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Sunday, November 24, 2013

What the Oregon Ducks Could Learn from Phil Couchee

Most Giants fans will remember that when in the 6th game of the 2002 World Series, Giants' manager Dusty Baker took the Giants' starting pitcher, Russ Ortiz, out of the game with the Giants leading the Angles 5-0, Baker gave the game ball to Ortiz even though there was still almost three innings left to play in the game. In doing so, Baker violated one of the cardinal rules in sports: don't say or do anything that'll give the opposing team something to rally around. In this case, Baker acted as if the game was in the bag, but as any baseball fan will tell you, "It ain't over until it's over." And sure enough, the Angels rallied, scoring three runs in the bottom of the 7th, another three in the bottom of the 8th, and finally winning the game 6-5. They then went on to win the 7th game of the World Series the following night.

Baker could have learned a thing or two from Phil Couchee, one of my youth league coaches and one of the best coaches I ever had, at any level. He taught us never to assume we'd won a game until it was over and the gear (i.e., baseballs, catcher's equipment, etc.) was sacked up, ready to go. In fact, giving the game ball to Ortiz is akin to sacking up the gear before the game is over. Indeed, one of Phil's teams once found itself down several runs, heading into the top of the last inning, and the other team started to sack up the gear. Phil's son, Mike, noticed, and yelled, "Look! They're sacking up the gear. They're sacking up the gear. They think they've won!" (or something to that effect). And we responded by scoring several runs and winning the game (I'm guessing that was the last time the other team's coach ever sacked up the gear early).

Texas Longhorns' coach Mack Brown (and his staff) committed a sin similar to Baker's last year in a game against West Virginia ("It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over"). West Virginia had jumped out to a 21-7 lead, but then Texas came back and tied the game at 21-21. As the game-tying touchdown was under review, the Texas stadium's disc jockey played the early 1990s dance hit "Jump Around," and most of the Texas fans started jumping around, as did the entire Texas Longhorn football team (along with a few coaches). But the game was only in the 2nd quarter. I know if I'd been West Virginia, I would've been a little put out if I'd had looked across the field and saw the other team dancing as if they'd already won the game. Not surprisingly, West Virginia won the game in the end.

Contrast this with former 49er head coach, Bill Walsh. To the best of my knowledge, in the lead up to a game he (or any of the 49er players) never said anything that the opposing team could post on its locker room bulletin board. I don't know if it was an official policy or not, but the Niners seemed to go out of their way to complement their opponents (there must have been a few slip ups along the way but I don't remember any).

That apparently isn't the case with the current 49ers. Prior to their match up with the Seattle Seahawks back in September, Niner running back Anthony Dixon tweeted that the team was "prepping for the 'She-Hawks,'" which, as one commentator noted, provided the Seahawks with "unnecessary motivation" ("Anthony Dixon Offers Seattle Unnecessary Motivation with 'She-Hawks Tweet"). NFL observers know that the Seahawks crushed the Niners a few days later.

Urban Meyer, who won two national championships when he coached Florida and is currently undefeated as the head coach of Ohio State, has a similar policy to Bill Walsh's. The players are not allowed to speak in public and are taught to talk about their teammates, their team, and to always be respectful of the team they're getting ready to play or the team they had just played. In fact, recently when one of his players, Evan Spencer, stated that Ohio State would "wipe the field with both of them" (referring to #1 Alabama and #2 Florida State), Meyer remarked ("Urban Meyer: I Can't Stand That!")
I'm very disappointed, I can't stand that. Our players are taught [not to do that], and I know Evan well enough and I even talked to him briefly and he was kind of smiling the way he said it. But, no, I can't stand it. He's certainly not the spokesman for our team. As a result, Evan won't talk to the media for a long, long time. You don't do that. It's not good sportsmanship, and that's not what we expect. ... Talk about your teammates, talk about the team and move on.
Which brings us to the Oregon Ducks, whose players (well, a couple) have been sticking their feet in their mouth lately. First, it was De'Anthony Thomas stating that the Ducks were going to score at 40 points against Stanford (they didn't and lost 26-20), and then it was Thomas again, along with teammate Josh Huff, publicly expressing their disappointment of having to settle for the Rose Bowl rather than play for the National Championship, even though they still had to win three more games to qualify for the Rose Bowl (they didn't and lost big to Arizona this past week). Instead of being as critical of Thomas and Huff as Meyer was of Spencer, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich called their comments, "part ignorant, part out of context." No doubt they were, but they still didn't help the Duck cause against Arizona.

That is not to say that it wasn't appropriate for Thomas to think they would score 40 points against Stanford and to feel disappointed that they weren't going to play for the National Championship, but there are some remarks that are suitable for public consumption and some for the locker room. These belonged in the locker room.

Would the Ducks have beat Arizona (and Stanford) if Helfrich kept his players from speaking to the media? It's hard to say, but it certainly wouldn't have hurt, which is why Helfrich could learn a thing or two from Urban Meyer. And from Phil Couchee for that matter.

P.S. The Phil Couchee connection isn't as far-fetched as it might seem at first. Phil's son, Mike, pitched for the San Diego Padres and was one of the coach's for the 2002 World Series Champion Angels (he has a ring). He was there when Dusty handed the ball to Ortiz.

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