Be the Coach Who Doesn’t Punt

On a wet and soggy Saturday in Little Rock, Coach Kevin Kelley and his Pulaski Academy Bruins captured their third-straight 5A state football championship.

Anyone involved in sports will tell you that’s difficult if not nearly impossible.

The fantastic feat is made even more fascinating when you consider the team’s brand of flashy and controversial football.

No, I’m not talking about the heated tents they kept on the sidelines of this cold December game.  And I’m not referring to the fact the team made a complete uniform change at halftime (yes, even the helmets).

I’m alluding to the fact Coach Kelley never punts…

His kickoffs are always onside…

And he almost always goes for two…

coach3To most coaches, that philosophy may seem risky — if not downright silly. To Coach Kelley, it’s playing a game of statistics and taking controlled risks.

Ben Carlson, who works in the financial world, broke down Kelley’s statistically strategy this way:

Kelley says you can tell who wins the game 75%-80% of the time just by looking at the turnover battle. He’s just trying to force turnovers through onside kicks. On an average kick-off the other team would get the ball at the 33 yard line. With the average onside kick (when they don’t recover it) the other team would get the ball, on average, at the 47 yard line. So they’re only giving up 14 yards when they don’t recover the onside kick. Their onside kick recovery rates average around 20%, so they get the ball back one out of five times. This can really change the complexion of the game.

And clearly, it works for the Arkansas coach.

So what can we learn from this strategy? Carlson, the writer I reference earlier who happens to be employed by Ritholtz Wealth Management and blogs on awealthofcommonsense.com, explains down Kelley’s thought process in a practical way:

Analytics aren’t perfect, but they’re necessary. There’s the old saying that not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. But how can an individual or organization ever truly understand their performance if they’re not defining and measuring the impact of their decisions?

coach2Measurement can improve performance. Performance measurement does you no good if you’re not going to implement your findings in some way. Kelley said once he discovered this data he felt he would have been providing a disservice a coach had he not utilized these techniques in his program.

Process over outcomes. This system isn’t foolproof. He’s looking for minor advantages and trying to improve his team’s chances for success. He estimates his game plan could improve their odds of success by 15% or so. That’s no guarantee. It’s a process over outcomes system that doesn’t work every time, but it works more often than not. That’s all you can ask for.

Make sure you’re being compensated for the risk you take. The coach knows going for it on fourth down, doing onside kicks and trying for big plays isn’t going to work out every time. There are times when these risks will back-fire. He had to factor in the failure rate when making the decision to take these calculated risks.

Going against conventional wisdom is not easy. Everyone else thinks this is crazy and gimmicky but Kelley thinks it’s just smart. He’s not trying to be a contrarian to try to stand out. He says, “there are those kinds of people that want to be different because they just want to be different. And there’s those kinds of people that want to be different because they’re looking for something to help them be more successful.”

Great insight and analysis from Carlson on the Arkansas’ coach’s statistical strategy.

coach34

I regularly push the people I work with (and myself) to take controlled risks and think outside the box.  What are we going to try new today?  How are we going to push the limit?

That doesn’t mean we need to try to change our respective industries.  But we can’t become satisfied or complacent.  As soon as the dust settles from this game, Kelley will examine new ways to make improvements to ensure his team even better next season.

You have to admire Coach Kelley for changing the way the game is played.  Will others be willing to take the risk and follow his lead?

If they don’t, he’ll likely land his fourth-straight title.

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