By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Editor
We’ve all seen the headlines about the Arkansas coach who never punts and follows every offensive touchdown by calling for an onside kick. Kevin Kelley has become a bit of a celebrity in coaching circles.
In December, Kelley led Pulaski Academy to its ninth Arkansas state title. Kelley is renowned for never punting and almost always onside kicking after scoring. He was even called “probably the top high school coach in the country” in a press conference by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Kelley recently joined FNF Coaches for an in-depth discussion about his coaching philosophy. Here are some highlights.
You’re known as the coach who never punts. How did that coaching philosophy come about?
“When I got hired as the head coach here in 2003, I had been an assistant for a couple years. I sat in the office for the first time, and I started to review the entire program. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I think I’ll be good. But how will I be any better than the last guy?’ It’s going to be the same kids, the same rules, the same games. It hit me in the face that I better start evaluating everything. Why are we doing what we’re doing in every aspect of the program?
“I went month by month. Why is January this way? I looked at the summer program. When I got to on-the-field stuff, I called in our defensive coordinator. I said, ‘Why are we punting?’ Well, you have to run the ball and play defense. This was pre-Money Ball. I had seen a little information through scouring the internet and trying to find analytics that proved what I wanted to do. I thought maybe field position wasn’t as important as everyone thought. That made me start asking a lot of questions. I researched it, and it gave me credence that everyone else was not right.
“That year, we experimented with going for it on fourth down when I thought it was appropriate. In ’07, I started experimenting with onside kicks. Then I got to see the butterfly effects. If we’re not going to punt, why are we wasting 20 minutes a day practicing punting? The analytics of that opened the door for me to ask why. The answer can’t be, ‘Because it’s always been done that way,’ or ‘Other winning teams do it.’ Kids want to know why, whatever we’re doing. I let the kids ask why. I’ve got a good answer for you, and it’s not going to be, ‘Because I said so.’ This approach stemmed from a history of a school that had never won anything. Why should I be able to win anything if I don’t do it differently?”
How does the math work to inform your decision to never punt?
“People think I’m crazy when we go for it from our own 10-yard-line, but the math actually proves that it’s the right decision. In high school football, if you turn the ball over to your opponent inside your own 10-yard-line, there’s a 92% chance of the opponent scoring a touchdown. Well, that doesn’t sound very good, does it?
“But what’s the alternative? In high school football, an average punt is maybe 32 or 33 yards. You’re giving them the ball on your 40-yard-line if you punt. The statistics say the opposing team has a 77% chance of scoring a touchdown on the ensuing drive if they start at our 40-yard-line. So chances are, they’re going to score a touchdown whether we punt or not.
“Say our offense has a 50% conversion rate on fourth down. By going for it, we have a 50% chance of keeping the drive alive. If we punt, the opposing team has a 77% chance of scoring. Which one do you think I’ll choose? And that doesn’t even factor in what I call the butterfly effect, which is all of the time we save in practice not working on punts or kickoffs. We don’t practice PATs. There’s a 99% success rate on PATs, so why would we spend time practicing it every day? We practice it for five minutes on the day before the game. That’s it.”
You must have had some moments when you failed big as a result of that aggressive approach? Do any come to mind?
“Not really. One state championship game we lost, we went for it on fourth down in our own territory, and the other team scored, so we were down 7 points as a result of that strategy. I got criticized by the media for the decision, but what they didn’t say is we also extended two touchdown drives by going for it on fourth down. So, it was actually a net positive. But even if we didn’t score on those drives, you can’t use one drive or even one game as a sample size. We’re committed to this strategy, and we’re taking years of data to inform our decisions. When you make a commitment as an organization, you can discuss it, but whoever is the head of the organization makes the decision. Either you commit to it, or you find somewhere else to do it.
“I don’t worry about what the media thinks or what the fans think. The first thing I worried about was the guys on the field. They’re the ones that have to execute it. If they’re questioning it, they won’t perform as well. I brought in the kids first. They loved the idea. They play video games the same way, so they don’t see it being different. I said, ‘You get to be the only players in the world to play this kind of football.’ They loved it.
“The coaches on the defensive side of the ball were the hard ones. They had never seen it, they didn’t believe it. What makes you look bad as a defensive coach? Giving up points. So, maybe they gave up 20 points per game last year. We do it this way, we’re going to give them the ball at our 10-yard-line once in a while. So, we might give up 27 points this year, but that doesn’t mean the defense got any worse. I told the coaches, ‘If you don’t believe in this, I’ll help you get another job.’ They know I’ll listen. I’ll say, ‘Talk me out of it.’ As long as I give them a chance, they’ll buy in. Not everybody. I had a few go their separate ways. But I don’t want the rest of the world to change because right now I’ve got a big advantage.”
I know parents can be critical of in-game coaching decisions. Have you had any problems with that over the years?
“I meet with parents to explain the why. I ask for their cooperation. When Johnny goes home at night, and Dad’s like, ‘Coach Kelley is an idiot; he should have punted.’ … That’s going to affect Johnny the next day at practice. ‘My dad was right when we gave up the ball on the 15.’ I tell parents that — as a football coach — I have no reason to do stupid stuff. I have no agenda except for winning. If I don’t win, I’ll get fired. What’s going to cause us to lose is if Johnny hears you criticizing this ‘stupid’ stuff. I’m not asking you not to say it. Say it to your wife in bed at night. Say it to your buddies. I’m just asking you not to say it to Johnny or yell it during a game because we all want the same thing. And we all need to do our part to help us win.”
Many coaches say the first championship is the easiest, but staying on top is hard. Have you found that to be true?
“Staying on top as a champion is hard. You’ve got to change; you can’t stay the same. At first, I used to let the junior high coaches do what they wanted. I figured that will teach the players different ways to think about offense and defense. Then I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ I moved the scheme down to junior high, and then eventually fifth and sixth grade. I spent time with the coaches and gave them a watered down version of what we do — with our language and terminology. I got it down to fifth grade maybe 10 or 12 years ago. We have seven coaches on staff. Slowly but surely, I widdled away positions so that the senior high coaches are coaches for seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, JV and varsity. The bad news is it’s all the same coaches, so they have games on Monday, two on Thursday and another on Friday. The good news is our kids are coached by the same people for six years. It’s a lot of work in-season. It’s a killer. But it increases the speed at which we can teach things, and the players trust you by the time they get to high school.”
How does your team’s unconventional style force other teams to prepare differently?
“We don’t return punts. On kickoffs, we line up with our hands team. We don’t practice kickoff returns. Here’s a stat that I love to get out in the media. We’re 136-5 when we recover an onside kick in a game. When other teams hear that, what do you think they do? They practice onside kicks all week. I get them to spend 30 minutes of practice time when they’re not practicing something else. Analytics can’t measure that. I have to assign some variable to psychology and emotion. I’m sure we score more often when we recover an onside kick than when we just start with the same field position.”
Have you seen other coaches in your area follow your lead and stop punting?
“People find reasons not to do things rather than reasons to do things. There’s risk aversion. If you’re a coach and losing the conventional way, you might get an extra year or two to turn it around. If you lose my way, you’ll be fired quickly. The desire to keep the job longer overcomes the knowledge that in the big picture, you’re going to win more games. This can work at all levels. Football is football. I’ve used analytics from high school and college. The thing that wins you more games than any other stat is 20-plus yard plays. We incorporated more deep shots and some rugby-style plays with laterals. The second stat is turnovers, which everybody knows. The third is sacks. Why is that? That’s what I wanted to find out. How can we create more sacks on defense and eliminate the sacks on offense? We’re a 70% passing team. I tell my defensive coordinator, I’m not going to be mad if we give up big plays because we’re blitzing every down. I WILL be mad if we’re getting picked apart because we’re playing too conservatively. Sacks are drive-killers at every level.
“When you try to implement something, you look for reasons to do it. I analyze all games. We scored touchdowns at an 88% rate. That’s a really high number. When we got sacked, it went down to 8%. That’s a drive-killer, and you can’t overcome it for many reasons. The play-calling changes. Your mindset changes. I’m looking for reasons to do things rather than reasons to say no. There’s an answer for everything we do. I don’t care if you’re the worst team ever, there’s an answer of something you can be doing to win more games. I don’t want to go, ‘I can’t find an answer.’ Psychologically, people look for reasons to quit rather than keep going.”
Bill Belichick called you one of the best high school coaches out there this season. How did that relationship come about?
“I was speaking at an analytics group at Notre Dame several years ago. The Patriots were playing Sunday Night Football against Indianapolis. Somebody I knew said, ‘Come down and watch the game. You can meet him after the game.’ That was pretty casual, and he met with my son, Zack, for about a half hour on the field. At the end of it, he said, ‘Hey — If you ever want to come up and visit us, do it.’ People say that all the time, and they don’t mean it. I thought about it for years but never made the call. Finally, my son said, ‘He said we could come up. Call him.’ I did, and all of the sudden, we’re going up there every year. I found out that if Coach Belichick says it, he means it.”
It seems like Coach Belichick is interested in anyone and anything that helps his team win?
“I think we all are. I saw a post from someone I follow on Twitter the other day. It said something like, ‘If you’re a coach who cares about winning championships, then you’re not my kind of coach.’ I follow a lot of coaches that motivate me. Kurt Hines in California is one them who does a great job. But I didn’t understand this post. You talk about the (softening) of America. It’s gotten to a point that people are afraid to say they want to win. That’s become a bad thing. I always want to win. I’m not afraid to say it. I love winning championships. Everything feels better for nine months after we win a championship. I understand that we have a responsibility to make better men, but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of winning. We played a team this year with 11 Division 1 commits. We didn’t have a single D1 player. We found a way to win. That’s the whole idea of sports. We always want to win, and we’re not afraid to say it.’