How to be fearless on fourth down

By Steve Brawner

After the Arkansas Razorbacks’ field goal kicker – a college kid, let’s please remember – missed two chip shot field goals against TCU Saturday, Coach Bret Bielema said, “We’ll go for it every time, or we have to find a new kicker.”

If the first option is the case, the Hogs wouldn’t be plowing new ground. At Pulaski Academy high school in Little Rock, they’ve been going for it every time on fourth down – regardless of field position – for years, and won six state championships.

Head Coach Kevin Kelley created his unorthodox style after reading books about human nature and mathematics and deciding that the rewards of having four downs to make 10 yards outweighed the risks of not punting. That same analysis led him to try an onside kick on most kickoffs, giving his team a chance to recover the ball, rather than kicking it downfield.

Kelley doesn’t even punt when backed against his own end zone, where failure means giving the other team the ball yards from a touchdown. His analysis of college teams found a punt from that position would give the other team great field position that would likely lead to a touchdown anyway, so you might as well try to keep the ball.

Kelley’s style and success have made him somewhat famous in the sports world. Pulaski Academy is a nationally known program whose game with Louisiana’s Parkway High School was televised on ESPNU Sept. 15.

You’d think other coaches would want to copy him, and they do listen to him. But coaching is a risk-averse profession with limited job security. One coach told him he could be fired if a fourth down attempt in his own territory failed and he lost the game, whereas his job is safe if he loses that same game playing conventionally.

“The coaches I’ve talked to at the highest levels in the NFL and college have told me, ‘Hey, we think you’re right on this, but we can’t do it because we don’t just worry about our job. We worry about our staff’s jobs,’” he said Tuesday.

Kelley’s style hasn’t always worked in his favor. He said someone found a game Pulaski Academy lost because of its no-punt strategy. But he says you can’t make decisions based on a small sample size.

A couple of years ago, his players couldn’t quite fulfill his vision. When the numbers showed that players should more often lateral the ball to a trailing teammate, he wanted to create a freewheeling style, sort of like rugby on the football field. But lateraling risks a turnover, and players could not overcome that fear that had been ingrained since childhood. So instead of asking them to freelance, Kelley ran more plays designed and practiced with a lateral.

We all could learn from Kelley. Look for the holes in the conventional wisdom. Trust data over anecdotes, and take evidence-based risks. Worry less about what people think, especially when you know they’re wrong. Focus on the big successes rather than the small failures. Give people a vision but work with them where they are.

Congress could learn a few things, too. Like football coaches, they make a lot of decisions from a fear of losing – in their case, elections. Because most congressional districts are now dominated by one party or the other, the threat most likely would come from a primary challenge from within the member’s own party. A lot of votes are cast in order to neutralize that threat. And when it comes to the big issues, Congress punts a lot.

Kelley said most officials run for office for the right reasons, but once elected they get trapped into party-based thinking. He said they should just do what they think is right, and they’ll probably be re-elected.

“Don’t think like a party. Think like an individual,” he said.

It’s worked for him in high school football – to the tune of six state championships.

This year, they’re going for a seventh. The Bruins beat Parkway High School 62-21. Maybe some members of Congress tuned in.

© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

2 thoughts on “How to be fearless on fourth down

  1. Nice parallel, Steve. I have to believe that at some point someone’s going to make a movie about Coach Kelley. It’s just a perfect setup for a dramatic climax. Football’s answer to “Moneyball”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *