Some occupations should be represented more in Congress: Accountants because they make the numbers add up; engineers because they make things work with quiet competence and efficiency; NFL referees because they follow the rules and do the right thing regardless of the noise around them.
Kevin Kelley deserves his own category.
The head football coach at Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy high school almost never punts, even on fourth down deep in his own territory. On kickoffs after a score or to start a half, he usually attempts an onside kick, which involves kicking 10 yards to give his team a chance to recover the ball, rather than booting it downfield to the other team’s returner.
These tactics aren’t just innovative, they’re unheard of. Football at all levels is a conservative sport. Coaches do what other coaches do.
When Kelley started coaching Pulaski Academy in 2003, he decided to take a different approach.
“It starts from just going, ‘Why are are we doing what we’re doing?’” he told me. “And if the answer is, ‘Well, that’s what everybody else is doing,’ or ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,’ you know, commonsense stuff, then that’s not a good answer. If you don’t have numbers to back it up, what are we doing?”
He read books, not by other football coaches but about human nature and mathematics. Basing his decisions on the numbers, he concluded that football’s conventional wisdom wasn’t always so wise.
According to his analysis, a college team that fails to make a fourth down conversion near its own goal line gives the other offense a 92 percent chance of scoring a touchdown. But punting the ball from such deep territory only reduced that chance to 77 percent. So, why not go for it and give yourself a chance to keep the ball?
Kelley applied that same approach to onside kicks and decided that the rewards outweighed the risks. An astrophysicist later confirmed he was right there, too.
The result? Kelley’s teams have won five state championships in 10 years. He’s spoken before college and NFL coaches. But despite his success and the force of his arguments, pretty much no other coaches have adopted his methods – even those who tell him he’s right.
They tell him that if they ever went for it on fourth down from deep in their own territory and didn’t make it, they’d be fired.
The big leap that Kelley made — the thing that separates him from other coaches — was not in his punting and kicking philosophy. The big leap came in his personal philosophy. He’s willing to risk a significant short-term loss — giving the opposing offense the ball in scoring position — because, over the course of a game, that strategy gives him a better chance to win.
More importantly, he decided it was worth the risk of looking incompetent, being embarrassed, and maybe even getting fired. Because sometimes things don’t work out in his favor, and then everyone can question why that idiot went for it on fourth down.
“We are about winning football games, so our decisions need to be based, period, on winning football games,” he said. “Not on, ‘Are we going to lose our job?’ Not on, ‘Do we have a big booster that’s giving a lot of money and his son needs to play so we keep the money coming in?’ None of that stuff. It’s about winning. It’s about doing right, and everything else will take care of itself.”
It’s not hard to find parallels with American democracy. The numbers, starting with the federal government’s $17 trillion national debt, prove that the system isn’t working as it should. Part of that system is a process called baseline budgeting, where agencies and programs routinely receive the same money as they did the previous year, plus a little more. In other words, what’s done today is based on what’s been done in the past.
Voters engage in the same behavior by almost always electing Republicans and Democrats instead of giving independents and third party candidates a chance. Meanwhile, many members of Congress avoid making tough votes for fear they’ll be fired by the voters in the next election.
So elected officials in Washington just punt problems down the field. It’s easier. It protects their jobs. They don’t have to be different.
Coach Kelley has been taking the opposite approach since 2003. He’s won five state championships basing his decisions on numbers, not on tradition, and by believing that if he does what’s best for the team, everything else will take care of itself.
That’s why more people like him — and accountants and engineers and NFL referees — are needed in Congress.
• • •
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.