There are a select few championship-caliber head coaches who have seen their successfully executed gadget plays vault them to the upper echelon of the college football landscape. Big name coaches such as Chris Peterson of Boise State and Les Miles have established reputations due to their timely trick plays. Peterson’s Broncos, for example, became media darlings after they toppled the mighty Oklahoma Sooners in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl thanks to hook-and-ladder plays, reverse passes, and, finally, a two-point conversion on a Statue of Liberty play that gave Boise the lead once and for all. A YouTube compilation videos of those three plays has more than 750,000 views. Just last year, Peterson called a fake punt in the Fiesta Bowl against TCU on 4th-and-19, picked up 30 yards, and eventually took the lead for good. Miles, the head coach of LSU, earned his nickname, “The Mad Hatter,” from the fake field goal and fake punt calls he made en route to the 2008 BCS National Championship. Trick plays are perhaps the most polarizing calls in football, because most of the time, they either turn out really well or completely fail. In these situations, so much is at stake, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to believe that these coaches would be in danger of losing their jobs if these calls were to have failed.
Unfortunately for Yale head coach Tom Williams, these situations are all too real. In his second year as the Bulldogs’ coach, Williams has shown that he doesn’t shy away from taking risks. Earlier this season against Albany with time expiring in the first half, Williams called a fake field goal, resulting in a 40-yard Jordan Forney ’11 touchdown, putting the Elis in position to take control of the game. It was a bold move by Williams, who saw himself facing the fury of Yale fans and the wrath of the national media. Clinging to a 10–7 lead with just over two minutes left to play in the Yale Bowl, Williams inexplicably called for John Powers ’13 to run a fake punt on 4th-and-22 and came up five yards short. With one single decision, he transformed thousands of drunk Ivy League students — many of whom had not been to a football game since the last edition of The Game — into football experts.
But before the infamous fake punt, the Elis owed much to Williams’ tricky playbook. Last year, a fake punt went for a 40-yard touchdown and proved to be enough to get the Bulldogs a shutout victory against Lehigh. After the game, Mountain Hawk coach Andy Coen remarked that they even “expected” the call. Unfortunately, even though Williams’ gambles have consistently gone well, he’s most widely known for the one time the gamble backfired. It’s humorous, really. While becoming a successful football coach takes years of experience, thousands of hours of meticulous planning and preparation, one play can define a season.
Much of the disgust at the decision is warranted; who in their right mind calls a fake punt from their own half of the field with that many yards to go? And when they’re winning? Nobody would expect a call like this. When you look closely, the idea was nearly just crazy enough to work. Half of the Harvard defense was fooled by the misdirection, and Powers had sufficient downfield blocking to pick up the first.
In the end, it all came down to execution. After watching a replay of “the Call,” I noticed that a Harvard defender, Collin Zych, initially bit on the fake, stumbled and almost fell while changing directions. Somehow, though, he regained his composure, sprinted past three Yale blockers and made just enough effort to stop Powers short of the first down. The fact that Zych made an extremely athletic and disciplined play on what would’ve been a close play has been buried under the calls for coach Williams’ head. To paraphrase Al Pacino in “Any Given Sunday,” football is a game of inches. If Powers had picked up those last five yards, then Coach Williams would be lauded as a genius, the “Mad Hatter” of the Ivy League.
Rightfully so, Williams hasn’t shown regret about the call, he even stated on Tuesday at a press conference that he’d “call the play tomorrow if it’d help us win the football game. We play to win, we don’t play to lose close.” It’s a good sign that the Bulldogs coach feels this way. Many conservative coaches before him have been crucified because they coach to not lose games instead of coaching in order to win. Who’s to say Harvard wouldn’t have returned that punt for a touchdown?
The easiest thing to do is to let blame fall on the coach, but some responsibility has to lie with the players, right? These players have some control over their own actions, right? I’m sure that most modern coaches would agree to a certain extent that it’s not always about the Xs and the Os, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes. Players involved with the play tend to agree. Sean Williams ’11 was playing left guard on the punt team on the fateful play.
“My job was to seal the man lined up in front of me, and keep him from being able to reach the ball carrier,” he said.
Williams did his job on the play and allowed Powers to receive the lateral without being touched. Unfortunately, his downfield blockers couldn’t hold the Harvard defenders for long enough to get the first down. While everyone from SportsCenter analysts to local media outlets took turns taking their shots at Coach Williams, the players never questioned the call, and their trust in their coach is unshaken.
“Leading up to the play, all I was thinking about was executing my block for the fake,” Sean Williams said. “Not much else is going through your mind at critical points in games such as that play. All that matters is getting your job done. To be honest, I don’t really think about the coaches are thinking in terms of play calls. Everyone on our team has complete and full trust in the coaches. I just listen to what they have to say and do as I am coached.”
If they are to win on Saturday, they’ll have to do just that.
Timothy Threadcraft is a junior in Davenport College.