By Matt Popchock
What do you do if your team makes it abundantly clear it is vastly superior to its opponent, and doesn’t need four quarters to do it?
What do you do if you’re a coach in the midst of a game that gets completely out of hand before you can adjust your headset?
Apparently, if you’re Terry Smith or Tom Nola, you follow the credo of Herm Edwards: you play to win the game.
During the latest edition of “The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services High School Football Show” (Saturdays at 7:00 A.M. on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan), Smith took some heat from our listeners for allegedly running up the score in Gateway’s 85-0 win over Norwin in a Class AAAA Foothills Conference blowout of uncanny proportion last Friday.
“I’m just coaching my team and trying to get our kids to play as hard as they can,” Norwin head football coach Art Tragesser told the Post-Gazette’s Mike White Monday. “What the other team does is no concern of mine, really. You’ll have to ask the other guy.”
That’s just what we did. Rather than throw any individual under the bus, we cordially invited Smith (“the other guy”) to appear on our air last Saturday morning to tell his side of the story. Smith indicated he had to catch a flight to see his son play and was unavailable to comment.
We extended the offer to Nola as well. He politely declined our invitation, while, in the process, insisting he emptied his bench early and often while watching his Clairton squad, using JV players at one point, beat Avella in Class A Black Hills Conference play 84-0.
Personally, I’m a big fan of both coaches, because they routinely give their kids the guidance and discipline necessary to excel on the field, and because their resumes speak for themselves.
I trust Nola, especially when I look at the box score and see that every score from start to finish came on either a run, a defensive play, or a kick return. Furthermore, I exempt Clairton from criticism because it, like Avella, is a small school, and Nola can only afford to sit so many players.
On the other hand, though I’ve never known Smith to be anything but a consummate professional either, I think he has a bit more explaining to do.
Host John Phillips and one of our guests, ROOT Sports high school football announcer Rob King, seemed to be on the same page; it may be an awkward situation for the winning coach, but as a mentor of young minds, it would be patently irresponsible to tell any kid, regardless of what the scoreboard or depth chart says, not to try.
That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, however, is why, when Gateway easily amassed a 49-0 lead after just one quarter, regulars Patrick Livsey and Darin Franklin remained in the game on offense, given the volume of that team’s active roster.
What makes even less sense is why two two-point conversions were attempted by the Gators on their final two touchdowns, unless both resulted from busted plays. Unless I’m grossly mistaken, I don’t believe that was the case on either two-point attempt, and even if I am wrong, there’s no shame in being diplomatic and either falling on the ball or taking a knee.
I empathize with John and Rob, but I also empathize with the Norwin parent who called our show and told us what an uncomfortable moment it was for him because he simply didn’t know what to tell his son.
Some will say if Norwin doesn’t want this to happen again, it should simply concentrate on self-improvement, and learn to stop its opponent. Again, I get it. But there is a time and place for every lesson that can be taught on the gridiron, especially the high school gridiron, where, manifestly, you’re dealing with kids playing a game. Some people, including myself, sometimes take that for granted.
If Gateway has plays, players, or general areas needing improvement, there are always chances to address those needs in practice between Fridays. Running those two-point plays in a 70- or 80-point contest is unnecessary and comes off as unsportsmanlike, and I don’t care what anybody says, sportsmanship in scholastic sports matters. Kids need to be taught that as well. In that situation, they have nothing to prove.
I’ve heard of PIAA games in which one team scored 90 points, and the victorious coach eventually instructed his offense to take three knees and punt on every offensive series. Once again, considering the mitigating circumstances, there’s no dishonor in that.
Speaking of the PIAA, its officials did the right thing in the Clairton-Avella game by shortening the second half to two eight-minute quarters, as opposed to the traditional 12-minute high school quarters of play. The crew that oversaw the Gateway-Norwin game should have done something similar.
Pride is not the issue here. The issue is humility. The best lesson that can be taught from these lopsided games is to be humble in victory, because the day may come when the victors are the ones getting embarrassed, and no one will feel sorry for them. It’s as true of life as it is of sports.
I’m sure both Terry Smith and Tom Nola have taught their kids that lesson on many occasions. But a friendly reminder never hurts.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)