Ties rarely fashionable with college coaches Tough decision can cost a team a championship

October 16, 1991|By Don Markus

Two days before Florida State was to play Miami midway through the 1987 season, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden was asked by sportscaster Brent Musburger what he would do if the Seminoles scored in the final seconds and still were behind by a point.

Would Bowden go for the tie to preserve his team's unbeaten record and, with six games remaining, its chance for a national championship? Or would he stay true to his reputation as a gambler by risking it all and go for the win? Bowden didn't flinch.

"I'd kick the extra point," he said.

When that exact scenario played out at Doak Campbell Stadium, Bowden seemed to be following his intentions by sending the kicking team onto the field. But, during a timeout, Bowden changed his mind, or had it changed by quarterback Danny McManus.

Florida State, trailing, 26-25, with 42 seconds left, went for two points, but Miami knocked away a pass in the end zone. The Hurricanes went on to have an unbeaten season and win the national championship. It would be the only loss for the Seminoles, who finished No. 2.

But Bowden went home with a clear mind, knowing that he felt more comfortable having tried than tied.

"In a million years, I don't think I could have gone for the tie," Bowden said that afternoon.

Since the two-point conversion rule was instituted in 1958, college football coaches have faced that last-second dilemma. Those who settled for ties, as Auburn's Pat Dye did against Syracuse in the 1988 Sugar Bowl, have been second-guessed for it. Those who went for victories, whether they were successful or not, have been applauded for their boldness.

Aside from the 1987 Florida State-Miami game, there were four other instances in the past decade when a national championship was decided the same way. Long after the game is played, coaches are reminded of it, and in some cases, haunted by it. Ask Dye. Or Nebraska's Tom Osborne. Or even Bowden.

"It's the toughest decision a coach has to make," Bowden said recently. "Do you go for the tie, or do you try to be a hero? A lot of teams and coaches have been through that, and I don't think it gets any easier the second or third time around."

Among the more notable cases:

* Southern Methodist won the Southwest Conference title in 1982 by tying Arkansas in its last regular-season game, but it cost the Mustangs, who, despite an 11-0-1 record, finished second in the polls to 11-1 Penn State.

* The next season, top-ranked Nebraska lost a chance at an unbeaten season when Osborne opted for a go-ahead, two-point conversion against second-ranked Miami in the Orange Bowl with less than a minute to play. The play failed.

* Unbeaten Syracuse lost a chance at staking its claim for a national championship when the Orangemen were tied by Auburn in the 1988 Sugar Bowl. The decision by Dye to kick a field goal on fourth down from the Syracuse 13 with one second left gave him the nickname "Pat Tie."

* After top-ranked Miami scored in the final minute to pull within a point of No. 4 Notre Dame midway through the 1988 season, Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson went for a two-point conversion with 45 seconds to play. But a pass from quarterback Steve Walsh was batted away in the end zone. The Irish went unbeaten and won the national championship.

Though this year's national championship hasn't yet come down to such a play, that situation already has come up on more than a few occasions. Two weeks ago, for instance, Auburn lost to Southern Mississippi, 10-9, when the Tigers went for two points with 1 minute, 33 seconds to play and failed.

In a slightly different circumstance two weeks ago, but one that involved a similar mind-set, Maryland opted for a two-point conversion after cutting Pittsburgh's lead to four with a little more than six minutes left. The conversion failed, and, after stopping the Panthers, the Terps got to Pitt's 20 before quarterback Jim Sandwisch was intercepted on fourth down.

"I don't believe that you play this kind of team with the ranking they have for a tie," said Krivak. "I felt that if we made the two, the field goal puts us in position to win."

It was a sound decision, but it differed with Krivak's choice to go for the tie two years ago against Penn State at Memorial Stadium. Why? In the game against the Nittany Lions, there were only 58 seconds left when Dan DeArmas kicked a 26-yard field goal to tie the score at 13. Considering Maryland hadn't won in the series since 1961, a tie was nearly as good as a win.

Dye's call for the two-point conversion surprised a number of his detractors, who criticized him after the Syracuse game. Dye said afterward that his reputation for playing too conservatively is unjustified, and that his decision had nothing to do with others he had made in the past.

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