New TAPPS 'mercy rule' challenges coaches

At what deficit does a football or basketball game become out of reach?

To the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, it's at 40 points.

In early January, TAPPS instituted a “mercy rule" for football and basketball that will come into play in the 2012-2013 season.

The rule mandates that any game which reaches a 40-point difference after halftime, will be subject to a running clock for the remainder of the game. This includes plays that end out of bounds and play stoppages for fouls in both sports.

“When schools start beating someone 100-0, it seemed like a good time to put in that rule.” TAPPS director Edd Burleson said.

Burleson cited the 2009 100-0 girls basketball blowout between Dallas Covenant and Dallas Academy as the main reason for the change.

The practice of a running clock in blowout games is not foreign to football and is, in fact, a common post-halftime practice should both coaches agree to the change.

Making that practice mandatory was discussed and eventually put into place by the TAPPS Board of Directors and Athletic Executive Committee, made of representatives from all participating districts. The representatives are coaches, athletic directors and school faculty.

“All of our board are either athletic directors or coaches and we have an 11-person Athletic Executive Committee that is made of athletic directors and coaches and there was no one that expressed a disinterest in doing that,” Burleson said. “It seemed like the logical thing to do.”

Current coaches in TAPPS were not notified or polled on the subject of a mercy rule before the legislation came to be law, which didn't sit well with some coaches, like Dallas Lutheran football coach John Bronkhorst.

In his years as a football coach in the UIL, TAPPS 6-man and TAPPS 11-man play, Bronkhorst has been on both sides of a football blowout, including a 75-0 loss to Bullard Brook Hill this season.

To Bronkhorst, a 75-point, one-sided game isn’t over at halftime, leaving the last two quarters as a sort of formality. That second half is a lesson in adversity and a chance to gain game-speed practice for the remaining games in the season.

The instances Bronkhorst has been offered the “mercy” of a running clock in the second half, including the 75-0 loss, he has respectfully declined.

“The officials came to me at halftime and asked if I wanted to run the clock and I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ” Bronkhorst said. “It’s not to be cruel to my team because it’s a teaching opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to learn in life you’re not going to get bailed out. We need to learn how to overcome adversity, and I can tell you right now, we grew from that game.”

The lesson hit home for the Lions, Bronkhorst said. His players came back the next day and recommitted themselves to a higher standard of work ethic, which is a lesson that can be applied to more than just football, the coach said.

Bronkhorst said he believes a matter of “mercy” is not in the basic framework of the game, saying it is his team’s job to score points and to keep the other team from scoring, and the decision of the other team to run the ball during a blowout or put in second-string players is their prerogative and interpretation of sportsmanship, but is not a concern to him.

The same went for current Plano Prestonwood football coach Chris Cunningham, while he was the coach at the newly opened Colleyville Heritage, several years ago.

“My kids appreciated that and I think that is an element of it,” Cunningham said. “You want to try to teach them to play through and try to make an effort to come back. It almost takes that chance to come back. It is six touchdowns, but stranger things have happened in football.”

Cunningham and other TAPPS coaches around the area, however, are not as opposed to the new rule as Bronkhorst, but most have found several disadvantages to the running clock, which limits their ability to coach.

“If you want to practice on the two-minute drill and you have a minute left, if you throw an incompletion, the clock still runs unless you call a timeout,” First Baptist Academy football coach Jason Lovvorn said.

Point differential is the most probable situation of how the mercy rule can alter a team’s season. In TAPPS rules, if two or more teams tie in district records, the first tiebreaker for playoff seeding is total point differential for each team.

If a team gains a 40-point lead by halftime, causing a running-clock situation, and puts in second-string players in the second half, there is always a chance the losing team could make up half of the deficit before the game is over, which was a legitimate concern for Lovvorn and Bronkhorst.

Most districts have a point differential cap ranging from around 17-21 points, but it is more likely for a losing team to make up enough ground to move into the uncapped point area than actually make a run at winning the game. A few extra points that the winning team does not have a chance to make back could cause a team to lose a district championship or even knock a team out of a playoff berth.

If a losing team made a comeback that infringes into the uncapped differential area, the winning team would then have to put starters back into the game and run a hurry-up, passing offense to try and gain those points back before the clock runs out, despite still winning by around 20 points.

All coaches agreed that the majority of these scenarios will not occur frequently, but their ability to teach certain lessons will be altered in the seasons to come.

Those lessons and extra reps were not enough to outweigh the positives of the new rule, Burleson said.

“Extra reps against someone who is getting hopelessly beat?” Burleson said. “We couldn’t find anyone in our group that comes from a wide spectrum and they weren’t all in agreeance with this rule. It shortens the time you’re in misery. Now the losing coach doesn’t have to beg for mercy and the winning coach doesn’t have to make that decision or else look like the bad guy. We have taken on the role of the bad guy.”

Section 130 of the TAPPS Constitution and Bylaws states the purposes of the athletic program for the participant schools are: (C) to regulate competition so that students, schools and their fans can secure the greatest educational, social, recreational and aesthetic benefits from the contests, (E) to preserve the game for the overall benefit of the contestant and not sacrifice the contestant to the game, and (F) to promote the spirit of good sportsmanship and fair play in all contests.

Bronkhorst said he will leave it up to his administration to decide if it would be necessary to make any kind of appeals or protests to the rule, but will most likely just live by a motto he preaches to his team -- adapt and overcome.

All the coaches agreed TAPPS athletics live under the stigma of inferior competition and athletes to those found in the UIL, while playing the same games by the same rules. Now, TAPPS has set itself apart, playing by different rules, which Bronkhorst believes will do nothing but hurt public perception of private school teams and athletes

“[TAPPS has] just set private school football farther apart than UIL football,” Bronkhorst said. “Having a mercy rule there is definitely a bigger difference between the two.”