Definitions

ran up flagpole

Running up the score

In sport in the United States, "running up the score" is continuing to play hard to score more points after the opposing player or team has already conceded enough to make victory practically certain. In most circumstances it is considered poor sportsmanship to "run up the score"; sporting alternatives include pulling out most of the team's first string players, or calling plays designed to run out the clock (e.g., in American football, kneeling or running the ball up the middle).

The term is not common elsewhere in the world, as in other countries (e.g. the United Kingdom) there is no stigma attached to the practice, and (in particular, professional sports) it is considered entirely acceptable.

Reasons for running up the score

Some of the reasons why a team might run up the score:

  • To demonstrate domination of one's opponents, and intimidate them and future opponents.
  • To embarrass an opponent or to make a point.
  • To demonstrate the skill of individuals who need to impress sponsors, talent scouts, etc.
  • To increase the team's prestige.
  • To gain an advantage where play statistics are kept and used for professional advancement or as part of a countback/tiebreak system.
  • Just for the sake of scoring more points.
  • To ensure a win.

Consequences of running up the score

The most common negative consequences of running up the score are injuries to a game's starting players, lack of experience for the non-starting players on the team, and opposing teams remembering a shellacking and plotting revenge in a future meeting.

Running up the score is considered poor sportsmanship by many fans, players, and coaches, albeit with differences in opinion on how big an insult it is. Allegations of poor sportsmanship are often brought up soon after a team scores multiple times near the end of a one-sided match. However, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden contended that it was not his job to call plays inconsistent with his regular offense. He felt that the prevention of further scoring was the responsibility of the opposing team's defense.

Justifications for running up the score

Benefits in the BCS and other polls

It has been alleged that some poll voters simply look at box scores before punching in their votes. These votes have a huge impact on who goes to BCS games, including the national championship. Only by watching the game or game tape (or by careful box-score scrutiny) can a coach determine if a 49-21 score was because of a fairly one-sided game, or because the winning team tried fake punts, Hail Mary passes and onside kicks late in the fourth quarter to make the score look more impressive.

The BCS computers originally included margin of victory as a component, but the BCS removed those elements after noticing large increases in teams running up the score.

Other arguments

Some fans of teams whose coaches frequently run up the score may also note that running up the score has its advantages. Though many coaches who run up the score simply do it with their first-string players, a coach who uses his third- and fourth-string players can give them vital in-game experience if he allows them to do more than just kneel on the football or run the ball up the middle. When they are not allowed to make passing and running plays that the first- and second-stringers get to make, their skills deteriorate.

Some also believe that it is not the coach's or winning team's fault if a weak team is unable to stop a high-powered offensive juggernaut. Additionally, some coaches advocate running up the score to make another point, such as showing disapproval of comments made by opposing players, coaches, etc., in the media.

It's also argued that it can be used as a preventative measure to prevent a huge comeback. In 2006, Penn State lost to Notre Dame 41-17. Notre Dame is said to have run up the score a little, however, Penn State is known for late comebacks. Supporters of preventatively running up the score will often point to games such as the 2006 Insight Bowl where Minnesota blew a 38-7 lead in the third quarter to eventually lose 44-41.

Running up the score in professional leagues generally generates significantly less controversy, as players are normally quite well-compensated for any insult they might be receiving. Also, many professional leagues use "Tie-Breakers" in the result of 2 or multiple teams being tied on direct "Point" (ie 3 for a win, 1 for a draw) scores, and these tie-breakers are often how many points a team scores (For), how many points a team lets in (Against) or their "Against" score subtracted from their "For" score (called "Goal Difference" in Soccer/Football, "For and Against" in other sports), and "running up a score" can help their chances of winning positions, as well as stopping the other team from scoring as well (though some leagues counter this by placing a limit on the number of points which can be counted in a point differential, as an example no more than 14, so even if the score is 49-0 only 14 points will count in the tiebreaker). It can also prevent any chance of a comeback.

Examples in college football

King College

On October 21, 1922 King College defeated Lenoir College 206-0. Worth noting, King was robbed of twelve minutes of regular play. An article published the following day notes that, “[b]ecause of approaching darkness the game was called before it had been played full time.” While the first and second quarters were both 15 minutes in length, the third quarter was shortened to 12 minutes and the fourth quarter was only six minutes.

Georgia Tech

On October 7, 1916, the Georgia Tech Engineers defeated the Cumberland College Bulldogs now Cumberland University 222-0. Georgia Tech Scored 63 points in the first quarter and 63 points in the second quarter, then 54 points in the third quarter and 42 points in the fourth quarter. the Georgia Tech Engineers won under the coaching of John Heisman.

Houston

On November 23, 1968, the University of Houston defeated the University of Tulsa 100-6. Though they had a 24-0 advantage at half, the Cougars scored 11 touchdowns in the second half for an astounding 94-point blowout. They came close again in 1989, routing a Southern Methodist team fresh off the so-called death penalty by a score of 95-21.

Miami

On November 30, 1985, the University of Miami Hurricanes ran up the score on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in Gerry Faust's final game as Notre Dame head coach. The Hurricanes, led by Jimmy Johnson, were trying to impress pollsters since they were ranked fourth in the polls prior to the game. The Hurricanes called a fake punt on fourth-and-11 in the fourth quarter with a 44-7 lead and continued to pad the stats of quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Miami was rewarded in the AP poll as it passed idle Iowa to reach No. 3 and set up a possible national championship with a victory over Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. Receiving criticism after the game, Johnson replied, "Nobody apologized to me when Oklahoma did it," a reference to a 1980 rout by the score of 63-14 when Johnson was head coach at Oklahoma State University. Miami paid the price when Tennessee drilled them, 35-7, in the 1986 Sugar Bowl.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame routed Boston College 54-7 in a 1992 game where Fighting Irish coach Lou Holtz called a fake punt late in the game, with his team possessing an enormous lead. BC head coach Tom Coughlin spent the entire year looking forward to playing Notre Dame again, and ended up beating the Irish 41-39, eventually costing the Irish a chance at a national championship.

Ohio State

In 1968, the Ohio State Buckeyes, en route to a national championship, defeated its bitter rival, the Michigan Wolverines, 50-14. Late in the game, Ohio State held a commanding 42-14 advantage and scored one final touchdown before converting a two-point attempt. When asked why he tried for the additional points, Buckeyes head coach Woody Hayes said, "Because I couldn't go for three!" The comment came back to haunt Hayes as Michigan upset Ohio State the following year, 24-12, spoiling a bid for another national championship.

Texas A&M

Texas A&M ran up the score in a 73-10 home romp against Baylor University in 2003, a game that included touchdown passes of 91 and 42 yards in the second half. The Aggies entered the rematch a year later as huge favorites, but a revenge-minded Baylor team pulled off arguably the biggest upset of the year, 35-34 in overtime. Also in 2003 the Aggies was on the wrong end of a 77-0 blowout by Oklahoma.

Washington and Oregon

The largest margin of victory turnaround in Division I-A football in successive years belongs to the University of Washington and the University of Oregon and showcased two prime examples of running up the score. In 1973, Oregon ran up the score at home, burying Washington 58-0. A year later, Washington responded with a 66-0 drubbing of Oregon back home in Seattle. In that game, Washington's starting quarterback Chris Rowland played longer than necessary and suffered a season-ending knee injury. Rowland recalled that Washington head coach Jim Owens "wanted me in and said, 'We're going to beat these guys more than they beat us.' He [Owens] apologized to me because it was a personal thing for him."

Oklahoma

Oklahoma ran up the score in a 79-10 opening season rout against the University of North Texas in 2007, a game that included Freshman DeMarco Murray became the first Oklahoma player to score five touchdowns in his debut, and Sam Bradford's debut as Oklahoma's starting quarterback in his first start, the redshirt freshman tied a record set by one Heisman Trophy winner and broke another set by a Heisman runner-up, throwing for 363 yards and three touchdowns. However, the Sooners had a 49-0 halftime lead, and the starters did not play for the entire second half. Bob Stoops is alleged to have told his players in the 4th quarter to forcibly avoid increasing the lead. The Sooners ended up with its most lopsided win in a season opener since it beat New Mexico State 73-3 to start the 1989 season and its second-highest point total since 1919.

Running up the score in other sports

Australian Rules Football

Running up the score is a common practice in Australian rules football. The only countback used in most leagues is percentage, an analogue of points difference representing the ratio of points for to points against; as such, margins frequently become large. This occurs in all grades, particularly in metropolitan and country leagues, where weaker teams can often be beaten by as much as 200 points. Junk time is also a key contributing factor. In finals games, where percentage is no longer relevant, teams do occasionally attract criticism for running up the score. The largest case of running up a score in the SAAFL is 70.30.450 to 1.3.9 (441 points)

Baseball

In baseball, one might hear an occasional complaint about a team trying such things as sacrifice bunting or "swinging for the bleachers" (deliberately going for a home run) when they're up by ten or more runs, but this is very rare for a number of reasons.

First, teams rarely gain a lead considered to be "safe" — because there is no clock, a losing team can theoretically come back from any deficit. Conversely, unlike in football where a team can run out the clock, there is no equivalent way for the winning team to speed up the game's end in baseball — unless the team tries to, say, intentionally strike out or overrun the bases. To intentionally try to get outs for the purpose of speeding up a game may actually be considered a greater sin than trying to score more runs, as it would break the integrity of the game.

Amateur baseball games do often have a mercy rule, however, so that games can end sooner when the lead is objectively determined to be insurmountable.

Basketball

In basketball, some coaches of vastly superior teams team will keep in his/her starters in the latter stages of a grossly one-sided game (e.g., less than ten minutes left in the second half of a college game; or well into the fourth quarter of a high school or NBA game). Players may be told to continue to aggressively apply full-court pressure (in order to steal the ball), block shots, break away for slam dunks, or try three-point baskets and other fan-pleasing shots.

Sometimes, a losing team may prolong the game by fouling the opponent on every possession, in an effort to extend its chances of a comeback. Losers are free to stop intentionally fouling at any time (effectively, conceding defeat). The soon-to-be winners then almost invariably dribble in place until the clock expires, and at levels where a shot clock is used, they only take shots when the clock is nearing zero. It is therefore the losing team that determines how long the contest lasts, guarding winning teams from being charged with running up the score.

In cases where the score is lopsided much earlier in the game, the most common option is to just "play it out" as if it were a scrimmage, by trying to take the best shot possible and also attempt some sort of defense (without any taboos against fan-pleasing shots and plays). This is usually referred to as "garbage time", and while generally frowned upon for a lack of excitement it is considered to be the best way of ending a thoroughly uncompetetive game with minimal amounts of pride lost by the weaker side.

Running up the score was a key element in the Knicks-Nuggets brawl on December 16, 2006, as New York coach Isiah Thomas accused Denver coach George Karl of implementing it late in the game. Karl defended himself by citing many games where his team had lost large leads late.

Former Oklahoma Sooners basketball coach Billy Tubbs was often accused of running up the score against inferior opponents. On November 29, 1989, Tubbs' team went so far as to score 97 points in the first half of a game against U.S. International. Oklahoma won the game in a 173-101 rout. Asked repeatedly about running up the score against opponents, Tubbs once famously replied, "If they don't like it, they should get better."

Ice hockey

In ice hockey, complaints are quite rare, for the simple reason that unless there is a gross disparity in skill, teams generally do not score large numbers of goals at will against the opposition. A mercy rule also may come into effect at pre-high school levels, where such disparities might come into play as a matter of course.

However, the rules of competition can sometimes work the opposite direction. In women's hockey at the 2006 Winter Olympics, total goals was one of the factors determining home ice, and so the two favored teams, the United States and Canada, were encouraged to post the highest scores possible. When the Canadians posted a combined 26-0 score in their first two games against the much weaker Italy and Russia, they were criticized in their home country and abroad. However, by the rules, they couldn't let up in case the Americans blew out one of their opponents.

Soccer

In amateur soccer, running up the score is usually limited by the presence of a mercy rule. In professional soccer, the concept of "running up the score" is basically unheard of; most pro soccer competitions use goal difference or goal average as a tiebreaker, meaning it is preferable to win by as wide a margin of victory as possible. Furthermore, it is doubtful that a team on the receiving end of a ten-goal defeat would ever accuse their opponents of unsporting behavior or a lack of respect; indeed, in European soccer, a strong team choosing to field star players against lesser opposition is generally seen as a mark of respect, rather than of disrespect. In fact, if a European team, leading by several goals late in the game, made an American football-style attempt to show good sportsmanship by easing off, bringing on several lesser-known substitutes and retaining possession in order to kill the clock, this would be seen as deeply unsporting and would probably provoke a hostile reaction quite opposite to the intended effect. Also, teams are limited to three substitutions per match in most competitions, preventing coaches from making mass substitutions seen in American football or basketball.

High schools

Vast talent discrepancies between opponents happen more often in high school sports than in college or professional sports. This is especially prevalent in some state-sponsored district and regional single-elimination tournaments in which all schools (regardless of record) participate. Often, a state's athletic association will seed a vastly superior team (one that has gone undefeated or has very few losses) against a very weak team in the first round, and the talent disparity between the two teams quickly becomes obvious.

One notorious example of many such incidents that happen each year throughout the United States was the state-ranked Walkerville, Michigan High School's (enrollment 98) 115-2 victory against Hart, Michigan Lakeshore Academy (enrollment 49) in a Class D district opener during the 2004 Michigan High School Girl's Basketball state tournament.

In light of similar incidents, coaches are often accused of running up the score and taking the opportunity to humiliate and embarrass a weak opponent. Occasionally this results from the winning school's reserves (second-string and junior varsity players) playing a good share of the contest and simply being able to score at will against the opposition. However, when the star players are left in to set scoring records, as happened with Epiphanny Prince's 113-point basketball game in 2006, criticism usually follows.

For the 2006 football season, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference has decided that any victory of 50 points or more will be considered unsportsmanlike and the coach in question will be suspended for the team's next game. This was in response to one coach, Jack Cochran of New London, whose teams won that way four times during 2005. One victory provoked a brawl and led to disorderly conduct charges against the losing coach.

Coach Cochran defended himself by saying that in one 90-0 blowout, he had tried to get both teams and the timekeeper to run the clock continuously, as is done in Iowa when one team has a 35-point lead. The CIAC considered a similar proposal but rejected as several members felt it would cut into backups' playing time.

Pro football

Running up the score is rarely used by teams in the National Football League (NFL) and other professional football leagues. A primary reason is that starting players and coaches are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, which is affected by how the players and the team performs during the season. Any attempt to run up the score increases the risks of losing a key player to an injury that could affect the team's chances for the rest of the season. Thus, if a team decides to keep their stars in during a blowout, it is usually viewed by the opponent as an insult. Another factor is that the parity that the salary cap has brought to the NFL in the 1990s has evened out competition somewhat, with less talent disparity between the best and worst teams compared to the past. It is much more difficult to run up the score to embarrassing (50+ point) margins in the modern game at the pro level. The greatest margin of victory at the professional level happened in the 1940 NFL Championship won by the Chicago Bears over the Washington Redskins 73-0. More recently, in a 2000 AFC Divisional Playoffs, the Jacksonville Jaguars defeated the Miami Dolphins 62-7 in Dan Marino's final game.

The one exception to this general rule is in regards to the NFL's tiebreaking rules that are used to determine which teams qualify for the playoffs if they are tied in the standings. One criterion to break ties is comparing the total number of points scored by each team during the regular season. Under this scenario, running up the score in a late season game is not considered poor sportsmanship due to there being an actual benefit to having the score higher. This scenario occurred during the 1999 season when the Green Bay Packers could possibly have made the playoffs if the Dallas Cowboys had lost and they had scored enough points against the Arizona Cardinals in their final regular season game to surpass the Carolina Panthers in total points scored. They ended up beating the Cardinals 49-24 (not a huge margin of victory by football standards), but Dallas went on to beat the Giants later that day to earn the final playoff spot and knock the Packers out of the playoff picture anyway.

Accusations of running up the score outside of playoff races are unusual in the NFL, but not unheard of. One of the most notorious occurred on November 17, 1985, when the New York Jets defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 62-28 in a regular season game. The two teams had last met in the final game of the previous season, when Tampa Bay had somewhat controversially appeared to stop playing defense and allowing the Jets to score late in a 41-21 victory in an apparent effort to get the ball back so that running back James Wilder could attempt to break the NFL record for most yards from scrimmage in a season. Commentators wondered if the Jets' huge margin of victory was a way of retaliating against the Bucs for such poor sportsmanship, but the Jets and their coaches denied that there had been any conscious effort to run the score up. The Jets' denials may be valid since Bucs coach John McKay, who allowed the Jets to score late in the 1984 contest, retired after the '84 season and had been replaced by Leeman Bennett, and also the Jets were 11-5 in 1985 and reached the playoffs, while Tampa Bay was in the midst of back-to-back 2-14 seasons in 1985 and '86.

A Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys ended in a 21-6 Cowboy victory and some complaints by Green Bay players that the home team's final field goal was an insult to them, as Dallas had the ball deep in Green Bay territory with the game well in hand as it ended, yet chose to score more points anyway. Cowboys coach Barry Switzer had wanted to give kicker Chris Boniol a chance to tie the NFL record for most field goals in a game with seven.

Most recently, the 2007 New England Patriots briefly came under scrutiny for possibly running up the score in their 52-7 rout of the Washington Redskins, followed 3 weeks later by a 56-10 thrashing of the Buffalo Bills.

References

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