Gorches: Thinking outside the box the right call
By Steve T. Gorches 648-3141 or email@example.com February 25, 2012 11:26PM
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/ Jason Arthur PA Head Coach Kevin Kelly talks with a coach in the press box during the PA-Beebe game.
Updated: March 27, 2012 8:27AM
Imagine if your favorite high school football team had a 104-19 record over nine years.
Imagine if it won three state titles in that time frame, downright dominating teams at times.
Pretty nice, huh?
Imagine if your high school’s football coach had an outside-the-box mentality.
Imagine if he went for it on fourth down ... all the time.
Imagine if he never punted and never fielded punts.
Got all that? OK, now imagine if all that winning and all that craziness from the coach went together. A rebel coach who goes against the norm, a sort of mad scientist, and all his team does is win.
Meet Kevin Kelley, coach of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., a school with about 350 students. His story has been documented everywhere — the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and most recently as part of the HBO Sports show “REAL Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”
The latter is how I learned about this unconventional coach with unconventional methods who would make former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis proud — because all he does is win, baby.
I was so enthralled with this REAL Sports segment that aired about two weeks ago that I had to record it on my DVR and watch it again and again.
At first I thought “he’s crazy.” In fact, that was the first question the REAL Sports reporter asked Kelley. And his answer: “No, I’m just a lot smarter than everyone else.”
My next thought is probably going to make football coaches all across Northwest Indiana throw up a little in their mouths, but you know what, Kelley’s right. The statistics and percentages prove it.
On average, the difference between field position in kicking the ball deep or trying for an onside kick and failing is just 14 yards. Kelly is willing to give up that fairly small amount of field position for a chance at getting the ball back every time. As he puts it, “the most telling stat in the NFL is turnovers, and recovering an onside kick is like a turnover.”
As for going for it on fourth down, it doesn’t matter where his team’s at on the field. It sounds ridiculous, but again, the numbers don’t lie. If you go for it inside your own 10-yard-line and fail, the opponent scores a touchdown 92 percent of the time. If you punt it away, the opponent gets the ball on average at the 40, and scores a TD about 77 percent. That’s a difference of only 15 percent, which Kelley gladly gives up for a 50/50 chance of retaining possession.
Kelley has only punted four times in four years. Once when he chose to punt in 2007, the home crowd give him a standing ovation, which didn’t make him happy.
“It’s offensive failure; what are you cheering?” he said. “We definitely failed. What was our goal when we attained the ball? To make first downs and score touchdowns. If we don’t score a touchdown, we failed.
“I don’t even like our guys kicking the ball. I think it scuffs them up.”
The most publicized Pulaski game happened last September when the Bruins faced Cabot, a school about five times the size and ranked as one of the best in Arkansas. Pulaski got the ball first and scored a TD. It recovered the onside kick and scored another TD. The Bruins did it again, and again. Before the crowd of more than 8,000 knew it, Pulaski was ahead 29-0 without Cabot ever touching the ball. Pulaski went onto to win the game 64-34, and didn’t waver from Kelley’s style, recovering two more onside kicks later in the contest.
My question is, with the stats showing that Kelley is closer to being a genius than a whack-job, why aren’t more high school coaches following his proven recipe for success?
“It’s funny, but one of our assistant coaches saw the same thing (on HBO) and has been brainstorming ideas,” said Lake Central coach Brett St. Germain, who has been known to gamble a little during games. “If you’re willing to do that, it would cause (opponents) to work more on onside kicks.”
That’s what Kelley does — to the tune of 12 different onside kick formations using three different kickers on the field at the same time. One of the kicks has the kicker run up to the ball, stop, pick it up and drop kick it into the ground, which is within the rules.
Kelley also doesn’t field punts, instead choosing to go for the block every time. He says too many bad things can happen, like a fumble, injury or penalty.
“You’d have to be willing to live with the outcome,” added St. Germain, who will be the head coach for the North All-Star squad in July. “You have to completely buy into a philosophy. It’s like running the no-huddle. It’s not a part-time gig. You have to do it all the time.”
He admits he doesn’t know enough about Kelley’s philosophy to do it, but that could change before August. Another region coach whom I wouldn’t bet against trying the off-the-wall premise is Wheeler’s Dan Klimczak.
The Bearcats are often vilified for playing in a weaker conference — the Greater South Shore — in which they haven’t been challenged since it formed in 2007, while being accused of running up the score. Wheeler has won every GSSC game, with only one decided by less than 14 points.
“Averages would point to it working,” Klimczak said. “I think there’s something to it. It’s an interesting concept. We go for it on fourth down often. It takes a team out of its comfort zone.”
But he’s not completely sold on all of Kelley’s concept, especially after Wheeler’s shocking 12-7 victory over Andrean in the Class 2A sectional opener. In that game, Andrean turned the ball over several times, but was also put behind the eight ball by some pretty impressive punting.
“Our punting game is probably what won us the Andrean game,” Klimczak said. “We pinned them at the one-inch line and inside the 10 another time.”
Good point, but it’s still too conservative in my view since I’m completely sold on Kelley’s playbook. A University of Chicago professor said that percentages dictate that teams should always go for it on fourth down inside the 40-yard-lines, even if it’s fourth-and-seven or fourth-and-eight. Kelley just carries it over to going for it everywhere on the field.
Come on high school football coaches. Show a little gumption like the best coach in Arkansas and stop going by the book, especially since “the book” is completely wrong.
Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveTGorches