."
Goldstein also had to learn different ways to throw tantrums. His failed in his first attempt, after the Bison fumbled three times in the first half in his first game as coach.
"I wanted the kids to know I was upset. I walked in the room of the offense team meeting (at halftime) and I take a chair and I throw it across the room," Goldstein said. "It slams against the wall. Three kids turn around. Out of a group of about 35 kids, only three turn around because none of them heard me."
Goldstein installed the triple option, and the Bison have it down pat.
They average 337.6 yards rushing per game, fourth among Division III schools. Their average time of possession — 37:30 — is tops among all NCAA levels. They are 4-0 in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference, a title they have to win get an NCAA berth.
For years, the Bison were known for using a drum on the sidelines for the snap count because the players couldn't hear the quarterback call out signals, but they've done away with tradition because opposing defenses were able to time the snap as well. The drum remains for ceremonial purposes and for one practical football use — to tell the players on the punt return team to get out of the way out of a short kick.
"We just bang the drum over and over," Goldstein said. "Whenever they feel that vibration, they look up, find the ball and run away."
The football huddle was the creation of Gallaudet quarterback Paul Hubbard in the 1890s. It was meant to keep defenses from figuring out the next play, but these days Goldstein has the players signing the plays to each other openly in front of the opponents before the snap.
"My philosophy is if you're going to take the time to learn sign language and be able to interpret what we're doing in 25 seconds, then more power to you," the coach said. "And interpreters are not cheap. Ninety dollars an hour — go ahead."
The team's marquee player is Adham Talaat, who could become the first Gallaudet player to make the NFL. The 292-pound lineman originally committed to UMass but changed his mind after a coaching change. He is hard of hearing and grew up 30 minutes from Gallaudet, but he never visited the campus until four years ago.
Talaat has a 3.9 GPA and last year was the program's first academic All-American since 1993. He's the reason Gallaudet will host a pro day for NFL scouts for the first time early next year.
"My freshman class, when we first arrived in preseason we were ranked 234 out of 238 teams," Talaat said. "We've come such a long way."
The Bison will go for 8-0 at Becker on Saturday.
"In the past, teams looked at Gallaudet as, 'You know what, that's a win.' Now it's to the point where we're on the map," Goldstein said. "Teams think twice before they schedule us."