Round Two: There’s always room for improvement

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

One of my earliest assignments at the Record-Courier involved a speaking engagement by Lou Holtz at Kent State University’s Student Center ballroom in April 1994.

The famous KSU alum was the head football coach at Notre Dame at the time, so it was a rare opportunity for a cub reporter to rub elbows with college football royalty. Since part of my assignment was to interview Holtz after his speech, I came armed with several pages of interview questions for the living legend.

One hot topic at the time in college football was the push for overtime at the Division I-A level (now Football Bowl Subdivision). So with that as a starting point, I decided to ask Holtz other questions relating to that topic as the two of us walked — briskly, I will point out, in typical Holtz fashion — through the chilly April night from the student center to the MAC Center, where Holtz was to film a short promo for KSU athletics.

As we walked, following the question of whether Division I-A games should have overtime — which Holtz adamantly was in favor of (and indeed was instituted by the NCAA beginning with the 1996 season), I asked the Fighting Irish coach what other rules changes he would like to see in college football.

Without breaking stride, Holtz answered, “I would like to see touchdowns count 10 points for Notre Dame and two points for everybody else.”

It was classic Holtz. So in the spirit of that memorable night all those years ago, the following are some rules changes that would benefit their respective sports:

Targeting: Without question, the most reviled rule in sports history. It’s not that football fans want to see players have their heads removed from their torsos, it’s that it would be nice if game officials actually knew what targeting was. The rule is interpreted so differently from one officiating crew to the next that it has become a lightning rod for fans who have to suffer through watching players get tossed out of games for the accidental clanking of helmets. It has gotten so bad that fans will boo when opposing players get ejected. The list of offenses that constitutes targeting has grown every year to the point that you get the feeling players will only need swim trunks to play the game within 10 years.

But not only is the rule maddeningly ambiguous and inconsistently applied, but the draconian measure of ejecting players from games for the slightest bump of a helmet is what infuriates fans, coaches and players the most. To fix this abomination of a rule, break targeting down into two levels, much like flagrant fouls in the NBA. Targeting 1, for inadvertent/less severe helmet contact, would be a 15-yard penalty, automatic first down and a warning to the offending player. If a player commits a second Targeting 1 penalty in a game, he is automatically disqualified. Targeting 2, for malicious intent of helmet-to-helmet contact, is a 15-yard penalty, automatic first down and ejection for the offending player. This would at least separate incidental contact from vicious and dangerous hits — and give officials a chance to delineate between the two rather than treat them all the same and directly impact the outcome of games and even championships (the Ohio State-Clemson Fiesta Bowl two years ago comes immediately to mind).

Timeouts in basketball: The last two minutes of a close game are like watching dentistry: Timeout, foul, free throws. Rinse and repeat. The excruciating stoppages in play completely crush the natural crescendo close games create, devolving into eye-glazing images of players either clustered around coaches or standing at the free throw line. Change the rule to one timeout per team in the final two minutes of a game or overtime. As it stands now, teams hoard their timeouts for the final two minutes, which end up taking a half-hour to complete. Limiting teams to one timeout in the last two minutes will force them to rely more on preparation and talent than over-coached offensive and defensive sets that change with a timeout every 15 seconds. And, let’s face it, it would just be more exciting.

Timeouts in football: Three per half for each team is fine. What isn’t fine is coaches calling timeout one millisecond before the ball is snapped for a game-winning field goal attempt. The sight of watching an official race toward the holder — who has already taken the snap — frantically waving his arms to signal timeout is nauseating and ridiculous. If a coach wants to ice the kicker, fine. But he shouldn’t be allowed to ice the game. Therefore, timeouts in these situations must be called prior to the offensive team being set. Once all players in the field goal formation are set, the window for calling a timeout has closed.

The only benefit to the current situation is watching a coach call timeout right at the snap, the kicker missing the field goal, getting a mulligan because of the timeout, then drilling the do-over right down the middle to win the game. Now that’s entertainment.

The check-with-me offense: Another nauseating sight is watching an offense line up, the players get set, fans anxiously anticipating the coming play, only to watch all 11 players on offense stand up and stare at the sidelines, waiting for their coaches to signal a play based on the defensive alignment. These are the equivalent of mini-timeouts and should be eliminated. Once an offense is aligned, excepting for a man in motion or legal shift, players cannot un-set — and they especially can’t stand up and pivot in their stance to stare at the sidelines. There was a day when that would warrant an illegal motion penalty in football. Let’s bring that day back.

The automatic walk rule: Baseball purists will hate this rule until their dying day. And then they’ll hate it after that. Why MLB decided, beginning with the 2017 season, that this was a good idea is a mystery. Ostensibly created to speed up the game and/or keep pitch counts down, the automatic walk eliminated a whole lot of strategy in baseball. First of all, intentional walks the old-fashioned way were a fairly good opportunity for the more accomplished base stealers to ply their trade — or get picked off. Secondly, many a game has been lost because a pitcher threw the ball too high or too wide during an intentional walk sequence, allowing a run to score on the wild pitch. The automatic walk, where the batter simply takes first base without a pitch being thrown, removes those nuances. But nuances are what make baseball unique, so bring back the intentional walk.

Replay: This isn’t to suggest eliminating replay in any or all sports. It’s to suggest that why everyone in the stadium can clearly see what happened on replay in five seconds but it takes officials five minutes to make a determination — then, to add insult to injury, they make the wrong call anyway — is unacceptable. Maybe we’re putting too fine a point on the human element of sport, or maybe too many officials aren’t very good at what they do, but replay needs to be fixed in just about every sport. Replays take too long, there are too many of them, and too often the refs end up blowing the call on replay after it was ruled correctly on the field in the first place. The answer: limit the number of replays and the time a replay can be reviewed. More accurately, enforce the length of time a replay can be reviewed. If the ref has reviewed a play 20 times, that’s probably excessive and a sure sign he can’t tell what’s going on. Thirty seconds for a review is plenty; after that, you’re just guessing.

The above ideas are just a start. As you sit and watch a game, regardless of sport, rules improvements begin to jump out at you — mainly because certain rules or facets of a sport obviously hinder the performance of the players and coaches and detract from the overall enjoyment of the game. Tinkering with rules to make a sport safer or more entertaining is one thing; completely altering the complexion of a sport, the way targeting has football, begins to cross a line. So rules — and improving on them — must constantly be monitored for the good of the players, coaches, fans and, most importantly, the game itself.

Will any of the above suggestions ever happen? Maybe, maybe not.

We’ll just have to wait for the review.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.