It doesn’t seem a Sunday night motorcycle crash has altered the M.O. of Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. Although confined to his hospital room on Monday night, he still reviewed paperwork from a recent spring practice. By the next morning, he was watching practice live, four broken ribs, cracked vertebra, sprained neck and pain meds be damned. A few hours after that, he fielded questions from the press and even cracked a joke about the extent of his injuries: “Yeah, I don’t think I have any brain damage, but that’s yet to be seen. If I start not punting at all in the games or something, then we’ve got a problem.”
Petrino may have been joking, but I’m pretty sure one person not laughing was the coach of a private high school school only two and half hours from Fayetteville who has built a national reputation by refusing to punt among other unorthodox strategies. Kevin Kelley believes punting on fourth down is nearly always a bad idea, even when pinned deep in one’s own territory with 20 yards to go. Economists say the numbers back Kelley, who has won multiple state championships with Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy while putting up absurdly proficient offensive statistics.
While Kelley’s football philosophy has been much trumpeted by media - Time voted it the 33rd-best invention of 2009 – actual football coaches haven’t followed suit. Although some college coaches have made pilgrimages to Kelley’s office to learn his secrets, none seem to have incorporated his strategies into their own playbooks. Former Texas Tech Mike Leach might have been the college coach most publicly open to Kelley’s ideas, according to this Associated Press interview, but he was fired before he could implement them. Leach now coaches at Washington State University and may become the first major college coach to deliberately use Kelley’s methods.
Why do you think college coaches haven’t already tried Pulaski Academy’s system? Despite a wealth of data confirming its superiority, are coaches on the whole still creatures of habit who put more stock in intuition than freakonomics? On the whole, I think adopting such a new-fangled approach just seems too risky for multimillionaire coaches with more to lose than a high school P.E. teacher coaching on the side. Risk aversion as a rationale doesn’t stick in Petrino’s case, though. He had plenty more to lose Sunday evening when he got on his motorcycle without a helmet [but with a 25-year-old hottie].
[Go to bottom of post for more on Malzahn's 2005 Springdale team]
None of Pulaski Academy’s 14 wins this season came down to the wire. Votes for season-ending rankings, however, proved a different matter altogether. As expected, there is a severe rift in public opinion concerning Arkansas’ best overall high school football team this season.
On one hand, the state’s largest newspaper deemed P.A. the best team, followed by Fayetteville, then Bentonville. Central Arkansas-based sportswriter Robert Yates constructed these Democrat-Gazette’s rankings. Rivals.com’s national prep sportswriter Dallas Jackson also deemed P.A. as the state’s best, again followed by Fayetteville and Bentonville.
The Arkansas arm of national prep sports outlet VYPE, meanwhile, conducted a poll with Arkansas prep football coaches. Fayetteville won this poll, with P.A. and Bentonville trailing. Finally, about a dozen Associated Press members released their poll Monday. Their rankings mirror VYPE’s.
That the 4A Bruins didn’t top the Associated Press poll isn’t a surprise. In fact, no team of a similar classification (4th-largest) has ever finished first in the state’s final A.P. poll. Only two teams – 1964 Conway and 1987 Arkadelphia – have finished atop that final poll. Both teams were in the second-largest classification at the time.
This is according to the Almanac of Arkansas High School Football, by longtime Arkansas sportswriter Leland Barclay. Barclay, conveniently enough, also happens to be one of the Associated Press members whose votes comprise the poll. For Barclay, 7A teams – even those with multiple losses – are nearly always better than lower classification teams:
“Schools from the state’s largest classification will always get the nod as the overall final No. 1 team in the state because as the state champion that team had to compete and excel against the best teams in the state over an 11-week stretch. Schools from the other classifications don’t do that…”
Pulaski Academy football coach Kevin Kelley doesn’t like his players to wait around long before a game.
To Kelley, extra time on the field doesn’t help his kids play better. In fact, it can make the experience less enjoyable. “Most teams warm up for an hour, or an hour and fifteen minutes before a game,” he says. “We try to get to games 25 minutes before kickoff because we don’t want our kids sitting and getting stressed out and things like that.”
Instead, he tries to take his players minds off the game at hand. They’ll grab a bite to eat, or catch a movie. Which was the idea a couple weeks ago before Pulaski Academy’s state playoff semifinal at its west Little Rock campus. The Bruins planned to see Immortals, a rah-rah take on a bloodthirsty army’s quest in mythic ancient Greece. Instead, because of a time mix-up, they got part one of The Twlight Saga: Breaking Dawn.
“We thought Twilight was going to be all about vampires, and it turned out to be a love story,” Kelley recalls. “That was a miserable movie for teenage boys to see. They all hated it. But we had fun talking about it, so it worked.”
A lot has worked for Pulaski Academy this fall.
In the semifinal, the Bruins beat Pine Bluff Dollarway 51-32. On Saturday, the Bruins (14-0) won the 4A state title by defeating Malvern 63-28. In both games, the Bruins didn’t wait long to strike, outscoring their competition by a total of 87-13 in the first halves.
Anything’s possible, but this is highly unlikely.
Heading into Saturday’s 5A state title game, the Pulaski Academy Bruins are simply one of the greatest offensive machines this state has seen. ”The Bruins average 534.2 total yards and 50.6 points per game, figures that likely would be even higher if their starters weren’t pulled at halftime in many games,” Robert Yates wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The Bruins have outscored opponents 534-126 in the first half and its starters have played in the fourth quarter in just two games.”
And this year, with the help of numerous future D1 players, their defense has been pretty top-notch, too.
Here’s a taste of what Malvern has to stop:
As you can see, stopping the Bruins will be a monumental task. Malvern itself knows this firsthand, after playing P.A. on Oct. 21. The Leopards lost 47-16 on the road.
The above video isn’t mean to target or disparage Dollarway in any way. I only meant to showcase the mind-meltingly efficient blitzgrieg nature of the Bruins’ attack. It’s an attack HBO will soon feature on national television, and one headed by possibly the greatest dual-threat quarterback in the state’s history. Senior quarterback Fredi Knighten, who has completed 240 of 328 passes for 4,239 yards and 63 touchdowns this season. Knighten has also rushed 93 times for 766 yards and 13 touchdowns, according to the Democrat-Gazette.
No matter what happens against Malvern, this P.A. team’s numbers so far this season will be hard to topple for any future juggernaut.
Oh, and here’s some of the players who feature prominently in the video:
#1 L.J. Wallace
#5 Jack Snider
#7 Fredi Knighten
#9 Kendall Bruce
#16 Aum’Arie Wallace
#22 Cody Adcock
#82 Hunter Henry
Quick notes from Pulaski Academy’s 51-32 win over Dollarway on Friday night:
Five HBO crew members were prowling the sideline during this thing, soaking up every last cinematic morsel for a future “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” episode exploring PA coach Kevin Kelley’s innovative approach to the game.
Kelley had already earned a national reputation as a relentlessly rational coach who almost always goes for it on fourth down instead of punting and declines to attempt punt returns because he deems the odds unfavorable to this team. Oh, and he onside kicks after nearly every score, even against schools roughly five times larger.
While PA has won plenty championships in its 40-year history, it’s never had a season quite this dominating: It is a mild shock if their starters play into the second half. On the cusp of their first undefeated season, the Bruins were at it again on Friday night, racking up 356 passing yards and 156 rushing yards for a 44-6 lead - in the first half.
Here are some highlights: