Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Running Up the Score

This is the term they bandy about when one team beats another team by a big margin. Usually, the coach or the team accused of "running up the score" is also accused of showing poor sportsmanship.

If you ask me, poor sportsmanship is rampant but there is no such thing as running up the score. In fact, winning by a lot is akin to that old staple of high character we know as "always doing your best".

I don't know where you imaginary readers live but here on the west coast, we get lots of Pac 10 coverage which means, during football season, we've grown accustomed to seeing USC football teams win by scores like 56-10, and 37-3 on a pretty regular basis. Some say that Pete Carroll and the Trojans have a habit of running up the score.

Before I explain why that does not represent poor sportsmanship, let me share a couple of recent events for those of you who may have missed the news.

Recent Event 1
A couple of weeks ago, USC played Stanford, a University noted for its high academic standards and, consequently, for its unwillingness to admit many top-caliber athletes who do not meet those academic standards. As one might surmise, Stanford's de-emphasis of athletics has put them on the wrong end of many a lopsided USC victory over the years. In their most recent meeting, a surprisingly strong Stanford team led the game 48-21 with about six minutes to play and their coach, Jim Harbaugh, elected to go for a 2-point conversion. Many accused him of poor sportsmanship. I disagree.

Recent Event 2
A week later, USC was leading it's cross-town rival UCLA by a score of 21-7 with about a minute to go. USC had the ball and took a knee on first down intending to run out the clock. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, refusing to concede the game, and having all three of his timeouts in hand, immediately called to stop the clock. On the next play, USC quarterback Matt Barkley chucked a bomb which resulted in a TD and the game ended 28-7. Again, many saw poor sportsmanship in the play call and again, I disagree.

Here's the deal. A key responsibility for a college football coach is to manage the emotions of a group of young males and get them into the right state of mind at the right time. It is a constant challenge to keep them from peaking in frenzy too early in the week and to keep them from sinking too low at any point for any reason. One key to maintaining a healthy level of confidence and competitive will is to instill a winning attitude that carries your own team and intimidates the opposition. This "swagger", as it is often called, is elusive but can be bottled up occasionally if you are ready for the opportunity. Smashing USC in the mouth and going for 2 needless conversion points was a great example of a smart coach seizing a rare opportunity to give his team the kind of attitude that USC teams have used to their advantage for a decade. Harbaugh was not guilty of poor sportsmanship; he was guilty of smart coaching.

Here's another perspective. College football players are essentially auditioning for the NFL and need to do whatever they can to stand out. A coach can't ask them to run at half speed with a big lead because there is too much at stake for them. Similarly, a coach can sit his stars and play the backups but the backups are auditioning to become starters so they can audition for the NFL. Again, he can't ask them to back off.

With regards to Pete Carroll taking a knee on first down and then throwing long on second down, that was perfectly justified. When UCLA called timeout, they stated their intention to call three successive timeouts and, unless USC could get a first down, regain possession of the ball. They forced USC to go for a first down which, as we know, is no easy feat. To do so, offensive coordinators must draw on their entire playbook and take the most likely path depending on what the defense gives them. In this case, it was a long pass.

My bottom line is that being better than your opponent is not a sign of poor sportsmanship, even if you are much, much better. Coaches and players don't spend practice time perfecting mediocre plays designed to let the opposing team save face. They have one attitude, one mentality, one objective, and one level of effort they know how to give.


  1. You might want to explain to your west-coast readers what "chucked a bomb" means. Us Mainers are already familiar with the term, having grown up "chucking" rocks and footballs etc.

  2. Anonymous12/08/2009

    As a father of middle school children, I attend a lot of soccer games. In too many of those games, we have been on the wrong end of a lopsided score. The WORST thing is when the opposing team decides not to shoot any more. They make pass after pass after pass while the losing team runs around chasing after them. Its humiliating. I'd rather lose 20-1 than have it be 10-1 and the other team not shoot. Run it up, and make me do better next time. JD

  3. Sometimes in golf, I'll hit from the woods on the left side into the woods on the right side... oh wait, this isn't the same thing