As the college basketball season rumbled toward the NCAA Tournament, the sports commentariat flooded the Internet with articles asking why college basketball games have become so low scoring.
First in the field was Seth Davis' cover story for Sports Illustrated, where the primary target is coaches:
"Coaches are fierce competitors. They're under a lot of pressure. They are not about to relinquish control. 'Coaches have always felt that if you take timeouts away from them, it's like taking their first born,' says Art Hyland, the rules committee's secretary editor.
"Which brings us to the heart of the issue. The primary reason college basketball faces a scoring crisis isn't the rules. It isn't the refs, it isn't the players, it isn't the officiating coordinators, it isn't the conference commissioners, and it isn't the television networks. It's the coaches."
Davis then goes on to describe a modern rarity: a 94-83 game between Oklahoma and Iowa State that was an appealing advertisement for the sport because "the coaches let their players go."
The fact that Oklahoma-Iowa State was an exception rather than the rule is a problem for basketball. One clear trend across sports is that faster-paced games draw attention, while slower-paced brethren struggle.
Golf is suffering because of its glacial pace. Ditto for baseball. The English Premier League just inked a massive TV deal in no small part because of the end-to-end nature of the English game, a style that leaves its clubs unable to compete with more technically capable Continental opponents. The NBA has produced a faster game (the average NBA team has 93.9 possessions per 48 minutes, up from 90.9 10 years ago) that is doing very well.
Modern college basketball fits into the golf/baseball category. You can watch the diminishing of the sport even as the season reaches its apex in the Tournament. Coaches force players to fit systems that emphasize long possessions. The ends of games are interminable as the coaches call incessant timeouts to set plays (which typically entail the team's best perimeter player engaging in heroball and hoisting up a terrible shot), thus turning what ought to be the best part of the game into the worst.
"The website Rushthecourt.net published a breakdown of the final 3 minutes, 37 seconds of a game between Indiana and Ohio State. The Buckeyes mounted a comeback and came within a buzzer-beating three-pointer of sending the game into overtime. It should have been riveting, except those last three-and-half minutes took almost 32 minutes in real time. Free throws and three replay reviews slowed down the action, but the primary reason it took so long was that the two coaches called a combined six timeouts."
Ironically, Sports Illustrated paired Davis' cover story with a piece arguing that Bob Knight's success at Indiana led to the trend of coaches emphasizing defense and control, but Knight famously did not call timeouts at the end of close games. Watch the end of the 1987 championship against Syracuse:
How many modern coaches would have freaked out when the clock hit 10 seconds? Knight trusted his players to get a good shot. Keith Smart did exactly that. (And then, showing that eschewing timeouts isn't always a good idea, Syracuse players froze and let three seconds run off the clock, much to Billy Packer's amazement.) It's rare to say that modern coaches exert more control than a famous dictator like Bob Knight, but with respect to the ends of games, it's undeniably true.
College football's offensive coaches are no less control freaks.
It's not as if football coaches trust their players to make decisions without constant input. However, the way that football coaches exert control over their offenses has had the opposite effect. In an effort to maximize chances of success, football coaches have created a faster-paced game that has higher scores and better ratings.
How is this the case? Because of the no-huddle approach, used frequently by tempo offenses like Auburn and Oregon and sometimes by more traditional programs like Alabama and Virginia Tech. Many offensive coaches have figured out that getting rid of the huddle has two major benefits.
- It allows a coach time to read the defense before the snap and call a play based on that. Offensive coaches remove pre-snap control from the players and take it themselves. This continues a long-standing trend of coaches taking decision-making authority from quarterbacks, a trend that started when play-calling moved from the quarterback to the coach.
- No-huddle coaches remove substitutions from the equation. Thus, defensive coaches cannot get their situation-specific personnel packages onto the field. It's no accident that defensive coaches like Nick Saban and Bret Bielema oppose rules related to the no-huddle (although Saban has claimed he prefers a more aggressive Alabama offense); it removes their ability to control.
As a result, college football's on-field product has never been more popular. Scoring is up. Ratings are up. The pace is faster. And this is partly because of offensive coaches figuring a way to increase control at the expense of their own quarterbacks and opposing defensive coaches.
It's not as if football coaches or the executives who run the sport got together and altered the rules to make play counts go up. It just happened that control-hungry offensive coaches caused the game to evolve that way. In fact, as Brian Phillips pointed out, the NCAA would be hard-pressed to make rule changes explicitly for the purpose of TV ratings because that would further demolish the notion of college sports as "amateur."
So, if you are a football fan who looks at the sludgy mess that college basketball has become and thinks to yourself, "Thank goodness my sport doesn't look like that," pay homage to Tyche for the control freaks in charge of your sport.