Football Advice for Coach Jim Tressel

I’ve always been an avid sports fan, though not much of an athlete (see “Put-Out at Home Plate,” February 14, 2010, for a sad example of me as a player). If you are employed by The Ohio State University, it’s required by contract that you root for the OSU Buckeyes in all sports endeavours. I myself needed no such urging. If I care who wins any particular game, I can cheer lustily for my team even if I don’t actually understand the rules (as happens, say, in the Olympics when the United States has an entry in some mysterious sport like “cross-country curling”).

Coach Tressel
When I was teaching a basic Contracts course in February of 2008, one of my students was the recruitment secretary for the OSU football coach, James Tressel. He’s a remarkable coach, already a legend at the school and nationwide due to his splendid record of achievement. One day, in a fit of hubris of which I’m not proud, I asked this student if she would check and see if Coach Tressel had any interest in unsolicited advice about trick plays from a rabid fan. She did so, and he through her invited me to send him an email on topic.

It follows:


Dear Coach Tressel:

Like most of the people who understand anything about football, I'm a fan of yours (both for being a splendid coach and, for all I can tell, a first rate human being).

I am a Professor of Law at the Mortiz College of Law here on campus. In the last couple of years, I became disturbed by how assumptions both the students and faculty make (about how classrooms work, for example) are disturbing the legal education we offer. Far too much of the emphasis is on the faculty, and far too little on the students, the exact opposite of how things should be. That led to a lot of changes in how I teach, and I have just published a law review article on the topic (“Teaching Law: Thoughts on Retirement”).

Because I am also a football fan, the outside-the-box thinking I was doing made me consider its application to a number of other areas, one of which is your specialty, football.

More specifically, I have some thoughts about trick plays. It is presumptuous, I know, for me to make suggestions to one of the leading football coaches in the history of the game (you already know volumes about the issue, of course), but, alas, I can’t seem to stop myself. So here goes. There are four parts to this.

1. The Plays That Have Died Out. In the early days of the game there were a number of plays that are no longer used. Some have been declared illegal (the flying wedge, for example) and others were replaced by better versions, or were simply found ineffective. I’m no historian of the game, but you must know people who are, or perhaps you yourself have a great deal of knowledge about these past practices. How many of these old tactics could be recreated, refined, and reintroduced, particularly when the other team is not expecting them? That now famous game between Boise State and Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl of some years ago showed how useful outdated plays can be.

2. Reading the Rules Like a Lawyer. Some of the old tactics are now illegal. Oh? As a lawyer, I know that many times a careful reading of the rules can lead to the creation of clever ways around them. Or, even better, the rules may not address new ways of thinking about the issue. When the Japanese first participated in the summer Olympics, their pole vault team had a surprising ploy. The runner simply walked the pole down to the planting spot, planted it, and then carefully climbed the pole, hand over hand, until reaching the top and flinging himself over. This set new records, but lead to a quick change in the rules—runners may not alter their hand positions, once fixed, on the pole. It may be time to drag out the rule book and study it for loopholes that may not be obvious to the casual glance.

3. The Far Side of the Unexpected. I’m sure you have considered (and undoubtedly rejected) lots of trick plays and strategies, but it is possible to come up with the bizarre. My high school team had one were the offensive line, immediately before the snap of the ball, would in unison spit on the ground loudly. That surprised the other team and distracted them at a key moment. Or, some rehearsed bit of conversation might do it—“How’s your mother?” (said in a friendly way, not sarcastically) could cause an important second of confusion. The history of football must be filled with strange things like this, and perhaps it would be fun at least to have someone on your squad or a student explore the best of the crazy ideas.

4. Professional Magicians. My most important thought is this one. Most trick plays use the concept of misdirection: having the other team thinking one thing as another happens. Ask yourself who are the leading experts in the world at misdirection, and the answer is certainly magicians. (I am not one myself.) If I were coaching a football game at the level you are, I would bring together the three leading magicians I could find, and ask them to look at football films with this idea in mind: what could be done to trick the other team into completely misunderstanding the situation? Magicians are wonder-workers at making the impossible seem to occur. I would bet big money that their considered advice would be eye-opening.

There is no reason for you to respond to all this. You are a busy man, and how you run your team is, of course, none of my business. I debated for some time whether to send you the above, knowing how presumptuous it is, and I apologize for taking up your time.

In any event, I wish you and the Buckeyes the very best in the coming years.

Douglas Whaley
Moritz College of Law

Coach Tressel promptly sent me back an email saying, “Doug: Thanks for your suggestions. I will pass them on to my Offensive Coordinators.” He signed it “Jim,” which pleased me enormously. Of course I heard nothing more, and subsequent games have not indicated that my letter had any effect at all (other than, I suppose, a good laugh down at the Athletic Center), but at least I got all that stupid advice off my chest. Now I’m back to being nothing more than a happy, fanatic fan.

Related Posts:
"Basketball and Its Announcers," March 6, 2011
"Popourri #1," November 15, 2011 (Chicago Cubs Fan)


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