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It’s More than Numbers: Why Dave Aranda Made the Right Decision Going for it

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It’s about more than math

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Math can’t tell us everything about life. In the classic Simpson’s episode “Homer at the Bat” Mr. Burn’s, the manager, elects to pinch hit Daryl Strawberry for Homer Simpsons because Burns wants a right handed batter to face a left handed pitcher. “It’s called playing the percentages,” Burns explains to a bewildered Strawberry. Clearly Burns failed to understand the math behind “right handed batter does better against left handed pitcher” has to adjust for batting a major league all-star instead of an obese nuclear inspector.

That would usually be the interlude to explain why Aranda made a terrible decision foregoing a field goal and having Baylor go for it on 4th and 2. Sure, this fancy math says Baylor has a 94% chance to win by going and a 91% chance by kicking, but you have to take into account that games aren’t played on spreadsheets. You trust your defense to make Texas Tech drive the length of the field for a touchdown. You don’t let nerds—who spend more time on p-values than the value of defense—make the call.

We could have a long discussion about the math. But the critics of analytics are correct that some of the analytics folks are too loyal to the numbers. We shouldn’t just defer to the numbers.

Going for it was the right call for three reasons. First, Aranda relied upon a plan. In “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars” Jim Paul recounts how he lost everything betting on timber in an ad hoc fashion. “And while you will still lose some money with a plan, you are certain to lose all your money, eventually, without one.” Aranda understands that you don’t want to make decisions in hectic situations. How many times do coaches burn timeouts to decide if they’re going for it? Aranda’s thought things out ahead of time. His strategy is well thought out. As he said after the game, “We partner with a company, CAI, there’s a former coach there...and we’ll go over situations and calls.” By having a plan ahead of time—when Aranda can look at a bevy of contingencies—he’s ready to meet the moment.

Second, Aranda’s decisions speaks to a valuable insight about being a head coach: delegating to experts. “I think managing a game and managing timeouts and just all of it was new for me. I knew coming into this role it was something I had to learn a lot,” Aranda said after the victory. That quote is stunning for a college football coach. Too many people fall victim to assuming because they’re brilliant in one area—and Aranda is with defenses—they have mastered everything about a subject. But Aranda gets that he’s not an expert in fourth down calls. There are people who look at statistics and understand situations about injuries and time and distance. Over thousands of data points, we have more reliable information. Aranda mentioned the company they consult with has a coach, so again, it’s not just a bunch of nerds. But it’s superb that Aranda can defer to qualified experts. He’s not overwhelmed doing too much. He focuses on what he does well, and he listens to others. That’s good enough for an eight win turnaround in one year.

Most importantly, Aranda has a philosophy. “I think at the end of the game that’s our DNA, our kids would expect nothing less,” he said. Baylor goes for it on fourth down. Every coach wants to discuss “culture” or “brand, but “if you have a philosophy, then the idea is you’re going to live that out,” Aranda said. You can’t preach aggressiveness and then change your mind. If anyone needs their fill on conservatism, Barry Goldwater’s speeches are online. But even he noted, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Aranda has stuck to that philosophy. Kids understand Baylor’s going to be aggressive. That pays off by letting the guys know what it means to play for Baylor and having an understanding about the team.

Bryan Harsin picked the opposite philosophy. After scoring in overtime, Harsin chose to kick an extra point rather than go for two. Harsin did that despite playing a backup quarterback with a bad ankle. And Auburn—a six win team—is clearly worse than Alabama. Math dictated he made a mistake. And under any philosophy about “we’re going to go win the game” Harsin flunked. Sure enough, his Tigers lost a few minutes later.

We can debate math and argue about a percentage point here or there. But the important thing is that Aranda has a philosophy. Like him, it’s well thought out, and it’s something he maintains in the toughest moments. The acerbic coach has a brilliant plan; it has Baylor close to playing for a Big 12 title.