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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Roll the dice or play it safe? Pressure decisions can define a college football coach

Already this season, sideline strategists have found their poise tested and their judgment questioned. Says Ohio State's Jim Tressel: 'When it works, you were right. And when it doesn't, you weren't.'

September 17, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE

It's fourth down at midfield and what the millionaire coach decides before the play clock runs out -- punt, pass, kick? -- could win the game or ultimately cost him the national title and/or his job.

Either way the call will get cut up like a biology-lab frog by 24-hour cable, sportswriters with community college degrees and Monday morning quarterback clubs.

So you want to be a head coach?

Last weekend was a clinic for poise -- and perhaps a lack thereof -- under pressure.

The new kids looked on with rapt fascination.

"Every opportunity I get I'm watching head coaches and how they respond to the situations that come about," first-year Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian said. "I'm trying to learn and gain as much information and trying to put myself in their shoes. What would I do? What would I do?"

With no playoff in major college football, split-second game decisions made in the second week of September can have ramifications into December.

USC Coach Pete Carroll didn't think twice about going for the touchdown on fourth and short early in the Ohio State game. The Trojans scored . . . and won the game by three points.

Across the Ohio Stadium field, Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel made calls he's still having to explain -- decisions that may have ended his eight-year honeymoon in Columbus.

Faced with a fourth-and-goal situation of his own, Tressel opted for a field goal to give Ohio State a 10-7 lead. Then, late in the game, protecting a five-point lead, he elected to punt to USC rather than attempt a field goal that would have put his team up by eight.

Tressel's punt led to USC's winning, 86-yard drive. "When it works, you were right," he lamented. "And when it doesn't, you weren't."

The previous week, against Navy, Tressel was criticized for not being conservative enough when he went for it on fourth down instead of taking three points. The play failed and Navy nearly rallied to win.

At Ann Arbor, Mich., Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis called a brilliant game for 57 minutes but quite possibly screwed up the final three.

Nursing a three-point lead, Notre Dame had the ball at its 16 with 3:07 left. A run on first down picked up 13. Another first-down run gained nothing and Michigan called the first of its three timeouts.

Instead of keeping the ball on the ground the next two plays to force Michigan to burn the rest of its timeouts, Weis called two passes that fell incomplete, stopping the clock for the Wolverines.

Michigan got the ball back at its 43 with 2:13 left and scored the winning touchdown with 11 seconds remaining, twice using timeouts to stop the clock.

"You have two choices," Weis explained afterward. "You run the ball just to make them use their timeouts, or you try to win the game."

To which the second-guessers would say: Charlie, you were already winning.

Oregon Coach Chip Kelly, who broke into head coaching the hard way this year against Boise State, says making game decisions was what he looked forward to most in moving from offensive coordinator to the big chair.

"You do practice and prepare for it," Kelly said. "That's part of the game. That's the fun part, the strategy part of the game. It's always been very intriguing to me.

"Every game you watch, you're kind of being an armchair quarterback, making decisions. Would you make that decision?"

In Knoxville, Tenn., UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel made one last weekend that he might like to take back.

Holding a six-point lead late in the game but facing third and nine from UCLA's two, Neuheisel decided to roll quarterback Kevin Prince on a bootleg play in the end zone, where he got his jaw broken while being tackled for a safety -- the play Neuheisel was going to intentionally take on fourth down.

"It's easy to second-guess when you're sitting home [watching] on TV because you don't have the emotion, you don't have to make the decision in such time," Kelly said.

The art of decision making can define a coach and every college fan can probably recite his or her own best and worst list.

In the classic 10-10 game of 1966 featuring Notre Dame and Michigan State, Irish Coach Ara Parseghian decided to play it safe to assure his team wouldn't lose its bid for the national title, after which Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins famously penned: Notre Dame "tied one for the Gipper."

Conversely, in the 1984 Orange Bowl, Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne elected to go for a two-point conversion to beat Miami when an extra point and a tie would have clinched the national title.

The play failed, and Osborne waited another decade to win his first championship. The decision defined him as a coach who refused to compromise even when common sense might have allowed for it.

Coaches make big bucks to make the big calls. When Ralph Friedgen took over at Maryland, the story goes, he faced a big decision and wondered -- "I wonder what we're going to do?" -- before remembering it was now his decision.

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