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The Clock Is Ticking. What’s Your Call?

by on October 02, 2018 5:00 AM


It’s been a stressful, pressure-filled day. There have been a lot of ups and downs, momentum swings, decisions and indecisions. There is so much riding on what you do next. The implications for the long haul are significant.

At that moment, with the pressure on, and everything depending on your decision, what do you do?

I am, of course, talking about your big day at work. Did you do all the right things to get the sale? Did you make the right decisions and hire the right person? Did you use the right procedure during the operation that saved your patient’s life? Did you choose the right stock at the right moment?

A little perspective is required. 

Picture having to make your “call” on national TV, in front of a live audience of 110,899 passionate and excited observers, with only a few minutes to decide your next move.

OK, I am being a bit of a smart ass, since if you are a Nittany Lion football fan, you know that I am referring to the decision that was made on fourth and 5 in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s crucial match-up with Ohio State. The amount of confusion, disbelief, angst and second-guessing that the final Penn State play call has generated just shows you why some perspective is required.

If you are a fan, especially if you were there in person, you know what great drama was unfolding in front of us. The anticipation of a victory over the hated Buckeyes was swirling in everyone’s imagination. The game had everything the broadcast execs hope for to keep a national audience glued to their viewing devices. Many of us wondered if some missed opportunities in the first half, when Ohio State’s best player was their punter, might possibly come back to haunt us. But with eight minutes left in the game, it all looked like a formality for possibly the biggest win ever in front of the largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history. The riot police were getting a little anxious for the wild celebration that might ensue following an epic victory.

Then, to their credit, the Buckeyes scored on two improbable long drives of 75 yards and 96 yards to take the lead and set the stage for an incredible finish.

Despite surrendering 13 points, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, to erase what appeared to be a comfortable lead late in the game, the Lion faithful were confident we would find a way to win. We all believed in our hearts that Heisman trophy candidate and part-time superhero, Trace McSorley, would find a way to pull out a win as he has done so many times in his career.

But Superman never got the chance. The coaches went with a calculated decision to fool Ohio State, because they knew that the Buckeyes also knew that McSorley was going to get the ball to decide the game with a run-pass option play. So the staff decided to mix them up with an unconventional call of a conventional off-tackle play. If the decision to hand it off to Miles Sanders had led to a first down, the call would have been hailed as pure genius. Alas, Sanders was stuffed for a two-yard loss leaving the Lions fans in disbelief, seemingly in a state of suspended animation.

Let the armchair coaches commence with their second-guessing. Katy bar the door!

First, the game was not only decided on that one play call. There were many other moments when the outcome could have turned out differently. It was noticed more because of the circumstances. I am not making any excuses for the coaching staff. Coach James Franklin took the responsibility for making the call. As a former coach, I have found myself in tough situations enough times to know that until you are the person in the moment, you really have no idea how things will work out. I certainly know that having to make such calls in a short time frame, in the heat of the battle, you simply make the wrong call sometimes. Perhaps it was the right call with poor execution. One of my mentors reminded me of this life lesson: “There is a difference between a good decision and a good outcome.”

In hockey it was things like what line to put out, which player takes the crucial faceoff, what fore-checking system should we use, or when should we pull the goalie for an extra attacker.  Sometimes my staff and I made all the right calls, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we just got lucky and it all worked out or maybe we suffered a bad break and it didn’t. Stuff happens when you are dealing with a live competition and with young people in stressful situations with many variables.

As a coach, I fully appreciate that our staff saw something that they believed they could exploit. We thought we could fool them by running a play that had not worked most of the day, because this was exactly the time to do something unconventional, something they wouldn’t expect. I have been there and done that and when you make the right call, everyone loves you. When you make the wrong call, it’s amazing how many fewer friends and advocates you have.  At least until you get to redeem yourself the next time such a situation presents itself.

So in full disclosure, as a fan, after the play unfolded in real time, you can count me as one of those people who was in a state of confusion, disbelief, angst and second-guessing. After all, no fan in the stands or at home was ever wrong. This is especially true of fans with the luxury of time to dissect the intricacies of the play call that are still trying to come to grips with a moment of exhilaration snatched from our deserving hands.

Well how do you think the staff and players who actually battled for 60 minutes on the field felt?

A little more perspective is required.  

Let’s get back to that time in your career when you chose the wrong strategy that cost your firm millions of dollars in lost sales. How about when you chose the wrong person to hire, they failed miserably and the blame was laid squarely at your feet. Or, most regrettably, when a surgeon has to make a pressure filled decision in an attempt to save a patient’s life and it turns out to be wrong. How would you handle the press conference in front of the media immediately after such an emotional success or failure?

That, ladies and gentlemen, hopefully puts things in a little different context. Imagine trying to do your job in similar circumstances in front of millions of people, subject to critique from the masses. Hopefully this allows you to remember that it is a game, played by young adults, in a stress filled environment in front of millions of people.

The coaching staff feels awful and they owned their decisions. Not just about the last play call but throughout the game, as they always do. They also realize that public criticism comes with the job. Those of you calling for coaches to be dismissed are acting irrationally and with rather short memories.  

This football program has overcome the best that the NCAA could unjustly throw at it and is now back among the best programs in the land, coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons for only the second time since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993. Let that sink in for a moment before you pass judgment.

I am sure the players, like the staff, are still emotionally drained and disappointed. But if there is one thing we should all have learned by now, it’s that the season ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and a lot of football is still left to be played. The path to a Big Ten Title will be more difficult, but stranger things have happened. There is still much to play for and if, and that’s a big if, Penn State runs the table, there is still a chance to make the College Football Playoff.  We now need to put OSU behind us and get by with a little help from our friends.

My only advice to our staff, if this situation occurs again, would be this: Go rent the movie “Hoosiers,” based loosely on the true story of the smallest high school to ever win the Indiana state basketball tournament. In the now famous final timeout scene, Hickory coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, pulls the team together and says:  “Listen up. Here’s what we’re going to do. Jimmy, (the team’s top scorer) they are going to be expecting you to take the last shot. We are going to use you as a decoy. Buddy, you get the ball and get it to Merle on a picket fence (play). He’s going to take the last shot. Okay, let’s go.”

The players all have puzzled looks on their faces, and are less than confident with the coach’s plan. The coach says, “What’s the matter with you guys? What’s the matter with you?!” Jimmy looks at his teammates, then looks at the coach and says, “I’ll make it.” The coach sees the confidence in Jimmy’s eyes and responds, “Alright, Buddy get the ball to Jimmy top of the key. The rest of you spread the floor.” Jimmy drains the final shot and Hickory wins.

Far be it from me to know all the factors that went into the final decision on the  fourth-and-5 call. However, if there is one thing I learned in my years as a coach it’s that “great coaches know when to lead and when to get out of the way.” Give the ball to Trace.  I, along with all the other armchair coaches, have all the confidence in the world that he would find a way to “make it.”


Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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