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Ethan Sturm | Rules of the Game

Building the better coach

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 01:02

Last week, Wisconsin and Michigan produced an instant classic by playing to a 60-60 tie in regulation before the Badgers completed a 65-62 upset in overtime. While the talent of the players on the court helped create the memorable contest, the ineptitude of the coaches on the bench was just as relevant.

With the game tied and Michigan holding for the last shot in regulation, Wisconsin had multiple fouls to give, which would have forced the Wolverines to inbound the ball once again while draining valuable seconds off the clock. The risk was allowing a shooting foul, but even when presented with the perfect opportunity for a foul on the floor ― in the midst of a handoff, the Badgers chose not to. Tim Hardaway Jr. hit a 3- pointer, and Michigan had the game all but sealed up with less than three seconds left.

With Wisconsin now needing to go the length of the court, all Michigan had to do was foul the player catching the inbounds pass, sending him to the line for just two shots with his team down two. The Wolverines chose not to, and a half-court shot sent the game to overtime and helped to end Michigan’s run as No. 1 in the country.

Coaching in professional sports has become about not messing up instead of trying to do what’s best for your team. Either coach would have been crucified if fouling had resulted in a shooting foul because it’s the less used play, and in a smaller sample size, a negative result looks worse to the untrained eye. It’s also not what a coach is “expected to do,” as though we must follow a hundred year-old, unwritten creed, advanced statistics be damned.

This isn’t a basketball-specific phenomenon. Football coaches love to say that “you don’t go for two until the fourth quarter” even though there are now simple modeling programs that can tell any Joe Schmoe exactly whether they should at any point in a game. It almost cost Jim Harbaugh at the Super Bowl, when, down 22, his team scored and chose not to go for two. If they had and failed, they could have recovered by converting the next two. By waiting, his team left it up to one roll of the dice, with no recovery for a failure.

Baseball coaches may be the worst offenders. Sabermetricians have proven again and again in recent years that sacrifice bunts and stolen base attempts are almost always negative value plays. 

Yet coaches continue to go to those calls because it’s what’s expected at this point. A Baseball Prospectus study found that almost every Major League coach loses his team value through his decision making. The goal now is to lose your team as little value as possible. These coaches get millions of dollars, but a five year-old chewing Hubba Bubba could do as good a job without doing much of anything.

All of this makes it so easy to appreciate when a coach makes the right decision while going completely against the norm. John Harbaugh, instead of punting out of his own end zone up five in the closing seconds of the Super Bowl, instead elected to have his punter run around the end zone before taking a safety. To make it even better, he had all of his linemen intentionally hold to give the punter more time, knowing the worst the referees could do was call it at the end of the play and award a safety anyway. This perfect execution gave the 49ers no chance at a comeback.

The Harbaughs are two of the best and most innovative minds in the game, and it’s no surprise that their teams met in the Super Bowl. We can only hope that the trend continues until our professional athletes are finally being fed the right decisions all of the time. 

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Ethan Sturm is a senior who is majoring in biopsychology. He can be reached at Ethan.Sturm@tufts.edu or on Twitter @esturm90.

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