Football Coach Who Never Punts, And Always Goes For The Onside Kick, Explains All

  • Rick Chandler

Kevin Kelley has an interesting take on one of the reasons he became so different as a football coach. He said that he had a troubled home life growing up — his father was an alcoholic, and sometimes the family didn’t have enough to eat. Kelley: “And when one of your basic needs in life is taken away from you, you learn to get really creative. And now, I do believe that benefits me some.”

We’ve written about Kelley before: he’s the Little Rock, AR (Pulaski Academy) football coach whose team never punts, and always goes for the onside kick. Interesting piece on Kelley this week on Grantland Features, in which the coach outlines his philosophy and explains why he’s been so successful.

Since 2003, Kelley’s Pulaski teams have gone 124-22, and have won three state titles. Of course, who’s to say that they wouldn’t have the same record, or an even better one, with conventional kicking tactics? But Kelley says his research has shown that by not punting or kicking off, his team has a 15 percent better chance of winning any given game.

Pulaski recovers onside kicks at a rate of 20 percent, and has a fourth-down conversion rate of 50 percent. On kickoffs, Kelley says his philosophy is worth it because he determined that by kicking deep, opposing teams were getting the ball on the average at the 33 yard-line. When the other team recovered onside kicks, the average starting spot was the 47 — a difference of only 14 yards. Kelley figured 14 yards was well worth it for the 20 percent return in successful onside kick recoveries.

This of course likely ruffles the feathers of football traditionalists, who considered it heresy, or at the least disrespectful. There was a similar backlash toward the A-11 offense, devised by Piedmont High head coach Kurt Bryan in 2007. Bryan basically ran all of his plays out of a special teams punt formation, which meant everyone was an eligible receiver. It was weird, innovative and wildly successful, and soon other high schools around the country started running it.

But it was so intensely disliked by the diehard conventionalist helmet-heads that it was eventually banned — The National Federation of State High School Associations rewriting the rule so that teams could only use the punt formation on fourth down.

Because, innovation and imagination bad; doing what everyone else has always done, good.