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Turning PITCHOUTS Into PRINTOUTS : High School Coaches Increasingly Turn to Computers to Anticipate and Beat Their Opponents' Moves

November 13, 1986|ED HAGEROTT | Times Staff Writer

At thousands of high schools across the nation, chalkboards have been replaced by keyboards. Along with blitzes and bombs, coaches are using floppy disks to put the byte on opponents.

Computerized scouting systems are becoming as important to football programs as knee braces.

Nine of the 42 Valley-area high schools fielding 11-man teams use computers to scout opponents. Three schools plan to purchase systems next year and 16 said they would if time or budgets allowed.

Drawing information from a list of every play an opponent has run in past games, coaches use the computer scouting programs to discover trends in play selection. They input the details of each play--which have either been witnessed by a human scout or viewed on a game film--into a computer, which groups plays with similar variables. The variables include the circumstances before the snap--including down, distance to go, field position, formation and the type of defense faced--and the play's result.

After doing some whizbang analysis on disk, the computer might indicate in a printout or on screen that an opponent passed to the tight end in the middle of the field 60% of the time when it had the ball on second down and long around its 40-yard line. Or it might show that a team runs a draw play 70% of the time on third down when it needs between four and eight yards for a first.

When those situations arise in an actual game, a coach aligns his defense in a formation best suited for stopping the play the opponent tends to run most.

Software Associates of North East, a Pennsylvania-based organization and the nation's leader in computer scouting, has sold programs to more than 1,500 high schools in the past four years. Midwest Software, of Michigan, has sold to more than 1,000 coaches.

Scouting programs have been widely used by National Football League and NCAA Division I teams for several years. Their recent advent at high schools is credited to the creation of less complex and expensive software.

Bill Backstrom, who coaches at El Modena High in Orange and sells his own system, estimates that at least a third of Orange County coaches scout with computers.

Few trust the programs' data more than Alan Epstein, coach at Birmingham in Van Nuys. Each Saturday, Epstein dissects printouts that reveal the offensive tendencies of his next opponent.

The investment--from nine-hour Saturdays to the $295 software--is showing a profit for Birmingham's defense, which has allowed an average of only 200 yards and 17 points a game. All despite a small defensive line that includes a 150-pound nose tackle.

The impact was more pronounced last season, when Birmingham had three straight shutouts. The plan worked so well that Epstein said he used his second-string defense most of the game in two of those shutouts.

"It's caused us to spend more time, hour-wise, but it makes scouting much more exact," Epstein said. "We can't overlook anything, it's right there in front of us."

Hundreds of systems are available--five varieties are used in the Valley-area alone--and although software ranges from $50 to $700, each program attempts to provide coaches with the same results.

Sometimes, those results offer a tantalizing bit more than the mundane. Most coaches, for instance, would expect a team to throw a pass on third and 10 or to run on third and inches. Scouting software, however, then goes on to reveal trends often missed by human evaluation--such as to which side the play will go, and who is likely to handle the ball.

Westlake Coach George Contreras, one of 65 California coaches who paid $600 for the Scout Plus program, discovered that Simi Valley has strong tendencies in certain formations.

"In one set, Simi runs the same pass pattern every time," said Contreras, whose team defeated the Pioneers, 24-20. "It's a very successful play and it's hard to stop, but they always do the same thing."

Contreras became a believer in computer programs in 1981, when a system designed by Radio Shack revealed that Saugus always ran the same four plays in a row when inside the 10-yard line. Westlake made a successful goal-line stand late in its game against the Centurions, and Contreras said he went by the computer instead of by the book.

Burroughs Coach Bob Dunivant said his team's 41-29 win against Schurr on Oct. 17 was strongly influenced by his computer program.

Valley-area teams using computerized scouting programs have won 72% of their league games. Those who don't have lost 58%.

Many high school coaches consider computerized scouting programs the innovation of the '80s, but their players weren't even born when the first software was designed.

When the original system appeared in 1963, Mike Ditka was an All-Pro for the world champion Chicago Bears and Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy.

Tom Paton, meanwhile, began marketing a system called Compuscout, the pioneering program.

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