It was November 2004, and Bill Callahan was in the first season as head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Big Red showed up in Norman that year as a heavy underdog to an Oklahoma team on its way to a Big 12 title and the national championship game. To call Callahan’s game plan that night lily-livered would be an insult to cowards everywhere. Much like Bill Lumbergh encouraged his minions at Initech to ask themselves “is this good for the company?”, every decision the ‘Huskers made that evening had one aim in mind: keeping the margin of defeat as slim as possible.
I remember thinking how embarrassing that whole sordid affair must have been for Nebraska’s proud fan base. I mean, Herm Edwards told us “you play to win the game,” not “you play to not lose too badly,” right?
I always thought it was a chump move on Callahan’s part. That is until Bob Stoops showed me the error of my ways last Saturday night.
When Stoops called for a punt deep in his own territory in the closing minutes of a 36-27 loss to the Missouri Tigers, I was stunned. Either Stoops had gone off his rocker, I figured, or he just plain quit.
This week, though, Stoops revealed he was running a long con on the voters. He punted to “run down” the score and preserve OU’s standing among the pollsters. After all, losing by nine looks better than losing by 16, and there’s little doubt Mizzou would have gone for the end zone had the Sooners not converted on fourth down.
I guess the guilt of his flim-flamming ways was too much for OU’s head coach, so give him credit for his honesty. The punt decision was a perverse opportunity borne of circumstance. Stoops didn’t dance around the issue when the time came to explain his reasoning.
With respect to the voters, it was the right call. If all hell breaks loose later this year, a nine-point road loss to a highly ranked team isn’t such a black mark on the resume.
And maybe it’s all part of an even bigger master plan?
Oddly enough, it seems as though the general sentiment among the talking heads is that Stoops did a good job gaming a whacked-out system. Chief BCS antagonist Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports turned the news into a “teaching moment” regarding the idiocy of the current postseason format – not a shock from someone hawking a book entitled Death to the BCS. Andy Staples of SI.com saw the situation in a similar light.
(I tend to agree with John Stansberry of Lonely Tailgater.com, who points out that a playoff wouldn’t necessarily incentivize Stoops to have done otherwise. Wetzel contends that a selection committee would cut through the crap in such a case.)
Could Stoops have known that the story would morph into a commentary on the evils of an unpopular system, as opposed to him curling up into the fetal position? Who’s to say.
What I do know is that Bill Callahan would approve.