We first introduced you to Pulaski Academy Bruins Head Coach Kevin Kelley in 2008 as his high school football team was on their way to their second state championship. It wasn’t his success that peeked our interest; however, it was his insistence to go for it on fourth down…all of them.
Pulaski Academy (Little Rock, AR) recently reappeared into the national spotlight after they led a team 29-0 just three-and-a-half minutes into the game. But that wasn’t why it was on the front page of Yahoo. The real story was that Arkansas’ third largest school, Cabot, had not run an offensive play. Cabot had deferred to receive the ball in the second half and unsuccessfully onside kicked to start the game. The Bruins scored, recovered an onside kick, scored, recovered an onside kick, scored, recovered an onside kick, and then scored again before Cabot finally recovered a kick.
Going for it on fourth down and kicking onside kicks are just two of the quirky philosophies that Coach Kelley uses to lead his program. We’ll try to outline those philosophies here as well as the reasons behind his madness.
Foregoing the Punt
Coach Kelley has not always gone for it on every fourth down. He took over as head coach in 2003 after being promoted from offensive coordinator. Prior to becoming the head coach, he had watched a video by a Harvard professor that had analyzed every game from college football for three years. In that study, it revealed that if a team takes possession of the ball inside their opponent’s 10-yard line, then they have a 92% chance of scoring. If they take possession between their opponent’s 30- and 40-yard line, then they will score 77% of the time. So even when his team is backed up inside their own 10, he argues that if he nets a punt of 30 yards (which is a good average NET punt for high school), then he only decreases his opponent’s chance of scoring by 15%. He feels that most fourth down situations that he faces has a better than 15% chance of being successful.
Below is a chart of their number of punts and 4th down percentage since 2003. Note that this is 4th downs in all situations, 4th and 1’s as well as 4th and 25’s, as well as 4th downs with second and third string players.
As we said, Coach Kelley believes that the numbers tell him to go for it. As he looks at more factors and more numbers, the more he is convinced that he is right – from the psychological effect of both teams for a successful fourth down conversion to the value (or lack thereof) of field position in today’s game. “Punting is offensive failure. It’s willingly giving the ball to the other team. A voluntary turnover,” says Kelley. “If we average just 50% on 4th down conversions, then we are keeping the ball half the time that playing conventional football would have us give it up on a punt. And for what, 30 yards of field position?”
Kelley could talk for hours making his case. He’d bring out numbers, game statistics, or his own anecdotal accounts. And he might even convince the most traditional of coaches – at least a little. He once had a BCS level offensive coordinator in his office for two hours listening and taking notes as if he would be given an exam on the material. That coach went back to his head coach to argue his case, but to no avail. Kelley explained that college coaches are rarely willing to go against conventional wisdom even if they think it will help them win because their job is on the line. Regardless of what the numbers say, if they fail in that single instance, they could be fired.
The numbers behind the onside kick seem a little more straightforward than that of the 4th downs. Kelley said, “We took three years of data from when we kicked the ball deep and occasionally onside kicked. Kicking it deep gave the ball to our opponents on average at their 33-yard line. Onside kicks gave them the ball at their 48-yard line. So we’re giving up 15 yards of field position for a chance at getting the ball, which basically amounts to a turnover.”
Oddly enough, one of Kelley’s main objectives in kicking the onside kick doesn’t seem to be to get the ball. “What most people don’t realize is how much time a team has to practice working on our different onside kicks. And all that time spent on that is time away from practicing against stopping our offense or working on theirs.” Kelley went on to say, “If I had an onside kick that guaranteed me to get the ball 80% of the time, I would still use several different ones just so the other team would have to spend time on them.”
One would think that Pulaski Academy uses a large percentage of their own practice time on onside kicks, but that’s not the case. This year, they started devoting ten minutes per practice, two times a week, to their kickoffs and kickoff return teams beginning two weeks before their first game. And since they are always worried opponents will onside kick against them, they use their “hands” return team to field against their own onside kicks. Special teams coach Adam DePriest states that, “We try to go through each of our shifts and most of our kicks each time we’re given a segment. Whatever we don’t get through on Tuesday, we’ll be sure and hit that on Thursday. We’ll end our segment with two deep kicks so that our kickoff return team can practice on their returns we’ve installed.”
Many teams have their pregame ritual that involves exact times to arrive, walk the field, get dressed, first group take the field, etc. on game day. Pulaski Academy doesn’t. Their arrival goal to an away game is approximately 40 minutes before the kickoff. When they arrive, it’s a “circus-like” atmosphere of coaches yelling for the kids to hurry to get dressed to get out onto the field. From the outside looking in, it would appear that the team ran into unexpected traffic or miscalculated the amount of time it took to get there. However, it’s all part of the plan.
“The worst part I remember, and just about anyone you talk to remembers, about game day is the 30-45 minutes before a game when you’ve already warmed up, and then you are just waiting for the game – ‘getting focused’ as the coaches would tell you,” Kelley remarks. “We take that part completely away. With all the hustle of getting dressed with coaches yelling, they don’t have time to sit around and get nervous. We show up, get dressed, run to the field, throw the ball around a little bit, get back to the locker room for a quick pregame speech, then it’s time to go.”
Coach Kelley will admit that this hasn’t always been his philosophy. In 2009, they were getting ready to travel over two hours to West Helena, an extremely athletic and extremely intimidating opponent. Longtime coach and second-year assistant, Pip Runyan, suggested showing up for the game to warm up AFTER West Helena had left the field. Kelley heeded the advice, even stopping at a gas station for 15 minutes halfway there to stall. They arrived at the stadium at 6:47 for the 7:30 game and pulled off the upset. The following week, they used the same strategy as they traveled to Greenwood, the top-ranked 5A team in the state. Once again, they pulled off the upset and headed to the semifinals the next week, another two-hour trip, this time to Monticello, who was the new top-ranked team in 5A. They did not win, but his new philosophy for game day had been cemented.
Kelley has never been a big fan of organized stretching. Beginning the first 15 minutes of practice stretching and doing agilities seemed like 15 minutes taking away from working on offense or defense. In 2007, Kelley attended the AFCA Convention in San Antonio and listened to a guy by the name of John Gagliardi speak. He’s been coaching at St. John’s University in Minnesota since 1953 and has the most wins all-time for NCAA coaches, including four national titles. Gagliardi says they never stretch. He uses examples of intramural players, football players that would show up late to practice because of a lab, and third string players that have been standing on the sidelines for three hours. “They don’t stretch, and they don’t get hurt.” So Kelley has adopted that philosophy and tells his players to jog a lap and stretch on their own before the coaches get out to practice. The same can be seen on a Friday night, as the pregame rituals don’t have time to include much stretching.
Kelley has other idiosyncrasies that separate him from the traditional coaching mode. Earlier this year, his team hit the road for a two-and-a-half hour bus ride to De Queen, Arkansas. He broke up the trip by stopping 30 minutes into the trip for a movie, drove another 40 minutes for a pregame meal, then headed to De Queen to arrive at the game at 6:50 for the 7:30 kickoff, of course.
Like him or hate him, agree or disagree, it’s hard to argue with his success. He’ll continue coaching the way he believes gives his team the best chance to win, regardless of the naysayers.
Adam DePriest is the Special Teams Coordinator and the Sports Information Director at Pulaski Academy.