Blade sports writer John Wagner leads the Orange team onto the field at Doyt Perry Stadium for the Falcons' spring football game on April 13.
BOWLING GREEN -- The idea began as a bit of halftime craziness in the locker room.
"We should run an on-sides kick," one player said.
The idea quickly sparked a flame. Soon the Bowling Green State University football team's locker room was consumed with excitement as members of the Orange team pushed to start the second half of their spring game with an on-side kick.
"Can we do it?" one player said. "Let's do it!" said another. And then all eyes turned to me.
When Bowling Green head coach Dave Clawson suggested that I become one of the honorary coaches for this year's spring game, I didn't think much about it. I had visions of acting like former Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram on the sidelines in the Super Bowl, doing little more than rolling up his program and talking about "matriculating the ball down the field."
Boy, was I wrong.
It seemed things would be easy for me when I joined the other honorary coach, Jack Carle, sports editor of the Bowling Green Sentinel- Tribune, at the meeting the Falcons used to divide the roster into two teams. Matt Schilz picked the players for my team, the Orange, and Chris Jones drafted for the White.
It was interesting to see how the players valued their teammates as the two teams were "drafted," but I wasn't really involved. I knew I wouldn't call plays, or make substitutions.
So what was my job?
I found out when I got to Doyt Perry Stadium Friday night and was intercepted by one of my "assistants," secondary coach Nick Monroe. "We're excited to hear your pregame speech," Monroe said while the team was warming up on the field.
Coaches try to be prepared for every potential event, and I had just failed Coaching 101. I had no speech prepared.
So I walked around the field, thinking about my pre-game speech. I tried to channel my inner-Lombardi, imagining what he would say. I thought about Bill Belicheck, but I had no idea if he'd say anything, so I stuck with Lombardi.
When it came time to speak, all eyes were focused on me.
"I'm old, and I'm slow," I said. "When we run out onto the field, please don't run me over."
I guess I settled for Jerry Glanville.
"That speech could have been in a movie," said Schilz, tongue firmly in cheek. "It was better than Any Given Sunday -- I was ready to go out there and play defense on the first series, but they wouldn't let me."
The game itself? Well, I quickly learned that watching the game on the field is very different from the press box. Binoculars bring everything to sharp life upstairs, and the sight lines are better. And there is food.
There also is much more noise on the sidelines, not to mention the commotion of big bodies thundering on and off the field.
John Wagner watches as the Orange team defeated the White team, 14-13.
Speaking of big bodies, have you ever wondered why players and coaches standing on the sidelines don't get out of the way very quickly when a play comes towards them? Now I know: they have little time and less chance.
I thought I would be ready, but the first time a play swept my way I realized that, if a player actually hit me, I was road kill.
As for the game itself, my Orange squad led 7-3 late in the first half. Brian Schmiedebusch landed a punt that pinned the White on its 8-yard line with two minutes on the clock.
"Are we using our timeouts?" one of the coaches asked. "Yes, yes we are," I said, but I didn't get the first timeout called until the White had run two running plays -- and roughly 40 seconds had drained from the clock.
Facing a third-and-nine on the 9-yard line, Clawson came up to me and asked, "Do you want to use another timeout after the next play?" I quickly said, "Yes."
"But only if the ball doesn't go out of bounds or a pass is incomplete, and only if the White doesn't get the first down, right?" said Clawson, playing the role of teacher. "Uh, right," I said.
Just before the next play was run, someone on the sideline said, "Hey, you handled those timeouts better than the guy who used to coach up north."
"Up north," you should know, means Toledo. But I will say no more.
The final seconds of the half passed uneventfully, which led to that chaotic halftime. Once I realized the players were serious about an on-side kick, I talked to the assistants, who talked to Clawson, who gave it his approval.
The rest of the halftime was spent setting up the on-side kick -- the Falcons hadn't practiced one all spring. Standing on the sidelines, waiting for the second half and that fateful kick, one of the assistant coaches sidled up to me and said, "Gutsy call on the on-side kick."
Before I could even say "Thanks," he added with a smile, "Unless it doesn't work. Then it's pretty dumb."
As for the play itself? It worked like a charm, catching the White off-guard and leading to an easy recovery … and a flag. Offsides, Orange.
Oh, well. Another lesson of coaching life: no matter how good the call is, games are decided by the players -- and some times the zebras -- on the field, not the coaches.
After the Orange scored a late touchdown to claim a 14-13 victory, I asked Clawson what he thought about the on-side kick.
"It doesn't matter what I think," he said. "What's really important is what does the press think? What do the Internet boards think? And what do the blogs think?"
I believe he was talking about me, and I sensed a little sarcasm. OK, a lot of sarcasm.
"At the end of the day, you got the 'W' -- and that call is forgotten," Clawson said. "Since you won, it becomes the gutsy call you made.
"If you would have lost, it would have been the bone-headed move you made that cost your team the game."
We won, so it's a stroke of pure genius. I shall retire as a college coach, unbeaten, fairly humbled, and drenched in Gatorade.
But not before sending a copy of my stirring pregame speech to the College Football Hall of Fame. Just in case they want it to go along with that "Gipper" thing they got from my old colleague Knute.
Contact John Wagner at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.
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