The history and evolution of the onside kick

The New Orleans Saints are the best example of what an onside kick can do.

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With the swing of a leg, the momentum changed Monday night in Alabama’s victory over Clemson in the national championship.

Nick Saban’s gutty decision to have Adam Griffith attempt an onside kick was one of the rare examples of where the trickery played a huge role in a big game.

The onside kick has been used as a huge momentum-shifting play for nearly a century. While not ruled as a turnover, it acts as one considering a team gains an extra possession of the football while its opponent loses a possession if the onside is executed properly.

The onside kick can shock and stun a team into submission, so which team was the first to attempt the trick play and who invented such a devious play?

The first reference to an onside kick appears to have taken place before there was the SEC, which was founded in 1932. Vanderbilt, then a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, is credited with the first successful onside kick on Nov. 12, 1921.

The coach who gets the credit is Dan McGugin, according to the Vanderbilt Hall of Fame, though the onside kick wasn’t what we’ve come to know today.

Dan McGugin was one of the first collegiate coaches to promote intersectional rivalries, the first coach to pull guards in the interference, the first to successfully work the onside kick and one of the first to emphasize the forward pass.

In a strange twist of fate, the circumstances surrounding the first onside kick weren’t all that dissimilar to Alabama’s latest championship moment.

To set the stage for the 1921 matchup between Georgia and Vanderbilt, Georgia (known as the Athenians at this time, not the Bulldogs) were the defending SIAA champions (remember, this was before the SEC existed) and both schools entered the game with undefeated conference records. 

Georgia was handling Vanderbilt at the half, as the Commodores had only 9 yards of offense in the first half, but were only down 7-0 heading into the intermission. In the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt converted a 25-yard onside kick from scrimmage. In those days, punts were considered live balls, able to be recovered by the kicking team. Rupert Smith waited for the kick the ground, caught it on the bounce and ran it for a 15-yard touchdown, which tied the game after a successful extra point.

Both teams would win out the two remaining games on the schedule to share the 1921 SIAA title, according to the Atlanta Constitution.

Though the evolution of the onside kick has changed dramatically since in its introduction over 94 years ago, whether it’s New Orleans in Super Bowl XLIV over Indianapolis, Seattle over Green Bay in the 2015 NFC Championship, or Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship, it’s still being used to shift momentum in championship games at every level of the game.

Check out some other example of onside kicks that worked and others where there was more trickery that simply executing the play.

The Seahawks against the Packers in 2015 (onside kick at 6:30).

The Saints in the Super Bowl against the Colts (3:30).

And some other interesting attempts.