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Always Onside Kick, Go For It on 4th Down, Arrive At The Stadium Late - The Kevin Kelley Way at Pulaski Academy

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Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

I started writing about the nascent new analytics movement in football tactics on this blog way back in 2007 when I came across the Bellman Equation paper. Since then, practitioner Kevin Kelley has gotten a lot more attention with recent features in the Wall Street Journal, HBO's Real Sports and The New York Times.  Few, if any coaches, have followed his trailblazing ways.

Here's a well done video feature from Grantland that covers the math in a palatable way:

Kelley is 125-18-1 at Pulaski Academy with state championships in three different classifications (private schools in Arkansas must play one class higher than their enrollment) and five championship game appearances.  And no - he's not recruiting loaded squads - some of his teams were completely bereft of FBS athletes.  His style of play is creating wins.

Why haven't FBS schools - particularly the bottom quartile - come calling?  The simple answer is fear and conformity. Even though it's not exactly far-fetched to go from dominating the high school ranks to building college powers with schematic wizardry and the promise of fun - see Art Briles, Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn.  Yet Kelley is still coaching at a private school in Arkansas.

I dug up this Kelley interview from a few months ago and thought you might get a kick out of it. Because it highlights how his approach is substantially deeper than a couple of math-friendly gimmicks that work at the high school level. It's about a mode of thought.  The mode of thought that drives most meaningful progress.

Why is he doing this?  Because he started asking,"Why are we doing this?"

I took the position at Pulaski Academy, I implemented a directive that forced us to ask, "Why are we doing this?" And we applied that simple question to every single aspect of our football program. It’s a tougher question than you might think – especially when you begin to apply it to every, single aspect of your football program. With our program, we needed a good reason to do something, and not just say, "Because that’s the way we’ve always done something," or say, "Because that’s what everybody else does in football." In my opinion, those aren’t justifiable reasons to do something and that is not progressive thinking from someone in a leadership role as a coach.

Let's start with arriving early for away games.  Got to get there, get prepared, have meetings and get your game face on, right?

Most high-school teams, when they have road games, want to arrive at the stadium 2 to 2 ½ hours early prior to a game. The usual protocol for road games is that the team arrives early, they get out of the bus, unload stuff, walk around, have some team meetings, stretch, warm-up, and invariably, a lot of time is spent sitting around waiting for the game to start. I asked people in our program, why do we arrive at our opponent’s stadium 2 ½ hours early on game day? And no one had a good answer for me, other than give standard pat answers like, "it’s good to be early," or "because that’s what my coach did when we played," or "because that’s what we’ve always done." Again, none of those answers are satisfactory answers in terms of questioning why we are doing something. Another common coaching staff answer was, "So that our players arrive early enough to get ready, get mentally prepared, get stretched out and get their game-faces on." So players can get mentally prepared for the game? As a coaching staff, we’ve been preparing our players all week for this game. If they’re not prepared by the time they arrive at the stadium, then something’s wrong. If anything, all this standing and sitting around is making them nervous – and takes away from their mental focus and preparation. Arriving at an opposing stadium 2 ½-hours early for a game wasn’t deemed a productive action. So by that measure, then why were we doing it?

I remember this in high school distinctly.  You'd bus out way too early (acting serious and scowling because it was game day - but if you're psyching yourself up hours out from the game, you're already wasting energy) and then you'd end up dicking around in a 110 degree visiting team locker room for another two hours waiting for the game.  We weren't exactly jacked up at kickoff - we were dehydrated, nervous and bored.

Here's what Pulaski does:

45 minutes. That’s it. 45 minutes means we’ve got 10 minutes to unload the bus and get inside, and about 5-minutes to get dressed. I’m not going to lie – it’s very much a "hustle-up-hurry-up" mindset and that’s exactly what we’re striving for. We hustle our butts, we get out on the field for a sharp, highly organized 10-minute warm-up-and-stretch period, and afterward, we’ll go back into the locker room for a pre-game talk.  We come back out when the refs tell us that it’s time to play the game. We’re prepared for all of this. When our bus pulls up at that opposing stadium, we are all business. The hustle-up/hurry-up mindset on game-day dovetails nicely with our philosophy offensively and defensively, which is to be very aggressive and to always be in "attack mode." So our playing style fits into our arrival-time mindset perfectly. We show up. We get off the bus. We’re all business and we attack the opponent.

Pad up!  I'm sorry - but that's just...right.  The mentality and psychology are just correct.  The coaches don't have to enforce some bullshit "get serious, it's game day" dictate four hours out, players don't lose energy and gain nerves idling away; the excitement of kickoff being 30 minutes away as you're getting your pads on is exactly where you want to be mentally - focused, energized and ready.

There's another psychological component to his exploitation of math in game tactics.  Preparation for disparate outcomes.

Kelley prepares the players for chaos.  Pulaski lives in created chaos - their job is to inoculate their players to its effects and let the other team drown in viruses of doubt.  That's what the conventional analysis of Kelley's approach doesn't understand - the Pulaski defense fully EXPECTS that they're going on the field with the opponent inside their territory several times in a game.  It's how they play.  Your panic is their comfort zone.  It's just another day at the office.

Ultimately, though, what I’ve seen happen, is that the first time something goes wrong with that planned-out schedule – that comfortable road-game pre-game routine where they don’t have to think – the players begin to panic. They panic when they’re out of their comfort-zone and suddenly now have to think about the unexpected. It rattles them and I’ve seen teams fall apart psychologically because of a pre-game problem. At Pulaski Academy, we kind of always arrange things so that things are always going wrong for players. We always take our players out of their comfort zone mentally and we constantly challenge them with the unexpected. What we’ve found is, that when adversity and the abnormal becomes the norm, that our players have become much more adept at shaking problematic things off and quickly re-focus on the task at hand. Our players don’t get shaken up mentally, and they have a conditioned ability to stay focused amidst chaos. That’s helps us immeasurably during games, too. When things don’t go as planned during a game, our players don’t panic.

Again, this resonates with me.  Coaches can be such control freaks that they forget to expose the players to the fact that while football preparation should be extremely organized, football games are not.  The quarterback gets hurt on the first snap from scrimmage, the defense has to take the field again after a fluke turnover, the opposing team might convert a lucky 3rd and 20.  Football is chaotic and unfair.  Yet we constantly see teams reel before minor setbacks as if it were absolutely unexpected.  Coaches preach psychological toughness - Pulaski lives it.

In addition to never punting, Pulaski always onside kicks.  This isn't just a mathematical advantage - this a tactical and schematic advantage.  Because they always do it, they're really good at it.  Because you rarely do it, you're terrible at it.  I like those odds.

Here's Pulaski's onside kick package

A regular high school football team will spend about 15 minutes on onside kicks during one 2 a day practice and probably practice it once more during the season with about three actual kicks occurring.  Sound like a recipe for skill mastery to you?  No matter.  All coaches have an implicit gentleman's agreement not to onside kick unless it's the final moments of a game.

Pulaski practices onside kicking every day and identifies players with a specific knack for coming up with the ball.  Not by guessing - by drilling, watching and devising strategies to maximize outcomes.  They run onside recovery "plays." Their opponents are out there in a situation they've never experienced hoping for the best against a group of skilled repo men.

A high school team's "hands team" is comprised of guys the coaches guess will do OK at it.  They actually have no evidence - other than that they play skill positions.  Then they try to cram in a week of prep when they play Pulaski.

Want to guess which team is going to have better outcomes?

Kelley's math is also pretty compelling: when they kick it off normally, the receiving team gets it on the 33 (if they don't bring it back for a touchdown).  When Pulaski fails on an inside kick, the other team gets it on their 47.  14 yards in exchange for forcing a turnover on roughly 1 out of every 3-5 kick attempts.

Kickoffs occur at the beginning of a half or after Pulaski has scored.  Think about the psychology at work there.  Your offense is supposed to get the ball.  Your defense is supposed to get a rest and get some whiteboard time with the defensive coordinator to figure out what Pulaski just did to score. They kick, recover and now they're about to score again.  You never saw the ball.  You never got your adjustments in.  Your players are freaking out.  How will their nerves be on the next kick?  Pulaski recovers again.  Throws deep (Pulaski attacks after all turnovers).  It's 21-0. Your team is psychologically done.  The game just started.

You can reverse that scenario to bad outcomes for Pulaski and that will happen, but the point is that Kelley has built the entire program to be impervious to what cripples other teams.  Their guys are mentally tougher than yours because they always play in the fringes of chaos - they're experts in weirdness.  You're playing weird just one week.  They're veterans of weird outcomes and know that leads with time on the clock either way mean nothing.  Just keep playing.

In the same scenario, your team is on the constant verge of panic.

In Part II, I'll dig into some other interesting aspects of Pulaski such as: no whistles at practice (amusingly, the coaches say the word "whistle" to stop a play), no pads during the week (idea courtesy of St Johns and John Gagliardi), offensive and defensive philosophy and Kelley's coaching influences.