Lessons From a Football Game

This is somewhat off topic, but not entirely. I have to brag about my college for winning an amazing football game last Saturday. There’s a lesson here, too, about character and coaches.

SpartansMichigan State beat the University of Michigan in a game that dominated sports news all weekend. The fumble recovery and touchdown that won them the game will be replayed on TV for years. According to ESPN, prior to that play MSU had a 0.2% chance of winning. Did you know there were statistics like that? There are, and in fact MSU has won three out of the four most improbable victories in the Power Five football conferences in the last ten years. (The other two were against Northwestern in 2006 and Baylor in the 2015 Cotton Bowl.)

Three out of four–that’s improbable, too. How improbable? Based on all 60+ teams in the Power 5 conferences, there’s about a 1 in 100,000 chance that one team would accomplish that just by chance.

But that’s not quite fair, since not all of those teams are of the caliber even to be consistently in the game, much less to come from behind and win at the last second. I would guess that maybe fifteen teams have been consistently that good over the past ten years, so I computed the chance that one team out of fifteen would win three of the four most improbable victories. The odds of that happening just by chance are about 1 in 1,000.

How did they do it? Maybe by luck. That’s not impossible. There’s a 1 in 1,000 chance of it, after all, which is significantly higher than 0 in 1,000.

But the odds improve considerably if a team has learned to play the whole game, no matter what, all the way until the clock reads 00:00.

I think there’s a lesson there.

HarbaughThere was another lesson in Saturday’s game. It was in the way Jim Harbaugh, coach of the losing University of Michigan team, responded to his sudden and unexpected loss. Other than something like serious injury or death to a player on the field, it would be hard to think of anything worse that could happen to a coach than this. It was a huge rivalry game with championship implications, victory was virtually certain, and in an instant it turned around.

He could have cussed. He could have roared. He could have stamped his feet. He could have hit someone (that’s been known to happen).

What did he do? ESPN has video of his reaction. He was visibly stunned, dismayed, shaken. He looked around. He said nothing. Then he walked across the field to shake the hand of MSU’s coach, Mark Dantonio.

Jim Harbaugh has a reputation as a competitor. More than that, I’m not sure I know enough to say. But in this setting he was very impressive. In that moment, watching him deal with that kind of loss with that level of restraint, I thought, I could enjoy watching him win, too, in spite of his team being my team’s all-time top rival.

Comments

  1. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Readers who know probability theory will note that my 1/1000 chance computation was very conservative, as it depends on the supposition that only 15 teams could have possibly won a close one like that, when in fact close games and miracle finishes could potentially happen whenever two teams of remotely similar skill play each other. On average, that ought to happen in somewhat more than half of all games.

    Games with the greatest raw probability of ending with a close finish should be those played by teams with the most nearly average skill. Top and bottom teams should both be more likely to be in games with lopsided outcomes.

    So another way to look at it would be to include every team in the top 5 (Power) conferences plus Notre Dame, except for maybe the top 5 percent and bottom 5 percent or so, which would less often be in a position to win a close game. That stretches the odds out to about 1 in 70,000.

    That still includes a host of other complex assumptions, and the real probability may be beyond computing. My guess is that if all chance-frequency factors were included in the analysis, the probability would decrease rather than increase, so if I’m right then these statistics set an upper bound on the likelihood of it happening by luck alone.

  2. JAD

    I am wondering if it’s meaningful to even talk about “calculating the odds” with occurrences like this. You don’t have to follow sports very long to realize that the so called improbable actually happens quite a lot. For example, this same month Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy hit home runs in six consecutive major league post season games. That is something that has never happened before. It’s even more amazing in that Murphy is not known as a power hitter. So, what are those odds?

    The Chicago Cubs, who were just beaten for a spot in the 2015 World Series by the Mets, haven’t won a World Series since 1908. What are the odds of them ever winning again? Obviously they came close this year so their chances are not zero. But what are their odds? Is it even possible to calculate something like that?

    We run across the same type of thing in real life and history. How, for instance, how do you calculate the odds of coincidence? For example, there is a well-documented story from 1864 of Booth saving Lincoln before Booth shot Lincoln. A man by the name of Edwin Booth saved the life a younger man named Robert Lincoln who had just fallen off a station platform next to moving train, in Jersey City, NJ. But the coincidence goes beyond their last names. Edwin Booth was the brother of John Wilkes Booth who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, while Robert Lincoln was the President’s oldest son. What are the odds of something like that happening? How would you ever begin to calculate something like that?
    http://www.historynet.com/edwin-booth

  3. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    All you can do is assess the probability of it happening through chance (“luck,” in the case of sports) alone. If the improbable happens, according to those calculations, then it’s either luck, or a “streak,” or a fluke, or else something systematic is going on.

    The odds of Murphy doing that were very low indeed. The odds of someone doing it someday have always been much higher. It’s like lottery tickets: one of them is bound to win eventually.

    It was not likewise inevitable that one team would win 3 of the 4 most improbable games in any ten year period by chance (or luck) alone. I agree it’s impossible to calculate the true odds, but I think my calculation sets a reasonable upper bound on the probability.

    It might have been a fluke, but it’s such an unlikely one that it’s worthwhile thinking about whether something about this one team might be systematically different than other teams. I’ve proposed one possible answer to that in the OP.

  4. JAD

    The point I was trying to make is that seemingly highly improbable things happen all the time in sports, as well as in real life. I’ve seen naturalists and materialists, even here on this site, argue “see, see if the highly improbable occurs in things like the lottery, who’s to say it can’t happen in the natural world? Who is to say that something like the abiotic chemical origin of life is too improbable to have happened naturally?” But is that really analogous? Human games are designed and calibrated so that there are winners. They wouldn’t be much fun if they weren’t.

  5. JAD

    My least favorite NFL team are the New England Patriots. My second least favorite NFL team are the Denver Broncos. Nevertheless, Sunday evening (11-29-15) I decided to watch the 8 and 2 Broncos take on the undefeated Patriots. I was hoping that my second least favorite team would spoil the Patriots perfect season. Well it didn’t look good for the Broncos. New England led the whole game but then in the final minutes Denver tied the score, then on its last possession took the lead with a three point field goal. It looked like they were going to win but quarter back Tom Brady with a minute left led his team down the field. With seconds remaining on the clock Patriots were able to kick a field goal tying the score, sending the game into overtime.

    “Oh no,” I thought to myself. I’d seen this scenario played out before. I thought for sure Tom Brady would be able to rally his team to another improbable victory. But then I was pleasantly surprised. New England who won the coin toss went three-and-out and had to punt the ball away. A couple plays later Denver running back C. J. Anderson ran the ball in from 48 yards for a the game winning touchdown. New England would not have a perfect season. I felt great!

    The first thing next morning I had to go on-line to make sure I hadn’t dreamed it all. I hadn’t. I still felt great.

    But then I started to have second thoughts (not really but stick with me here.) I began to think how Tom Brady and his fellow Patriots must have felt. They must have felt really bad. Then I thought (again, not really) maybe the NFL should do what a lot of public schools in the U.S. have started to do. Win or lose everyone competing on an athletic team gets a participation trophy. Why? I guess it’s so nobody feels badly.

    Six or seven weeks earlier I was taking an afternoon walk in the city park close to where I live. Coincidently there was a middle school cross country meet going on, so I stopped and watched.

    The girls had just started their race. The boys had finished theirs. Then I noticed all the boys had medals. Win or lose everyone got a medal.

    I then thought back to when I was in school. I also ran cross country. I especially remember my first year I did fairly well but I was wondering if I had enough points to letter. So the day of the school wide awards ceremony I caught my coach in the hall and asked him if I had enough points to letter and where I should sit He told me yes I had lettered and told should sit down front with the top runners. Then he talked to me a little bit more an asked me some personal questions.

    I’ll forget never what happened during the ceremony. When it came time for the cross country team awards our coach got up and began talking about our top runners. Our best runner was a Mexican-American named Jose (Speedy) Gonzales—nick named, of course, for the cartoon character. Jose always finished first on our team and usually placed first place at our meets. Our second best runner (I kid you not) was named Charlie Brown. Ironically he resembled the Peanuts character in several ways besides the name. The coach then singled one other runner. A person who had been in a near fatal accident which had seriously injured both of his legs. The doctors had wondered if he would ever be able walk again normally. That young man surprised not only the doctors but everyone else by not only walking again but going out for cross country and lettering his first year. He then asked me to stand. I was the person he was talking about. I got a standing ovation from the whole school.

    I was proud of my letter. I bought a letter jacket and sweater and I was invited to join the very exclusive “letter man’s” club.

    Personally for my achievement to really mean anything to me it had to have some real significance to it. Just getting an award for just participating would have meant nothing to me.

    No I don’t really feel sorry for Tom Brady and the Patriots. But as I am sure Tom Brady can tell you there are lessons to be learned from losing—from losing and feeling bad about it. It’s all a very real part of life.

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