Up to the numbers
A highlight pops up on the screen. It’s a play from the first series of the 2017 Class 5A Arkansas state title game between Pulaski Academy and Wynne High School.
It’s Pulaski’s ball, fourth-and-10 from its own 35-yard line.
For the majority of head coaches, the logical play is to punt. But Pulaski head coach Kevin Kelley is not the typical coach.
Instead, he calls a play-action pass, which his team executes with ease, picking up 13 yards. Four plays later, on another fourth-down attempt, the Bruins score a touchdown on another play-action pass.
To the crowd of roughly 200 guests attending the third annual Sports and Entertainment Analytics Conference, he says, with a thick Arkansas drawl, “I’m an offensive genius.”
Kelley was one of six speakers on the first day of the two-day conference held at the USF Alumni Center. The conference focuses on the ways analytics affect different aspects of the sports and entertainment
As the mastermind behind Pulaski Academy’s “no-punt policy,” Kelley has no shortage of confidence. And to pull off something as bold as going for it every time his team faces a fourth down, he needs it.
Kelley, who boasts a 165-25-1 record and has taken his program to eight state championships — winning six —, has become a visionary when it comes to using analytics to make data-driven decision.
He has essentially taken emotion out of play calling.
“I try and make as many decisions before the game as I possibly can so emotions don’t play a role,” Kelley said.
Those decisions include not punting, always going for two and always onside kicking.
All of these decisions are based on statistics.
Kelley’s team has converted 50.2 percent of the fourth downs it has attempted in the 14 years he has coached. To him, a 50-50 chance of extending the drive is more than enough reason to leave a punter off the roster.
The same goes for a field goal kicker. Kelley likes his team's odds of a successful two-point conversion at 50 percent rather than try for the extra point.
But it would be incorrect to say that Kelley never punts or never kicks field goals. In 14 years, the Bruins have punted eight times and averaged one field goal per season.
Kelley also doesn’t field a punt returner despitelosing an average of eight yards per punt without a return. He would rather take the loss of yards than the potential of losing more due to penalties or a bad return. There’s also the risk of turnover and, according to Kelley, the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game 80 percent of the time.
Numbers drive every decision he makes. Not his gut or his heart.
His affinity for statistics started when he was young. His parents were divorced, and his father was an alcoholic. He wanted to ensure he didn’t end up like him.
“I came across a statistic that said 75 percent of people whose fathers are alcoholics become alcoholics, and that stuck with me,” Kelley said. “From then on, if you just read random statistics, sometimes they can help you.”
Those same random statistics have now, years later, put him on the map as one of the pioneers behind sports analytics. It has also led to some of the biggest names in coaching knocking on his door to inquire about his abnormal methods.
Kelley has met with managers and coaches from all levels of the sport. Even one of college football’s most successful coaches, Alabama’s Nick Saban, stopped in. All of them wanting to see what he has to say.
But none of them adopted Kelley’s methods.
“So you see it. You believe it. You know it will help you win. But you won’t do it,” Kelley recalled saying.
“I mean I don’t know what to say after that.”
As most can infer, despite his overwhelming success with his system, Kelley faces plenty of stiff opposition, sometimes even from his own fans.
“A lot of times when people break things down if we lose a game, and we don’t lose much, they like to pinpoint one play,” Kelley said. “It’s easy to pinpoint one play and not take in the whole sample size.”
Kelley’s response is that if you take out all fourth down attempts, the one that may have lost the game in some fans’ opinions wouldn’t have happened. But equally on the other side, a score or two that happened after a drive extended by a fourth down conversion also wouldn’t have happened.
His philosophy remains if he does it every time, the probability will remain at 50-50. But that probability doesn’t always go Kelley’s way.
In 2013, Pulaski Academy lost a shootout in the playoffs 57-50 after giving up 26 points in seven minutes in the second quarter.
Despite the criticism and the occasional game where his system fails, Kelley never second-guesses himself or his system.
He leaves it up to the numbers.
“Think of every decision I make — every fourth down, every onside kick attempt, the two-point conversions,” Kelley said. “What if every single one of those only has a 1 or 2 percent effect on the outcome of the game. It all adds up, little percentages here, little percentages there.”
CORECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that teams that field a punt returner lose an average of eight yards. The correct stat is that teams that do not field a returner lose eight yards.