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Article updated: 9/9/2011 9:44 PM
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Technology changing the way teams watch film
 

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Technology changing the way teams watch film
 

Put 14 high school football coaches in the same room and it would be a minor miracle if they could all agree on where to buy lunch let alone agree to a major change in the way they prepare their respective teams for Friday nights.

Yet, that's exactly what happened last May when the football coaches of the Upstate Eight Conference met and agreed to purchase software that is changing the way game films are exchanged and subsequently broken down.

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Of the multiple software programs on the market, the UEC chose Hudl (pronounced huddle), a fast-growing company based in Lincoln, Neb. Hudl (hudl.com) called 350 high schools clients in 2009. It is being used by 6,000 high school programs in 2011, not to mention 60 Division-I college programs and three NFL teams.

A couple of UEC football programs were already using the software developed by the 5-year-old company and strongly recommended it to the rest of the league. To say the other UEC coaches trying Hudl for the first time have been impressed would be an understatement. They liken the leap forward in technology akin to trading in a 1993 Buick for a 2011 Mercedes.

"We love it," Larkin coach Mike Scianna said. "It has cut our prep time for Monday in half."

"It's completely changed the way we study game film," Batavia coach Dennis Piron said. "It's worth every penny."

Anyone who played high school football remembers watching game films, though the delivery system has obviously changed through the years as technology has evolved.

In the 1960s and 1970s game films were precisely that -- actual films. Games were shot with 16-millimeter cameras, and the film had to be developed overnight at specific studios.

The VCR changed all that in the 1980s. The advent of VHS tapes eliminated those late-night car rides to get film developed. It also made dubbing copies a snap. For the first time, a player could make VHS copies of the opponent's films and take them home to study if his family owned a VCR.

VHS tapes were eventually replaced in the late 1990s by DVDs, the format still widely used today by most high school programs for exchanges and film study. It was far faster to burn multiple copies of DVDs than it was to dub VHS tapes. Also, coaches could skip through the film far more quickly to access specific game segments or plays.

However, the DVD format is disappearing faster than a small pizza at a an offensive lineman's birthday party, thanks to streaming Internet-based programs like Hudl.

Here's how it works. After each game UEC coaches upload their own game film via the software. The coach can then download his next opponent's previous two game films by punching in a specific code once both teams have agreed on the trade. Voila! Instant game films without ever having to leave the computer.

Like so many other technological advancements, exchanging game film over the Internet saves time but eliminates the need for face-to-face interaction. UEC football coaches no longer have to meet halfway between their schools on a Saturday morning to exchange films in a McDonald's parking lot. It's a long-standing tradition some will miss.

"Personally, I liked traveling and meeting the coach to trade tapes," Bartlett's Tom Meaney said. "This year we're not doing that. I'll get used to it, but it was always interesting to hear their perspective of the previous game. That's something I always did on Saturday morning at 7 a.m. Technology took care of that."

Internet film exchanges are only one aspect of the software's broad capabilities. The main advantage lies in the ease and speed with which the program allows a coaching staff to break down film and share it with their players.

Once an opponent's film is downloaded, a coach watches it and "tags" each play with data he deems important. For instance, he can tag the play with categories like down and distance, formation, whether the opponent blitzed, if there was a defensive line stunt, if it was a passing play, a running play, etc.

Each play is thereby sent to a folder or folders via its corresponding tags. If a coach wants to later show his players only the opponent's third-down plays, all he has to do is click on the third-down folder and those plays are shown in sequence. Trends tend to be revealed.

"You can get tendencies," Scianna said. "On first down they throw this percentage of the time, or they throw this percentage of the time when they're lined up in a certain formation. We love how it breaks it down so our kids can understand it."

Hudl allows multiple coaches to watch the same game film simultaneously and enter tags, unlike previous software from other companies that limited data input to one or two coaches at a time.

"For one coach to enter all that information when there was only one computer for offense or one computer for defense was insurmountable," Metea Valley coach Ted Monken said. "You almost needed a full-time video coordinator to use it properly.

"Hudl allows any coach anywhere in the world that has Internet to enter data. It also allows us to spread the load and give different coaches different pieces of that information to enter in simultaneously. That allows us on a weekly basis to get more out of the video and do more breakdowns."

Players can punch in a code and watch game film anytime from anyplace with Internet access. And how much film a player watches can be tracked precisely by his coaches. In fact, a Bartlett football player had to run a few laps in practice this week because offensive coordinator Mark Williams deemed the player hadn't watched enough of the assigned film, Meaney said.

The software has other advantages. When watching their own films, coaches can write notes of criticism or praise and attach them directly to a play, which the players see when they view the video. Cary-Grove, which also uses Hudl, films its own practices with an end zone camera and the coaches attach notes of instruction within the practice videos, Trojans coach Brad Seaburg said.

Another advantage? Players no longer have to ask their coaches to help them put together recruiting videos. Now, the player just clicks on the plays he wants in his highlight package and assigns them to a folder. That folder can either be burned to DVD or sent via email to college coaches, who are given a code to watch the player's highlights.

Of course, the software isn't free. Hudl offers tiered packages ranging up to $1,400 annually, but most of the UEC schools purchased the $800 version at a discounted rate because the whole conference joined en masse.

Most UEC teams paid for it with monies from their fundraising efforts. Boosters paid for the high-end package at some schools, including Batavia, where the software is being made available to every sport within the athletic department, Piron said. Hudl can be used for any sport from football, basketball and volleyball to rowing and bowling, according to John Wirtz, Hudl's chief operating officer.

The UEC isn't the first league in the suburbs to use such technology. The far-flung schools of the East Suburban Catholic Conference last year used a similar software program from a company called DSV. That company was Hudl's main competitor until Hudl acquired DSV in July, Wirtz said. Most ESCC teams now use Hudl, according to St. Viator coach Chris Kirkpatrick.

"It really helps because our league is so spread out," Kirkpatrick said. "Before you had to meet the other coach at an oasis on 294 or somewhere like that to trade film.

"But that's OK," he added with a laugh. "Most of us really don't like each other anyway."

As stated above, high school football coaches don't always agree.

jfitzpatrick@dailyherald.com

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