Behind the Lines: One time….

It was 1:30 in the afternoon, on Halloween 1981. I was coaching my first state championship game as an assistant coach with the Lusk Tigers. Pinedale made the 300+ mile trek from Sublette County the day before for the Class B state title game at Gibson Field.

The Wranglers were much bigger than we were that season, everyone we played was, so we were used to it. We managed to pick up a couple of first downs but ended our first two drives with towering kicks from our punter Bill Graves.

Now we faced another fourth down situation at the Pinedale 43-yard line. It was one of those coaching dilemmas, the ones that everyone in the stands knows exactly how to handle, but as the guys managing the team on the field, we just weren’t so sure. If we picked up just four yards, we kept the drive going, if we failed, our defense had the Wranglers in negative yardage throughout the first period. Pinedale had a solid punt return team and kicking it to the sideline would most likely only net us a few yards.

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I had a favorite play, that I ran often with the junior varsity that season. We’d run it once at the varsity level, and it worked then too.

It was just a short snap to our fullback Kevin Ellis, nothing fancy. We lined up as usual in punt formation, but instead of snapping the ball back to Bill, it went directly to Kevin. We had a signal for Tye Reed, our backup quarterback and signal-caller on punts to look for. If the defense shifted in our favor, we signaled Tye, who called an audible with a hot color, and the ball went short to Kevin.

We lined up to punt. Pinedale had returned a couple of punts for touchdowns that season, so we knew they were likely to spread the formation, trying to stop our bullets and opening up the interior in the process. They did, covering our split coverage guys, and dropping their linebackers back to set up a return.

The ball went to Kevin who rumbled 37-yards to the six-yard line, setting up a first and goal. We scored two plays later, took a 7-0 lead, and eventually won the game 21-0.

The moral of this tidbit of sports trivia is that play calling, that is calling the right play at the right time, remains an integral part of coaching at every level.

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In 1981 we relied on scouting reports, suggestions from friends who were fellow coaches from other leagues, and just our gut instincts. Film was available at the college and professional levels, and no doubt in Texas prep football, but it was not common in Wyoming four decades ago. Video, Huddle.com, and high-tech play tendency software were just a glint in some future designer’s eye. Old school football had a much more visceral feel than the digitized coaching that exists today.

Play calling is the essence of coaching any sport. In baseball, it might be a double-steal or a suicide squeeze, in basketball, you might run a clear-out play against a man-to-man defense setting up your best player for a one-on-one move against a single defender.

Good coaches know the limits of play calling as well. All you can hope for in most situations is to put your best player in a position to win the game for the team. All the preparation often comes down to a single play, with the kid you trust the most handling the ball and trying to beat the best the other team can put against him.

In other words, it’s that dirty word that educational “experts,” “woke” sociologists, and the other limp-wristed purveyors of impotence despise, the idea of competition.

To those of us who love competition, there isn’t much better when it comes to our existence as humans in a social setting than a good game.

A few years after my foray into varsity football, I was still coaching varsity basketball and track but had moved to the junior high ranks on the gridiron.

Junior high is an interesting level of football. In many schools, junior high coaching is forced on unwilling teachers as part of that notorious “other duties as assigned” clause at the bottom of the contract.

You do find a few schools where the varsity basketball or wrestling coach actively enjoys coaching football at the lower level. You’ll also find that those junior high schools usually field much better teams than the ones coached by teachers forced into the position.

One afternoon in the late 90s my mighty Wranglers of Shoshoni Middle School were in a pitched rivalry with a much bigger, much faster, much older conference rival. We should have been beaten soundly, but the poor kid coaching the other team was brand new, didn’t know much about football, and was in over his head.

It didn’t matter, I felt no sympathy and used what I could against him. Unbalanced lines, stunting defense, lots of misdirection, and as much deception as we could generate. Still, it was 0-0 at the half. It’s hard to overcome the size disparity we faced, especially at the early adolescent level of immature seventh and eighth-grade boys.

In football, there are a few basics that nearly everyone uses, one is the line spacing and back numbering at its simplest level. The gaps between linemen are sometimes called A, B, or C for defenders, but on offense, it’s easier to just call the holes on the left 1,3,5, or 7 and the ones on the right, 2,4,6, or 8. The backs are numbered one to four, quarterback, fullback, left or right halfback.

The young coach on the other side was calling plays from the sideline and I could easily hear him. “Slot right, 31 dive,” he’d yell.

I didn’t want to give myself away, so I didn’t call out the hole, instead, I called the player’s name where the play was coming. Doug, right at you, Seth, they’re running your side, Nate they’re throwing a pass to the flat.

Sometimes my kids adjusted, and sometimes they didn’t, but they all noticed I was calling the location of the play correctly every time.

At halftime a couple of them were amazed, “Boy coach, you guessed right every time,” they said.

“How about doing what I say for a change, now that you know I’ve been right?” I told the squad.

These were hormone unbalanced 13 to 15-year-old boys, so you couldn’t expect much in the way of logical coherence, but they did catch on.

In the third quarter, I caught the other coach calling a flat pass. I yelled to the field, “Doug, stay there, they’re going to throw the ball right to you.”

He listened, the pass hit him directly in the hands and he raced 65 yards for a pick-six touchdown.

It wasn’t exactly Vince Lombardi, Jimmy Johnson, or John Madden, but it was football, and we stole a win from a team that should have throttled us. Final score 14-0, Shoshoni.

The football gods smiled on us that afternoon. It’s good to win one once in a while that you shouldn’t have. In most situations, you never get that chance, there are just some teams so physically superior to yours that no matter what you do, you’re going to lose.

The magic comes in those rare moments when preparation meets opportunity, and no one in the stands can ever experience that like you can on the sidelines.

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