September 27, 2015
You may or may not have heard of the little Arkansas School that doesn’t punt on 4th down. They also use the onside kick and like to utilize downfield laterals often. I love it! This distinction belongs to Pulaski Academy Prep School in Little Rock, Arkansas. These theories come from the mind of Coach Kevin Kelly, a devotee of statistical analysis and considered legendary in high school coaching.
The fanfare and hoopla about Pulaski Academy about using nontraditional playing tactics is valid because they win. They have won a lot of football games under Kelly’s tutelage. Pulaski’s record through the 2014 stands at 138-25-1 and he is 4-0 this year. They are have won 4 state championships in the thirteen years he has been the head coach. Not bad considering Pulsuski Academy did not have a big winning tradition before he came. Kelly has built this program into something incredible using his own unorthodox coaching style which has gone beyond gimmickry.
What is the big strategy he uses? They core belief is the statistical analysis proves that a higher percentage of success for making first downs is not by punting. Instead of giving away the ball, the offense can use four downs to make ten yards. And beyond that, is the surrendering of field positions to the other team. Kelly believes that why does a team want to punt and let the other side dictate the score. The numbers that Kelley uses show that even the slightest bit of successes will make the difference in the game. This also proves right when it comes to onside kicks. Kelly is looking for a success rate of at least 18% to give his team an advantage. You may be wondering how this will be called success with an 80% failure rate. Again, the slightest success in these strategies can be the difference in the game. As proven by a Harvard Professor and Kelly, there is proof in the pudding.
This year, Kelly has incorporated rugby style downfield laterals to his game plan. The success of this strategy is still under review, but Pulaski is 4-0 this year. The theory of using more players to push the ball down field is not new to football but is rarely used at any level.
When I think of Pulaski and Kelly, I think about the ability to use statistics and unconventional ways to beat opponents. Analytics are very prevalent in sports now but not to the point where the numbers are changing the flow of the game. I often wonder why in baseball why you need to have a starting pitcher constantly pitch 6 to 9 innings when a larger number of pitchers throw less innings. The Oakland A’s were the first team to really to utilize statistics to the point where their team was assembled by their on base percentage numbers. This year, in the NBA finals, a three-point jump shooting team won the championship, a debatable strategy by the so-called experts. The change to fully accept and utilize statistics is gaining ground but there is still reluctance on some part because statistics do not quantify team chemistry and dynamics.
The answer is, that it is a delicate balance of the two to get the winning formula. It is not easy to corral as a general manager and owner to put the coaching, players and strategy in motion that translates success. On the contrary, there is still that one little unmeasurable that every statistician hates and it’s called “luck”. Luck is when injuries to your key players are minimal and luck could be a bad pitch in playoff game that hitter knocks out of the park and wins the game. I just wonder how far Coach Kelly will succeed in his formula and will it mean a chance to coach at a higher level. Winning will eventually convince somebody to hire him to coach their college team. Salute Kevin Kelly