College coaches defend their right to tie

November 11, 1990|By Elliott Almond | Elliott Almond,Los Angeles Times

Ties are meant to be worn, not mourned.

They are meant to be fashionable, not irrational.

So why are they wearing so thin this college football season?

Los Angeles fans were left to ponder that last Saturday in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when California coach Bruce Snyder elected to kick an extra point for a 31-31 tie against favored USC.

California fans from Burbank to Berkeley will forever defend Snyder and his "moral victory," particularly if the Golden Bears win their next two games and get a bowl bid.

For the moment, though, consider John McKay's thoughts on the subject.

McKay's USC Trojans tried a two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter of the 1967 Rose Bowl game and failed, losing to Purdue, 14-13.

"The Trojans don't go for moral victories," McKay said.

Baseball has extra innings. Basketball and pro football have overtimes. Tennis -- even tennis -- has a tie-breaker.

But not college football. In some ways, it is consistent with the way this sport does business. It has no process for determining a true national champion. Instead it has mythical national champions. Or should they be called moral victory national champions?

This sport leaves the outcome of games, and in some cases seasons, in the hands of the most defensive of creatures, the coaches.

Former Rice coach Al Conover once said: "We've already got sudden death -- but only for the coaches who lose."

Richard Lister, a clinical sports psychologist from Costa Mesa, Calif., has pondered the issue since he was devastated by one of the most unsatisfying ties in the past 30 years.

The teams were No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State. The day was Nov. 19, 1966. The score was 10-10. The Irish had the ball on their 30 with perhaps enough time to throw four passes. By order of coach Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame's offense redefined the word cautious. The Irish simply ran out the clock.

When Lister recalls the game, it is with disappointment and disgust.

"That was the grossest example of a coach chickening out," Lister said of Parseghian. "That was so bad, I felt the institution should have made a public apology."

Parseghian, who never silenced the critics over the Michigan State tie, said after the game: "We'd fought hard to come back and tie it up. After all that, I didn't want to risk giving it to them cheap. . . I wasn't going to do a jackass thing like that at that point."

Beano Cook, the college football commentator, has interviewed hundreds of coaches.

"Coaches and generals have one thing in common," he said. "They can always justify their decisions. And neither has enough bodies."

Cal's decision to tie the score did not bother Cook nearly as much as did Virginia's in the Cavaliers' game against Georgia Tech last Saturday.

With 2 minutes, 34 seconds left, Virginia coach George Welsh decided to kick a 23-yard field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 6. Jack McInerney's kick made it 38-38. Georgia Tech then marched downfield and kicked a field goal, knocking the Cavaliers from their No. 1 ranking.

Cook could scarcely believe Welsh's playing it safe.

"It's like sitting next to Stephanie Powers on an airplane," he said. "You take your shot because it's never gonna happen again.

"That's the case with Virginia. It's not going to get another shot at a national championship in 100 years. They should have gone for the win. Even if they tied, 38-38, they should have gone for the win.

"Even in the Ivy League the future bankers go for two."

This diatribe about ties was wonderfully embodied by the sports reporter who wrote of a 0-0 result: "Much to-do about nothing to nothing."

Coaches have an altogether different perspective.

Their outlook has to do with job security, and perhaps not even a national championship can influence a decision more than that.

Lister said that the best teams are usually coached by veterans, who have a tendency to be more conservative. It is part of the aging process, he said.

"Why gamble it all with a high-risk offense?" Lister asked. "As the years go by we have to fight being too conservative."

There are countless exceptions to such a generalization, though. Perhaps the most priceless was in the 1946 Army-Navy classic.

The No. 1-ranked Cadets were playing the woebegone Midshipmen for little more than prestige. Army had not lost a game since falling to Navy in the 1943 season.

The Cadets were ahead, 21-18, late in the game. But Navy drove deep into Army territory before stalling. A field goal would have tied the score, but Navy coach Tom Hamilton ordered his team to go for a touchdown.

The Middies missed the touchdown and Cook recalled that when Hamilton was asked after the game if he had considered kicking a field goal, the coach replied, "A tie is like kissing your sister."

The people of Alabama adhere to that adage.

That is one reason Auburn's Pat Dye has been maligned, despite a 141-48-4 record in 17 seasons.

Four ties in 193 games hardly make for a trend, but Dye has nonetheless been nicknamed Pat Tie. And that's not for his chic neckwear.

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