May 12, 2021

Kevin Kelley — College Football Coach Who ‘Never Punts’

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #39

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Kevin Kelley who has been deemed as the ‘mad scientist of football,’ gained cult-like fame for his unconventional football philosophy: he’s the coach who never punts. That might sound crazy to a lot of the football fans out there, but it works. As the head football coach at Pulaski Academy in Arkansas, Coach Kelley has won nine state championships and has one of the best offenses in the entire country. A few years back, TIME Magazine even deemed Coach Kelley’s no punt philosophy as the “33rd best invention of the year.” 

Coach Kelley has been featured by ESPN and NFL Films for his “No Punt” philosophy, he’s been featured in ESPN’s 30 for 30, and he’s been featured twice by HBO Real Sports. He even gets calls from NFL coaches who want to discuss his strategy. Coach Kelley used an ESPN database to study college football history, and through his research, he discovered that when a team punts from near its end zone, the opponent takes possession inside the 40-yard line and scores a touchdown 77% of the time. If it recovers on downs inside the 10, the team will score a touchdown 92% of the time. So with the data behind him, Coach Kelley decided: no more punting. Now, he’s regularly featured in the national press all the time — the Washington Post said “Coach Kelley is a rogue high school coach, but his ideas are taken seriously.” Just recently, Coach Kelly recently accepted the job as D1 Head Football Coach at Presbyterian College.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Kevin and 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci talked about everything from the power of purposeful practice, to why coaches need to give their team “the why.”


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Kevin shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “If you give them ownership, and make them feel important they’ll always do a better job.”
  • “Kids are way more open to ideas than adults…kids are great if you tell them why.”’
  • “By necessity sometimes you have to think differently and change, and you have to accept what the leader of the group wants to do.”
  • “If you spend 5 or 10 minutes doing something everyday, you’re going to be way better at other people because all that time adds up.”
  • “The priority has to dictate what you’re willing to be able to do.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: You’re interacting with kids at 14, 15, 16, 17. It’s like the next wave of workers that are going to be out there in the workforce. You almost can see what’s changing in the way that the audience thinks and how they act. So at that point, when you do corporate talks, what do you say to executives out there that want to be better leaders?

Kevin: The first thing you talk about is, know who you have. I think the big mistake is even at different levels of football and different and the NFL. If you look, they’ve got their plan and they’re trying to draft somebody that fits what they want to do, and in college, they do the same thing in high school. The advantage that we end up having is we learned to coach better because we don’t get to go pick who we want to fit our system. We’ve got to manipulate what we do around who we have and in some respect, you can go out and hire. When you’re hiring people, you can go out and hire people you think fit in with your system and strengths and weaknesses. But how much do you really know that person they’re giving you their best self? You’re asking them questions when you’re interviewing them but at the same time, you really don’t know what you’re getting. So when you do get them, because the expense of actually firing somebody and I mean if you look at the analytics of that, that’s an expensive process to firing somebody, bringing somebody else, teach them something new, then you need to be able within your parameters to manipulate what you need them to do that do fit their strengths and weaknesses. I think one of the things I talked to them about is getting outside the box on that and you might even be able to find somebody you have there that couldn’t do exactly what you wanted to him as well. But maybe they can do something a little bit different than what you even do, and you might be able to branch out into a whole other thing later on, but certainly, you can find the strengths that people do. If you place value on them, I’ve got a kid right now that last year wanted to play one position, and the kid,  I thought he’s going to be in a football port and football player, but he doesn’t do what he wants. I don’t even know who’s going to start. He was able to do something different and I thought I could find value in this. I gave him some ownership in it and he took it and ran with it and became really good where it became an integral part of what we did. I never, at the beginning of the year, though that would be something that we even thought about doing. Understand your people and think differently about what they can do instead of here’s what we want you to do. Maybe you got to shuffle them around a little bit or give them some other leeway. If you start thinking about the big corporations in the world, 3m, who’s one of the biggest sellers of all office supplies. I use these different companies, they started off as really mining or Minnesota mining and manufacturing. They don’t do that anymore. If you look at Nokia, they started off selling board games. Now Nokia is a big electronics company. Everybody morphs into what they need to be. You can morph people a little bit into what you want and to be that fit more of them instead of what you wanted them to be, and still be successful. Especially if the person is somebody that is motivated and works hard and going to do a good job. So from thinking differently on the people they hire, because I have only got one coach in my whole staff that when I hired him, he coached the position that he’s coached previously. I made him coach something completely different in there and he’s like I’ve never coached even on that side of the ball, like, look, you fit what I want you to fit personality-wise and character-wise and you can learn to do some of that stuff, but I think you have a really strong fear. 84% of my coaches coach something they’ve never coached before and they’re really successful at it. Now, it just took a little bit of time, but now we’re even better than what I thought we would be. Because then again, they’re also not brainwashed by what their previous boss thought, so they’re not bringing in his ideas. We’re having to think new and create our own ideas. 

Sam: Is there any difference in coaching coaches versus coaching players?

Kevin: I would say the similarities are and give them some ownership in it. If you give them ownership and make them feel important, they’ll always do a better job. When you say, look, I really want you to think about some of this stuff. They’ll do that. If they think you have value on them, that’s both of them, coaches and players. The players seem to need a little bit more. If you go this extreme with them like if I get on them a lot when they don’t do a good job their attention diverts from where we want it to, I have to go this way even further. What I mean is, if I get on a kid pretty good, I’ve got to find something real that he did well that day and bring him back in by telling him something. I can’t find something fake. I’ve got to find something real. With coaches is it nearly that way? You can say, look, you guys did a bad job on the game and I don’t have to also give them a positive as much. Adults are a little bit different, but they still like it when you do. So what I’ve learned over time is if I do have to get on somebody or have to push somebody. I’ve tried my best and I’ll wait. It might be a week before I find something equally as good as they did bad to reel them back in with. But when I do find that I’m making a mental note to bring them back in, so they do roll out. I did have to get on you for that, but I still love you and think you’re really important.

Sam: What did those coaches say to you when you said we’re not going to punt anymore? 

Kevin:  The kids were great. Kids are way more open to ideas than adults are because, you know, we get, this is how we want to do it. We’ve always done it this way. You know, that kind of thing. Kids were great, I could walk out there tomorrow and say, we’re going to punt on first down, and if I could give them a great reason I think that’d be it. Think about growing up, your mom says, Hey, I want you to eat your green beans. If she would have told you why, instead of saying because I said, you probably would have been a little more anxious to do it for them. But with the coaches, I had to really explain to them why, and then early on with that first one I had to go in and say the bottom line is you’re not going to like it. We’re just doing it because I said so. As the head coach, if you think something’s really better or as the leader of an organization or the CEO of a company, you’ve got to listen to your people and listen to their ideas in case you’re wrong, or in case they’ve got a good twist, but overall, if you’re right and it’s best for the group, then you’ve got to make the hard decision of saying, okay, I’ve listened to you, but here’s what we’re going to do. If you don’t like that, then you’ve got to find somewhere else to go. 

Sam: You’ve talked to a lot of executives and CEOs and corporate audiences, what have they said to you when they hear your conversation and your story around not punting? What have they related that to, for their business? What would be the analogy of never punting for a business? 

Kevin: Here’s one I went down, I’ve actually been twice to a company called Halliburton, which is in the oil services industry. It’s a billion, multi-billion dollar giant oil services company. The world and technology changes and what we need to be able to do and what we need to be able to service. Their business has changed from the old days, they needed guys that could go work on trucks, that drill that had these giant drills and all that and we got those all drilled. We were manufacturing so much oil because technology got better that they needed to change their services and their products and what they were doing. But the people that had been there for 15 years didn’t want to, they’re like this has worked well for us. I don’t want to learn something new. I went in and they used me on that one, for instance, to go in and go look, our school in the history of the school had never been past the final four. We had only been there twice, but I knew we had to change what we were doing or we were destined to be the same way over and over. I decided to look at a different product, a different way to do things. All of a sudden now in the lab, I’ve been the coach, the head coach for 18 years, we’ve been to the final four, 15 of those 18 times. We were there twice in history at the school. So by necessity, sometimes you have to think differently and change, but you have to be able to accept whatever the leader of the group decides and you’re going to do it with a great attitude, or it’s not going to work. They wanted me to be able to explain that’s how a difference can completely change what you’re doing in some aspects, but at the same time lead to success that you never even dreamed of because they had to change a ton of their services that they were providing. Some people just did not want to go through the training of learning something new because I’ve done this for 15 years, but the obvious thing to the CEO and the COO was you’re not going to be able to stay here because we’re not going to do those things anymore, but they wanted them because they were good people. They had to convince them that we’ve got to start doing things differently or we’re not going to exist, or you’re not going to have a job.

Sam: I am coming out of 2020, where you can make the argument that the companies are going to win in 2021. We’re able to change and adapt and try new things and that’s like a muscle, amost. 

Kevin: I’m a big advocate of, if you spend five or 10 minutes doing something every day, more than somebody else, you’re going to get way better because all that time adds up. Here’s an example: given what you’re talking about. If you go to Vegas and watch Cirque shows, I love going to Las Vegas and I love watching certain shows. Those people are freaks. I think of the Mystere and they’re climbing the poles and guys are doing the human blag thing and they’re doing it and flipping off of it and catching it again and doing crazy stuff. Well, they weren’t born any more than you are not able to do that, to be able to do that. But they worked at it and got better at it and they trained themselves to be able to do crazy things. One day I took our guys out here and I said, all right, who’s the best jumper jump roper. We’re going to start jump roping five minutes a day. I had guys that could just do straight jump rope, but I had some that couldn’t even do that. Nobody could do crazy crossovers and all this. For three straight months every day, just for five minutes, I got him a jump rope and went out there doing it. In three months, guys that couldn’t jump rope at all, looked like Rocky when they were done. I was just trying to teach them, you can train yourselves to do those things if you’ll focus on it and spend a little time every day doing it. It’s amazing what you can train your body or your mind to be able to do. And like you said, companies that are willing to know that we have to be able to adapt and do something new. We can train ourselves to do it. I mean, I did when COVID came in, they’re like, okay, we’re out of school and I’m thinking well, but we’re going to still have a football season, which we did. I’ve got to find a way to train my guys without seeing them on zoom and all that. I hated all that. I didn’t wanna do that, but if you want it to be successful enough, you’ll go through what you have to, to do it. So, first of all, I spent five or 10 minutes a day zooming people, regular people. So when I got to the players, it wasn’t a lot of dead time and me figuring out how to work it, I’m losing them and all that kind of stuff you learn. A priority has to dictate what you’re willing to train yourself to do, and if your priority is success and you are convinced that you have to train yourself, it is amazing what you can train yourself to do. 

Sam: You’ve obviously had some success with the way that you’ve been doing things. As people are listening and they’re thinking about it. How do you identify that? This thing that’s out there that they have to change? How did you come up with punting being the thing that it had to change? What process did you kind of go through? I know you spoke at the MIT analytics conference where you were talking moneyball stuff before moneyball. What made you kind of do that?

Kevin: I don’t know if you say got lucky or it was the way I did things that made me lucky. Some people say preparation makes luck. Some people say you better be lucky than good. I literally sat down because I had been the assistant coach in here and you’re limited. It’s like white-collar workers, one thing, but the COO and the CEO really get to make a bigger impact and I was making an impact, but I wasn’t making it as big as one of those that I could have. The day they hired me as the head coach and the other guy was gone well, I’m all excited. You walk out of the office. I had no idea it was coming. They just pulled me in before they even opened it up and said, Hey, it’s your job. You’ve done a good job. I walk into the office and I sit down on the big chair and I’m thinking, this is great and then it hits me like a rock. You think you’re a pretty good coach. You’re not going to be that much better than the last guy if we’re doing the same stuff, because you got the same people. I just said, I’m going to ask why about every month of the year. Football’s a process, you do a training off-season, start in January and go through December when you’re in game and all that kind of stuff and it separates. I started asking, why are we doing things in January the way we’re doing them? Why are we eating the pre-game meals the way we’re eating them? Why are we getting to games at the time we get to a game? I got on the field and I literally just for the heck of it as, okay asked why do we run the kind of offense we do? Why do we punt? So really just kind of happenstance, I wanted to know why.

My DC goes, well, Phil position and defense coach that wins ball games. That’s the answer everybody gave at that time. I really wanted to look. So I started digging around on the internet and I found an old professor that had done his own study of football. He was a Harvard guy and I saw him do some numbers again that was pre moneyball. That was the beginning of the not punting experiment. As we’ve gone along and here we are. We did really well early on for what our school had done, but in my first 10 years as head coach, we won three state championships. We’ve won six of the last seven now. As I’ve evolved, you asked the question, how did you end up on punting? Now, every year I analytically look at everything we do and try to throw out the less efficient things on defense or offense and in practice in an off season and try to bring in more efficient things. I looked at all levels of football and a business could do this. Let’s say you sell shoes. Let’s look at all the shoe sellers in the world and find the common denominators. So in the game of football, the common things who wins the games the most take the names off the box scores. 81% of all games are won by who has more 20 yard plays in that game. 80% of the games are won by turnovers. Well, everybody’s working on turnovers so that’s a wash. 77% of all games are won by who has the most sacks in the game. Turns out I want to study. I want to know why on the analytics sacks or drive killers. I can give you all kinds of numbers to point to that. So what we did was we built our team around the most efficient things that no matter what team you were. You were going to win the game. The top five things you started working on, we designed our offense to have a 20-yard place, not throw it 40 yards. That’s not efficient, but throw-in at 15 and 20 yards. We worked where we blitz all the time and try to get a sack. More Sacks wins the game, 77% of the time. Now there’s a synergistic effect. If you do all those things together, you win 99% of the time. If I’m in a shoe store, going back to that, I’m going to look and go, what are the top things in various areas? What are the top five things that these, the top five stores have in common and not gross sales because that’s not fair? That’s not the same playing field, but maybe, sales per person or unit sold, divided by cost or something like that. I’m going to find out what they do. That’s common and when you look and you go, well, when these people go in this store, they buy something 82% of the time and when they go in the store, they buy something 42% of the time. What the heck are they doing that makes it 82% effective. When you walk in the door, they have a big red sign that says, buy shoes. Now maybe that’s imprinted on your brain and you turn over some rocks and you go, Oh my gosh, I would have never thought that was a thing. And that’s a thing.  That’s my long answer to that question. 

Sam: How many other teams are, are, uh, have cut their punter as well.

Kevin: Risk aversion is a big thing. And that’s why, when you said earlier, running a  football team is very much like running an organization. I owned a golf store called golf USA for a while. And man, there were a ton of similarities and running it and motivating the people and finding out this and not using that. Even back then when I owned a golf store, I was scared to try new stuff. The golf USA franchise says, this is what works well, that’s what works. If you want to sell this much a year percent of your square footage a year, that’s what works, but I don’t want to do that. I want to be better than that. You got to try something new and different, but you need reasons and evidence to be able to back you up on it. I think that the answer is finding new things and having a reason for it. If you walk into a shoe store in New York and they go, we do 20,000 sales a day. Well, it might be in New York City where the foot traffic, a million people buy it a day. If you do one in little rock, Arkansas, you’re not going to have that, but you could really find out who was better if you go. Their foot traffic is a million a day and little rock at a hundred thousand a day. If they’re doing more than 10% of what New York is in theory, they’re doing a little better job with a number of people to pass in the amount of shoes they sell. Once you break it down into that, then you can start finding out. Like I say inefficiencies, you need to throw out efficiencies and then bring in something different. Test it for a large enough sample size before you get rid of it to see if that new thing works for you or it might not. The risk aversion, the scared to do it, the scared to invest a little money is what keeps you from doing it.

The other thing is the male ego and football is a really big thing and it might be for some companies. What I mean is this, if I told you, tell me who the manager of the Texas Rangers is, their essential head coach, you probably couldn’t pick him out of the lineup, but if I ask you, who the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys is, a lot more people can recognize that guy when your face is the front of the franchise and in football, it’s the head coach and usually the quarterback. Then you get a lot more pressure on you and if it goes bad, you’re the guy that gets the ball. If it goes well, coaches want to be able to go, I came up with that idea, not that I stole it from Jimbo over there. I think the ego factors into that, 

Sam: I’m gonna give you the last word.  What do you say to leaders out there? Any piece of advice from you?   

Kevin: Number one, we have a tendency, I think, in football and in business when you had a bad year, a down cycle, you want to get it all back quick. Same thing if you’re playing the stock market, if you’re doing anything, God, can I get it back? All of it back, you know, my revenue was cut in half last year. I would generally say the faster you try to get things back. Usually, the more ineffective you are and it can create a really downward spiral. If you felt like you were successful before doing the things that were successful and just push forward and grind it out, if at all possible grind it out. At the same time, you better be really, really willing to accept the new as it is, but you know, it’s the serenity prayer, God grant me is rented to not think about the things I can’t change. Basically, if you can’t change it, quit fighting it. You might as well embrace it. We’re out here playing football and practicing and this and that and immediately when practice is over, I’m putting on a mask and it doesn’t make sense to me to be in the film room when I’ve been two feet from these guys. But I embrace it. I can’t fight it. That’s the rules. That’s the way it is. Why would I spend mental energy fighting that now at the same time, somebody brings in something and goes, look how much more efficient we can be if we do it this way, they’re not having to spend five minutes to go find their masks after practice and in five minutes before practice find it. Well, I’ve saved 10 minutes for 50 guys. That’s a lot of man minutes. We’ve developed a different way to even do that. Here’s your slot, put yours right here, walk right in, and grab it. What I’m saying is, I guess, grind out what you have to, don’t fight what you can, and use your own people. What I have found out is when there’s something new and none of us know about COVID coming, it’s one thing to have one guy thinking about what you can do to be more efficient or better. I just started asking our players, guys, I need ideas and their kids, but kids are pretty smart sometimes. All of a sudden we’ve got, got 70 guys coming to me with ideas. We got some pretty good ways to do things in the new world from them. I did a thing with Ticketmaster two years ago. I went out there and it was an interesting combination. I was talking to the white-collar guys at the top and there was a gap between them and the tech guys because basically, Ticketmaster’s goal is if Brittany Spears has a concert, we want to see how fast we can sell that thing out. I’m talking 12 minutes. All the tickets sold. The people down here had some good ideas, but the people up here weren’t listening. I don’t know if it was ego or you just thought you guys don’t know your tech guys, you just do your job or whatever. But I went down there and they were trying to explain it to me. I had a group of 20 guys and I’m going to go bridge that gap. I said here’s what they’re wanting to accomplish. They’re like we could do this. We could cut our time down by 35% if they’ll just listen to us. Well, they started listening to them and it really helped their business. They were able to apply some of those things and attain their goal of decreasing at 35%. We figured out a way to sell out a 20,000 seat stadium in 12 minutes. What I’m saying is listen to your people as well and never dismiss, and you’re going to take some dumb answers. They’re going to have some dumb ideas, but don’t make them feel dumb because you never know when the one that was dumb might come up with something genius the next time. Don’t be afraid and throw your ego to the side more than ever in this time. You have to throw your ego to the side and take great ideas from anybody you can get them 

Sam: That’s super relevant. I hate zoom. I’m worn out from it. But  I have the best leaders. They’ve found a way to communicate and use those tools better. Then there’s people who just don’t want to learn it. Those are the people that they see what you’re doing and we’ll never get it.

Topics Discussed: Leadership, Work Ethic, Future of Work, Coaching, Mentorship, Football, NFL, NCAA

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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