Bill Curry remembers the day, as a sophomore at Georgia Tech, when he walked to his locker and found a red jersey hanging there. That was Coach Bobby Dodd's way of telling Curry he wouldn't be playing that year. Curry was being redshirted, and he was irate.
Curry is in his sixth year as head coach at Georgia Tech now and he, too, redshirts players. But the method is more sophisticated, more structured and such an integral part of college football now that entire classes of recruits are told before they enter school that they might be redshirted as freshmen.
There are few better examples than the University of Maryland, where 82 of the 97 players on the roster have been redshirted. The University of Miami has 22 freshmen on its roster and Coach Jimmy Johnson hopes to redshirt 19 or 20. Southern Methodist, which is on probation, doesn't have any scholarships for next season so it will redshirt 15 of this season's 16 freshmen. Of 94 players on the roster at Clemson, 76 have been redshirted. And, of course, there is Nebraska, where 32 of the top 33 offensive players have been redshirted.
The traditional meaning of redshirting is what happened to Curry: a player who is healthy and eligible to play is held out of all varsity action for a year, usually the athlete's freshman or sophomore season. The athlete retains the option of playing a total of four seasons over a five-year period.
But the term redshirting has grown to encompass medical hardship cases, those players who have been granted an extra year of eligibility for missing at least the last eight games of the season with an injury. It also now includes transfer students, required by NCAA rules to sit out one season, and thus offered an optional fifth year.
In college football, most redshirts are players who for one season simply are held out of action by coaches who are hoping those youngsters mature mentally and physically, and peak by the fifth year. A 22-year-old lineman in his fifth year, coaches say, is almost always more productive than a true senior lineman in his fourth season.
Curry, who was fighting mad when he found the red shirt hanging in his locker more than 20 years ago, went on to become an all-pro and play in the National Football League for 10 years. "I would never have set foot on an NFL field if I hadn't redshirted my sophomore year," he said. "I did most of my physical maturing in my fifth year."
Redshirting itself is as old as college football, but it has only been since 1982 that the NCAA has allowed schools to redshirt freshmen, meaning they don't play one minute of varsity football but have the option of playing four more years, for a total of five years on athletic scholarship.
Still, there are holdouts to the practice. The service academies don't redshirt in the traditional sense, an exception being the Naval Academy's Napoleon McCallum, whose medical situation was taken all the way to the Pentagon before he was allowed a fifth year at the Academy.
Duke and Notre Dame also have policies prohibiting redshirting except for medical hardship or academic exceptions, although Duke is about to make an exception in basketball this season for freshman George Bergen, who will be given five years because of a double major of physics and mathematics.
Such lofty academic aims are not the usual reason for redshirting, and the practice has met some resistance -- from academics (who feel the excuse that a player will get more study time is a farce), parents (who want their kids to play), and even from some players (who want to play).
At Miami, none of the team's 22 freshmen has played, prompting several to complain. There even has been a published report that some are so dissatisfied they are considering transferring. Johnson, whose son has been redshirted at Texas, says he is sympathetic to his players' feelings.
"I know it's a blow to a lot of them," Johnson said. "They're not making the road trips and not playing, and they often don't feel like part of the team. And I hear it from families, time and time again: 'Coach, you know he's never sat on the bench before. Coach, he's a star player.'
"But it's a rare occasion that every one of them is not thankful he's been redshirted."
Curry said he was "livid" when he found out he wouldn't be playing for a season. "I thought I was the greatest thing since bubble gum," he said. "But I was wrong, as are so many other guys. Most of the players I talk about redshirting to see the wisdom of it. I've had a couple of youngsters say, 'Coach, I know I oughta redshirt, but I want to play so bad.' Usually, they come back a day or two later and say, 'You're right.' On the other hand, I think there have been times when we've made a mistake."
Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said he just doesn't like playing freshmen in most instances. But like every coach interviewed, Ross said the recruit and his parents are asked about redshirting, and if they oppose the idea, "we certainly would not insist that he redshirt."
Steve Sloan, head coach at Duke, said Atlantic Coast Conference football teams "average redshirting about 23 out of 27 freshmen per year.
"But I think it can be a disadvantage, too, in that a kid can be held out once to redshirt, and fall behind to the point where he is held out (benched) again and again," Sloan added. "But a redshirted player certainly should be better, having had a year of just lifting weights and working out."
Most coaches say redshirting a player as a freshman also helps him academically. Ross pointed out that the average Maryland student stays in an undergraduate program for 4.8 years, anyway, so the football player shouldn't have to use up his eligibility in four years. Supposedly, a redshirted player has more time to devote to studying.
However, redshirted players at most schools still have to lift weights, go to meetings and film sessions, and practice. They do everything except play on Saturday for three hours. If it's a road game, the redshirted players might save up to three or four more hours of travel time. At Miami, while the varsity players travel, the redshirts lift weights.
Curry said his redshirt year was easier academically and socially because he didn't have the pressure of worrying about game day. But Curry might be part of a rather rare situation at Tech, where the football players (who take the same course load as the rest of the student body) graduate at a rate that's 10 percent higher than the general student body.
Johnson said, "I don't know that it's a valid argument that redshirting helps players academically; that's open for discussion. Sometimes, I think it hurts them. Some of them feel left out and depressed anyway, from not being able to play, and sometimes that carries over to the classroom."
Johnson tries to keep his redshirted freshmen involved with the team by allowing those who do well in practice to travel with the varsity. But none of the dozen schools contacted reported any substantial increase in the number of hours available to redshirted players for studying.
So it appears that the primary maturation process that occurs during a redshirt year is physical.
Said Coach George Welsh, who couldn't redshirt at the Naval Academy but can now that he's at Virginia: "I can see the ones here have been helped. I don't think Bob Olderman (an offensive lineman at Virginia last season) could have come out two years ago and started for the Kansas City Chiefs (as he is now doing)."
Linemen almost never play as freshmen or sophomores at Nebraska, which has perhaps the most structured redshirt program in the nation. In fact, most Cornhuskers recruits start off on a five-year plan that begins with them playing junior varsity (using up a year of eligibility) as freshmen.
The following spring, the sophomores-to-be in effect try out for the varsity squad, and those who don't impress Coach Tom Osborne are redshirted and provide the core of the scout team that practices against the varsity.
The really talented skill position players -- like Irving Fryar, Roger Craig and Turner Gill -- might see action as freshmen. But a spokesman for Nebraska said that to have true sophomores "sneak in and play the offensive line is a real rarity." Even two-time Outland Trophy winner Dave Rimington was a redshirt in 1978 when the NCAA had its first one-year experimentation with redshirting freshmen that was dropped in 1979, then reinstituted in 1982.
The only non-redshirt on Nebraska's three-deep offensive roster is running back Keith Jones. And of the 30 defensive players on the three-deep roster (not counting three junior-college transfers), 24 were redshirted.
Miami's Johnson, who was not redshirted at Arkansas in the early '60s when he played offensive guard, said: "You might find a defensive lineman who is ahead of the others physically. But the offensive linemen need a year of extra maturing. With the skill position players, it's a different story. Now, you're talking about your needs."
Which is at the heart of the practice of redshirting: a player's need to mature vs. his desire to participate, a team's need to give him that time and to stockpile talent vs. its immediate needs and scholarship limitations.
"I know the player's first thought is, 'The grass must be greener somewhere else,' " Johnson said. "But the reality of the situation is that at this level of competition, unless it's at a smaller school or a school that's been losing for a long time, the situations will be pretty similar. It's pretty common everywhere."