In 2003, the Oklahoma Sooners appeared destined to be national champions. The Sooners, led by Bob Stoops, were able to compile a 12-0 regular season record with most of their victories being lopsided. One of these victories included a 77-0 blowout of the Texas A&M Aggies where 28 points were scored in the third quarter following a 49-0 half-time lead.
To Oklahoma’s credit, most of the points were with their reserve units. In some instances, teams will keep their first string players in despite having an enormous lead. For coaches that practice running up the score in this fashion, what are the possible consequences of their actions, and should they be criticized for running up the score?
The BCS rewards you for running up the score
The Oklahoma Sooners cruised to the Big XII championship and were heavy favorites against the Kansas State Wildcats. The Wildcats pulled off the upset after scoring 35 unanswered points en route to a 35-7 victory. Despite losing the conference championship and getting dominated in their final game before the final BCS ranking before bowl games, the Oklahoma Sooners still qualified for the national championship because of their previous routs against teams like Iowa State, Baylor, Texas, and Texas A&M.
The margin of victories helped the Sooners in the computers and the eyes of the media. Sports are about winning championships, and while running up the score may be unsportsmanlike, it is not cheating. If a head coach believes running up the score is in the best interest of his football program, then they should do it.
However, there are other external factors to consider when running up the score.
Running up the score increases chance for injury
In 1974, the Washington Huskies avenged a 58-0 loss to the Oregon Ducks from the previous season by defeating the Ducks 66-0. Jim Bowens, the Huskies head coach, kept starting quarterback Chris Rowland in the game until a severe leg injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. The injury occurred on an option play when the score was 52-0.
When Chris Rowland returned, the coaching staff had been replaced and his starting quarterback position was given to Warren Moon. Playing Chris Rowland in that situation may have cost him Rowland a chance to carve his name in Washington history and possibly establish a NFL career. Rowland did own five passing records for the Washington Huskies.
Running up the score hinders growth of reserve players
Running up the score with the first unit gives less playing time to reserve players. When first-string players get injured during the season, reserves may not be as prepared. The lack of opportunities they are given during garbage could negatively impact the program when they are taking over for graduating players in future seasons. It could even hinder the morale of players that are upset at not getting more playing time.
Running up the score creates momentum for the other team
In 1968, the Ohio State Buckeyes defeated the Michigan Wolverines 50-14. Upon scoring their final touchdown, Woody Hayes decided to go for the two point conversion. In 1992, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Boston College Eagles 54-7 in a game where a fake punt was called late in the game.
What did these games have in common? The follow seasons spelled revenge. The Eagles and Wolverines would upset their rivals and cost them chances at National Championships. These teams had extra momentum as they remembered what occurred the previous seasons.
Running up the score can establish inflated egos
Running up the score primarily with a first-team unit can create a false impression of how good the team really is. Coaches don’t want their players to think too highly of themselves after beating inferior opponents. It may also make them peak earlier than desired.
Running up the score can impress recruits
If recruits are on campus, coaches may want to impress high school talent with impressive victories. Coaches want to make an impression that lasts in order to obtain a commitment from prized recruits.
No crying in football
It may be unsportsmanlike, but running up the score serves a competitive purpose in college football because of the BCS. In a system that rewards you for such behavior, then it is foolish to condemn the athletes and coaches committing behavior that rewards him or her. If a team has replaced their first-string unit and are scoring points, that can hardly be considered running up the score. If anything, the opponent should be grateful for the experience to improve.
If a team runs the score up with their first unit, runs specialty plays when winning large, or goes for two-point conversions when well ahead, then that should be at the coaches discretion. It may satisfy a selfish objective, but there are many things that can backfire when choosing to play this aggressive. It could also prove valuable at the end of the season or in attracting attention to prestigious talent.
Players’ feelings should be of no concern. These are young, maturing men playing a passionate sport. While they may not be compensated like professionals that deal with potentially embarrassing situations, it can serve as a positive experience for them. These men will have to face challenges in their lives that have more meaning and greater impact than losing a football game by a decisive margin.
Dan Raley, “Where are they now: Chris Rowland.” Seattle PI.. Nov 19, 2003. March 2, 2010.