Politicians are good at stealing paychecks. Sometimes, American football coaches fit into this category as well.
These guys are paid millions of dollars per year (at smaller schools, six figures instead of seven), given the enormous television popularity and accompanying economic clout of college football. At America’s public universities (state schools as opposed to private institutions), the football coach is sometimes the highest-paid state employee.
One would think that in such a lucrative and high-profile industry, coaches would correctly be able to make the simplest decisions without fail.
Plenty of decisions in football are difficult. For example, fourth down (third down in the Canadian Football League) on the fringe of field goal range with five or six yards to go for a first down is frequently a no-win situation for a coach.
It is not 4th and 1, when getting the first down is much more easily attainable. It is not obvious that one should kick a field goal; if the kicker is unreliable, that choice becomes less realistic. Punting is an option, but punting deep in an opponent’s territory often feels like a concession and a display of weakness.
Some decisions are really tough, and one must then weigh the particulars of a situation to arrive at the best choice.
Some decisions can be second-guessed forever. Coaches earn their salaries by making the hard call in a delicate moment.
The situation facing Pittsburgh Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi late in his team’s in-state rivalry game with the Penn State Nittany Lions was NOT one of those tough choices.
The decision facing Narduzzi is a decision any credible football coach should get right 100 times out of 100, without exception. It is like asking a driver on a driving test if one should look in all directions before crossing a four-way intersection without a stoplight. The answer cannot ever be anything else.
Here was the situation: Pittsburgh — called Pitt by its own fans and commentators — trailed Penn State 17-10 late in the fourth quarter, but not at the very end of the game. Nearly five minutes remained. The Panthers faced fourth and goal from the Penn State 1-yard line.
In a world of basic math, kicking a field goal meant Pitt still would have trailed 17-13, by four points. Pitt would have still needed a touchdown to win.
If Pitt trailed 16-10 and not 17-10, a field goal still would have been an awful decision, but at least the three points would have had the benefit of enabling the Panthers to potentially tie the game at 16-16 and force overtime.
Here? A field goal did not provide that benefit.
Pitt was one yard away from the touchdown it ABSOLUTELY WAS GOING TO NEED TO TIE OR WIN THE GAME… and Narduzzi kicked the field goal… which, by the way, was missed.
Forget the fact that the field goal was missed. Remember that Narduzzi wanted to kick it… and did not admit his mistake after the game:
Pat Narduzzi's 4th-down decision is what everyone will remember from the final Pitt-Penn State game for the foreseeable future. And it’s a decision Narduzzi said he won’t question or second-guess.
Story from State College: https://t.co/e6iZWXqXoG
— John McGonigal (@jmcgonigal9) September 15, 2019
The especially annoying element of Narduzzi’s refusal to admit a mistake is that his explanation was empirically, factually, incorrect.
When anyone refers to “two scores” in a football-specific context, he or she refers to possessions. Just to alleviate any confusion, getting a six-point touchdown and then a 2-point conversion is not “two scores.” That is one possession with a touchdown and then a successful try for the conversion after the touchdown. Let there be no ambiguity on the matter. Eight points can be scored in one possession.
A “two-score” lead in football is nine points, not eight.
So, when Narduzzi said Pitt needed two scores to win in a game it trailed by seven, he was not entirely correct. He obviously was unwilling to go for a 2-point conversion had Pitt scored a touchdown, but he always had the option of going for two in an attempt to win, 18-17.
Pat Narduzzi explaining why he went with the 4th-and-goal FG attempt down 7 with 5 minutes left:
“You need two scores to win the football game, unless you’re playing for overtime…I don’t question that decision at all.” pic.twitter.com/MHE3ggbj2y
— John McGonigal (@jmcgonigal9) September 14, 2019
His assault on logic might seem spectacularly rare, and to be sure, most coaches would not have kicked the field goal in that situation on Saturday.
However — and other American football fans could tell you this; I could provide witnesses if asked — there are a few other coaches in college football and the NFL who WOULD have kicked this field goal in a similar if not exact situation.
The American football coach is an elevated and prized position in this nation’s sports culture. Since Knute Rockne developed the mythology of the American football coach at Notre Dame in the 1920s, the image of the wise, strong father figure — Bear Bryant at Alabama with his houndstooth hat; Woody Hayes with his white shirt, black tie, and Ohio State “O” cap; Nick Saban with his golf shirt and headset as a combination CEO and battlefield general — has become ingrained in American life.
The best coaches become messianic figures or life geniuses. Schools or professional teams build statues of these men. They are revered.
— Blog Dady (@BlogDady) September 9, 2019
This comes from mastering the sport which — more than any other — confers manhood on its participants, validating one’s toughness. I am not praising this cultural world, I am merely telling you what it looks and feels like in America, and how the culture responds to it.
Coaches preach toughness and determination to no end. Being a man, being a winner, is connected to fortitude and resolve, all these notions of never giving up and always giving it your very best, no matter what.
It is therefore astounding that some of these highly-paid coaches can be so weak in a moment of truth.
Get one yard to tie the game or set up a possible 2-point conversion for the win? NAAAAAH. Let’s kick a field goal and HOPE we get the ball back a second time to get the touchdown we just eschewed on fourth down and goal from the 1-yard line.
How much more cowardly — and mathematically wrong — can one be?
We would all love to make millions of dollars for being so bad at one’s job.
America, baby. The land of opportunity.