Don't blame Stoops for Oklahoma's puzzling punt; blame the BCS
By punting while trailing Missouri late, Oklahoma gave up on trying to win
Bob Stoops said he worried what a worse loss would do to OU's BCS rank
Stoops surely wanted to do everything to win, but the BCS left him no choice
Add this to the long list of reasons to hate the way college football crowns its national champion.
It convinces hypercompetitive, ultra-successful men to quit when their instincts and their training tell them to keep trying to win.
Oklahoma's Bob Stoops is, by all empirical measures, a wonderful football coach. Anecdotally, I can attest. I was a freshman walk-on offensive lineman at Florida when Stoops was a first-year defensive coordinator in Gainesville. As a member of the scout team offense, I spent more time in practice with Stoops and his defensive staff than with the offensive coaches. The man knows how to coach. He knows how to motivate. He would (constructively) tear a player's performance to shreds on the practice field and then be the first to shake his hand in the weight room the next morning and thank him for his hard work. His dedication to victory was never, ever in doubt. At no point did Stoops strike me as a man who wouldn't do everything in his power to win.
So I was a little taken aback as I stood on the sideline Saturday night in Columbia, Mo., and watched the Sooners punt from their own seven-yard line. They trailed Missouri by nine with a little more than two minutes remaining in the game. They had to score twice. If they ran an offensive play on fourth down, they had a tiny fraction of a chance at a comeback. If they gave the Tigers the ball, the Sooners stood no chance of winning.
Monday, Stoops explained why he chose to punt.
"It's a long year. Who knows how poll people look at scores?" Stoops told reporters. "Had we had a reasonable amount, some kind of field position, had we shown any signs the previous three plays of making a play, we would have (gone for it). But I didn't see that."
(Some will argue that Stoops' decision to try for a two-point conversion after Oklahoma's final touchdown doomed the Sooners, but at least there is a tactical explanation for that. Had Oklahoma succeeded, the two-pointer would have provided a palpable momentum swing. The punt call offered no discernible tactical advantage.)
To avoid allowing a touchdown that would have turned a nine-point loss into a 16-point loss, Stoops surrendered his team's last -- albeit slim -- chance at victory. For this, I don't blame Stoops. I blame the BCS.
Stoops is absolutely correct. There are numerous coaches' poll and Harris Interactive Poll voters who didn't watch the Oklahoma-Missouri game. (Heck, two years ago, the Harris Poll had a voter who thought Penn State was undefeated weeks after the Nittany Lions had lost to Iowa.) Stoops knew those voters would look at a 16-point final score, assume the Sooners got their butts kicked and send Oklahoma plunging in the polls. It's possible Oklahoma might have gotten downgraded so much that even if it went undefeated the rest of the way, avenged the loss in the Big 12 championship game and all hell broke loose in the rest of college football, voters still might not have allowed the Sooners back into the national title chase.
Some will say that since Stoops' job is to win, his decision to punt represents a dereliction of duty. On the contrary. Stoops' job is to put the Sooners in the best possible position to win the national title. Down nine at that juncture, he performed a quick cost-benefit analysis and made the best decision under those circumstances. The circumstances are the problem. A playoff would allow Stoops to marry his obligation to pursue victory with his obligation to position Oklahoma for a chance at the national title. If there are no poll voters to impress, the motivation to avoid the appearance of a blowout disappears.
NFL-coach-turned-ESPN-talking-head Herm Edwards gave a brilliant answer on Oct. 30, 2002 that described any coach's -- or any athlete's -- motivation. You've seen the clip on SportsCenter or YouTube dozens of times, but the message gets lost in Edwards' histrionics. Read Edwards' words.
"This is what's great about sports. This is what the greatest thing about sports is. You play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game. You don't play it to just play it. That's the great thing about sports: you play to win, and I don't care if you don't have any wins. You go play to win. When you start tellin' me it doesn't matter, then retire. Get out! 'Cause it matters."
It matters, unless you're trying to impress a diffuse group of voters who may not be paying enough attention to understand that the margin of victory sometimes changes because one team refused to give up. That's fitting. When the BCS overlords leave their hollowed-out volcano to convince us why a playoff won't work, one of their principal arguments is that all but one team in a playoff ends the season with a loss -- and that might make people feel bad about themselves.
If that's the case, why hand out a crystal football at all? Why not make 120 participation trophies and hand one to each FBS coach at the end of the season?
In life, there are wins and losses. You get the job, or the other guy gets the job. You win the account, or the other company wins the account. She says yes to the ring, or she says no to the ring.
Since sports are supposed to teach young people about life, we tell the kids in Little League and Pop Warner that no matter how dire the circumstances, they should always try their best.
Not in BCS-land. In BCS-land, it's not about potentially futile, last-ditch efforts that might inspire someone to persevere later in life. It's about managing losses so some sports information director or retired athletic director who fell asleep before the final whistle doesn't think you got your teeth kicked in.
I'd rather my team lose by 100 than quit. In his soul, I guarantee Stoops feels the same way.
But the BCS left him no choice but to punt.
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