Thursday, 4 a.m.
It is the last inning of a baseball game. The home team us ahead 8-0. The star right fielder swings at a fastball, however, and connects mightily. The ball sails over the fence for a three-run shot.
Doesn't the crowd cheer?
It is the last round of a boxing match. The favorite is well ahead. His opponent is bloody and grasping the ropes. Finally, with a massive cross, the favorite lands a blow to the head. Although comfortably ahead in points, the boxer gets his knockout.
Isn't the crowd pleased?
It is the final round of the Masters, and the kid in red is running away with the tournament. He has a 12-shot lead coming down the stretch. But on the eighteenth, he knocks the ball close to the hole. He taps it in for a birdie.
Does the crowd appreciate the effort?
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Excellence is an excellent thing, isn't it? No one ever accuses a basketball player, or a race car driver, or a gymnast, of running up the score. In their final minute of competition, no one blames those athletes – or their coaches – of going for the throat.
Just in football.
Where everyone expects you to play nice.
Take a knee. Use the backups. Run up the middle. Punt. You know the drill. Suddenly, it as if two teams are conspiring to keep the score respectable. It is sport with manners. You can step on hands for the entire first half if you want, and you can twist the heads off of running backs. But in the fourth quarter, there is a genteel spirit that takes over football. The game is suddenly played with pinkies out. At least, it is expected to be such.
I bring this up, of course, because USF coach Willie Taggart seemed to bend some of the rules of gracious football the other day. He tried to score on the game's final two plays, which is supposed to be a no-no. Evidently, the Bulls were supposed to be practicing their curtsies at this time of the game.
Taggart, naturally, pooh-poohed the gentleman's agreement that says everyone would play powder-puff in the last two minutes.
"Because we wanted to score," he told Martin Fennelly of the Times. "That's our job on offense, to score points, right? We want to score, so we tried to score. What do you want us to do? We're not taking a knee. We want to score."
Now, here's a question.
Why shouldn't the Bulls have tried to score, really?
Hey, there is plenty of room for sportsmanship in the world. In Little League. In Pee-wee football. I'm all for everyone playing and everyone getting a sno-cone and no one getting embarrassed. When teams buy a victory and play some directional school you're never heard of, I'm all for mercy.
But if you don't think college football is big business, well, you aren't paying attention.
Oh, don't tell me that you have to keep the game close because Amos Alonzo Stagg kept his games close. Hey, it's 2016, and the polls judge just how big teams win by.
Back when Jimmy Johnson coached at Miami, and a few teams grumbled about the score being run up, he had a familiar statement. “I'll stop throwing,” he said, “when you stop blitzing.” And that's the thing. Everyone thinks it's a fine idea for the losing team to keep battling; so why can't the winning team? Isn't it their job to score? Don't the fans pay money for it?
Somewhere along the line, however, we got the cockamamie idea that it wasn't just nice for a team to ease off at the end; it was expected. And if the other team ran anything more than an off-tackle play, well, the critics feasted on them.
And still, we see scores like Michigan beating Rutgers 78-0, like Ohio State beating Bowling Green 77-0. Or like Alabama beating Southern California 52-6. No wonder the lesser teams want mercy. It's the only break they have coming.
Here's something, too. On their last plays of the game, East Carolina was, of course, trying desperately to score. Just wondering, but at what point do the rules change where only one team is allowed to play the game?
Bobby Bowden, the old FSU coach, used to tell a story about being at West Virginia when they played Pitt. He was up 35-8 at the half. So he took the air out of the ball and just played defense in the second half...and lost 36-35. Bowden never apologized for running up the score again.
Hey, I'm not an apologist for Taggart. But if his team has 50 in it , it should try to score 50. And if the other team has 50, well, no one is asking anyone to tiptoe around the goal line like they're afraid of crushing the daffodils.
Bill Belichick has run up a score or two in his time, too.
“I’ve been coaching too long,” Belichick said. “I remember being on that side. When I was coaching defense it was my job to keep the score down, not theirs. When you’re playing defense it’s your job to stop them. It’s not (the offense’s) job to not score. It’s like I tell the offense, what the (bleep) do you think I send you guys out there for? To punt? We have a punt team for that. That’s not your job. Your job is to go out there and score points. If you come off the field and you haven’t scored points you haven’t done your job.”
Look, it's sports. If a team can score, then it should. Even late in the game.
And if the other team doesn't want them to score, all it has to do is stop them.