Better Coaching and Closing is a Matter of Strategy Tactics and a Lack of Fear

Sports teams win or lose for a reason, and good or bad coaching, especially in the closing phases of a game, is often that reason. Note that the principles discussed here are equally applicable to many human endeavors, including law and business (e.g. contract negotiations and the closing of contracts).

The college football weekend was marked by several last-minute wins (Notre Dame over UCLA, Texas over Nebraska) as well as an NCAA record come-from-behind victory by Michigan State over Northwestern, coming back from a 38-3 deficit in the 3rd quarter to win 41-38.

Football coaches can learn a lot from those and similar games, as follows:


ESPN carries an AP report on Notre Dame stuns UCLA on last-minute 45-yard TD in which we read:

Quinn, under pressure all day by a relentless UCLA defense, completed three straight passes in the final 62 seconds, capped by a 45-yard TD pass to Samardzija, to lead the Irish to a 20-17 come-from-behind victory over the Bruins on Saturday. [emphasis added]

Good teams win games like that,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. “Good teams at the end of the game somehow, good teams make a play at the end of the game to win.” …

Dorrell said the Bruins didn’t try to pressure Quinn as much on the final series….”We tried to play more coverage,” Dorrell said.”

And there you have in a nutshell why Notre Dame won that game and why UCLA lost. The Fighting Irish at the end were playing TO WIN. The Bruins at the end were playing NOT TO LOSE. We find this comment at Stewart Mandel’s College Football Blog by an anonymous poster:

Unbelievable. This was another example of horrible play calling down the stretch by our coaches at UCLA. With under three minutes to go, instead of aggressively trying for a first down by PASSING the ball like we had all game, the coaches decide to RUN up the middle for three straight plays. Yes, it made ND use their timeouts, but there was plenty of time left for them to comeback even without their timeouts. A first down there would have sealed the deal.

THEN the horrible, horrible PREVENT defense. Unbelievable. 4-man rush and our DB’s leaving plenty of cushion. This was an example of a team playing not to lose instead of playing to win….” [emphasis added]

As the perspicacious Stewart Mandel writes in his Saturday Observations Part II:

Despite having successfully pressured Quinn all day, UCLA went with every fan’s favorite, the prevent defense, when the Irish took over at their own 20 with 1:02 remaining. Two uncontested Quinn passes later, ND was at the Bruins’ 45. On what would be the fatal play, UCLA nearly got to Quinn with a four-man rush, but he scrambled to his right and hit a streaking Jeff Samardzija, who not only slipped past the coverage but then juked the last possible UCLA tackler out of his shoes en route to a 45-yard touchdown.”

There is a big difference, as we have previously pointed out, between champions and non-champions in the element of fear. Champions play fearlessly in order to win, whereas non-champions are afraid of losing. In order “not to lose”, UCLA on the last series of downs abandoned its “relentless defense” and went into more passive downfield coverage, giving the Notre Dame quarterback the time to throw which he needed, and which UCLA had otherwise been denying him during the game. This tactic cost UCLA the game. A successful ongoing fearless “winning” strategy was abandoned in the closing minutes of the game in favor of a more fearful “losing” strategy.

That is the reason that, as Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said: “good teams win games like that” – it is the mark of champions. Such teams continue to be aggressive and try to win down to the last second, whereas non-champions duck for cover. Had UCLA continued to give the Irish quarterback relentless pressure on the last series of downs, it is unlikely the Irish would have scored a touchdown in that short time period.

CAL 31 Washington 24 (OT- in overtime)

California made a similar mistake against Washington and was lucky to escape with an overtime victory, as Washington completed a deflected 40-yard pass against a similar “prevent defense” as in the ND-UCLA game to tie the game as time expired in regulation play.

The Cal player who deflected the pass pointed unknowingly to what may be a wide-spread (?) coaching deficit in college football, i.e. the lack of preparation of players for what they should do in particular situations:

I just tried to catch it — and knock it down,” Bishop lamented. “I’ve never even been in that situation before. I didn’t know what to do.”

Obviously, as an integral and essential part of coaching and teaching, players SHOULD be taught by the coaches what they are to do in particular game situations. That is the ESSENCE of coaching – preparation.

ESPN in the AP report Miracle catch forces OT, but UW can’t overcome Lynch, Cal writes:

We thought we had it wrapped up, and then I thought Doug Flutie was out there,” Cal linebacker Zack Follett said.

Football coaches also have to keep in mind and also teach their players, as Yogi Berra once so succinctly stated:

It ain’t over ’til it’s over“.


No coach and no team had to learn Berra’s lesson more painfully than the Northwestern Wildcats who squandered a 38-3 lead in the 3rd quarter (the comeback starting with only 7 minutes to play in that 3rd quarter) to lose 41-38, the greatest comeback in NCAA Division I-A football history. As reported by ESPN through the AP’s Spartans stun Cats for biggest comeback in I-A history:

…first-year Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald…took the blame for his team losing momentum….”

And well he should.

As written by Steward Mandel in The Agony of Defeat of his alma mater:

As you know, college football is a game of momentum. When the Wildcats were in the midst of their 38-point explosion, they could no wrong. Bacher was on fire. And because the Spartans’ defense had to contend with Bacher, suddenly RB Tyrell Sutton was running wild. The offense’s success seemed to be rubbing off on the defense, which continually stymied Michigan State QB Drew Stanton….

But once it got to 38-3, the offense backed off. Stanton started performing target practice on the suddenly helpless defense.”

The job of the coach in this situation is to regain his team’s own momentum as early as possible and block the opponent’s rising momentum. This – based on our observation of basketball games, for example – used to be one of John Wooden’s recipes for his phenomenal success at UCLA, calling timeouts much earlier than his fellow coaches when the tide of momentum seemed to shift against his team. Most coaches call timeout and regroup after a run of points against them has already been made – when it is too late and the damage has been done. The time to regroup is BEFORE that happens.


Kansas was another team which suffered from the change of momentum caused by its coaching staff in shifting to a conservative rushing game after halftime in order to preserve, but not to increase its 35-17 lead. Through a scoreless 3rd quarter, Baylor was then given plenty of time to lick its wounds and summon up new courage. Kansas then did not know what hit it as the 35-17 lead that they still held with 10 minutes to play in the 4th quarter dissipated into a 36-35 loss as Baylor filled the air with footballs. By the time Kansas also starting passing again, it was too late.


Good coaching has something to do with knowing one’s players and calling the right plays in the right situation. Terrence Nunn has a history of fumbling and was definitely not the right call in a tight field situation at the closing minutes of this game. Nunn had already fumbled and perhaps cost the Cornhuskers the Missouri game in 2005. He fumbled in the 2006 USC game and in the 2006 Kansas State game. In the Texas game on the reception in question, he was holding the ball way out to the right, presenting an easy target for an opposing defensive player intent on provoking a fumble and knocking the ball away, rather than tackling the runner.

I do not fault here the player Nunn, who is a fine receiver and who has caught many passes for Nebraska during his career, including the Texas game. His fumbling is surely a function of the way that he carries the ball when running, and that should long ago have been corrected by the coaching staff. Since it was uncorrected, Nunn was certainly not the man to pass the ball to in the Texas situation, where retention of possession was critical.

Stated simply, passing the ball to Nunn in this situation was a crass coaching mistake – and that is what distinguishes the winners from the losers, and the great coaches from the average coaches.

Winning means making the right decisions at the right time – both as to playcalling as also to having the right players in the right place at the right time. You do not call the number of a player with a history of fumbleitis in this kind of a critical game situation.

At the legal and business level, this means having the right personnel in the right positions at the right time for the job at hand.