Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Some Surace, Some Henderson, Some McPhee

TigerBlog walked into Jadwin Gym yesterday and headed down to his office.

As he made his way to the door to the stairwell, he heard steps coming down from Jadwin balcony. Who was it? Head football coach Bob Surace.

TB and Surace saw each other and laughed. TigerBlog knew that Surace read what TB had written Monday, about how the two were on the same page, perhaps telepathically, when Surace chose to go for it on a 4th-and-1 from his own 29 in a tie game in the second quarter Saturday at Columbia.

It worked out. John Lovett got the first down. Princeton scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions. In the end, it was 48-13 Tigers.

Now it was two days later, and Surace could laugh about it. He readily admitted that he risked being second-guessed if it didn't work but said he didn't really think about that in the moment. All he was thinking about was what would TigerBlog do.

TigerBlog is a big fan of the kinds of chances that Surace took the other day. It's all about the risk and reward. The risk is small. The reward is huge. And look what happened? Princeton got the first down and then six plays later was in the end zone.

Now suppose the play had failed. And suppose Columbia had scored. Would that have made it a bad decision? No.

It's the Tippy Martinez story all over again. You remember Tippy Martinez. He pitched for the Baltimore Orioles way back when.

TigerBlog has already told you the Tippy Martinez story. If you forgot it, you can read it HERE.

Basically the point is that it's not the outcome of a decision that matters. It's the thought process that goes into it.

Surace knew he had a great short-yardage guy in John Lovett. He knew it was early. He knew he had faith in his defense. Why not go for it?

Nothing tortures TigerBlog more in football than watching a team punt and then seeing the other team get back to the spot on the field where the punt came from in three or four plays. There's a time to worry about field position. There's a time to value possession.

Unfortunately in football, the bigger issue for coaches seems to be not getting second-guessed. If Princeton punts there, it doesn't score on that drive, but nobody asks him after why he didn't go for it. If Princeton goes for it and doesn't get it - and perhaps loses the game - then every question is about going for it on fourth down in his own territory.

As he and Surace talked about the play, the decision and the general thought process of coaches, TigerBlog couldn't help but think that there aren't too many football coaches like Princeton's. Maybe it's why he succeeds here, because he understands what's important and what isn't and isn't caught up in the kind of over-the-top power trip that TigerBlog sees when he watches Power 5 conference games on TV.

Yeah, TigerBlog can't imagine having the same sort of conversation with, say, Bobby Petrino. Or Nick Saban. Or the whiny guy who coaches Clemson. Or pretty much any of them.

It would probably go something like this:
TB: Hey, Nick, here's what you should have done on fourth down.
Nick: Have this man eliminated.

While TigerBlog is referring back to what he's said already this week, he called Bob Bradley the most cerebral coach he's ever been around. While he stands by that statement, he thought of two others who deserve honorable mention.

One is Trevor Tierney, who has been an assistant coach with Denver lacrosse. The other is Mitch Henderson, Princeton's head men's basketball coach. TigerBlog thought about that yesterday when he and Henderson had a conversation of their own.

Henderson, if you haven't been paying attention, has been doing a series of podcasts, with previous conversations with Craig Robinson, Steve Mills, Sean Gregory and Brian Taylor.

The current one is with John McPhee. You can hear it HERE.

TigerBlog might be a bit biased towards Mr. McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize-winner, Princeton writing professor and Academic Athletic Fellow for the men's lacrosse program.

Still, the conversation with Henderson and McPhee is really, really good. Yes, it's a little long - 67 minutes, but it's really good stuff. TigerBlog had heard many of the stories before, but they're still really good.

It's great role reversal, the interviewer and the interviewee as they swap their usual positions. 

And Henderson is a great interviewer. He knows his subjects. He keeps the conversations going. He asks really good questions and then allows them to be answered.

If he wasn't coaching basketball, perhaps he would be on a TV magazine show somewhere.

Anyway, listen to the podcasts. They're outstanding.

TigerBlog went downstairs yesterday after his conversation with Surace and didn't go back upstairs until it was time to leave for the day. In addition to Henderson, one other head coach came into his office yesterday.

It was water polo coach Luis Nicolao, who came around the corner shouting "I hugged Bruce Springsteen."

There are, of course, different kinds of cerebral.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree entirely with the evaluation of risk and reward which went into the decision to go for it on fourth-and-one against Columbia. Poker players have a quantitative approach to this type of analysis. If you are drawing to a flush with only one more card to come, your odds of hitting the flush are 20% or one in five. If the pot you are likely to win exceeds five times the bet you are required to make to see that last card, then it's a good bet. Whether the last card turns out to be the suit you desire does not determine whether you made a good decision. It's the ratio of potential payoff relative to the cost of achieving that payoff which determines whether it was a sound train of thought.

If Lovett had been stopped for no gain, it would still have been a good call as shown by all the subsequent times that same play worked against Columbia. That's an attractive risk/reward opportunity, especially as it became clear that the Lions couldn't stop the run even when they knew it was coming. If Coach Surace had confidence in the play before later seeing it succeed again and again, that's insightful pre-game analysis on his part.

I wish that Coach Surace would use the same careful evaluation of risk and reward in deciding whether to play Rutgers in a season-opening game in 2019. The risk is potential injuries. The reward is improved recruiting, an excitement permeating the program for the next three years, and being on national television at the center of college football's sesquicentennial celebration on August 31, 2019. If some of our guys get injured in the game, that might make the decision look foolish. But statistically, they're not much more likely to be hurt against Rutgers than they are against Lehigh or Colgate. That makes playing Rutgers a favorable risk/reward opportunity. For the benefit of Princeton and all college football fans worldwide, let's take the risk and throw this 150th birthday party.