Data, Creativity and Inspiration: An Interview with Sports Summit Keynote Kevin Kelley
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of some goofy awards,” said Kevin Kelley. The head coach and athletic director of Pulaski Academy is renowned for his use of data and analytics in football—maybe even more so for his radical approach to never punt and always make an onside kick.
But there’s more to his success than data. Creativity, discipline and inspiration have helped driven his high school team to an incredible winning record of 153-21-1, including five state championships, over the past two decades. Don’t forget, he adds, “the best offensive team in the country in the last 10 years, out of 18,000 high schools that play football.”
In addition to his affinity for analytics, Coach Kelley is also a great inspirational speaker. Here’s an excerpt of our interview to get you excited for his keynote presentation at Sports Summit 2016.
What’s your favorite live sports moment?
It’s probably winning a football state championship last year because my son was on the football team and scored three touchdowns in the game. When he scored the first touchdown it was a euphoric moment. We’ve won five of them, but happening to him made it more special.
What was your breakthrough that led you a data-driven strategy?
When I took over coaching my first football team, they’d never been past the final four in the playoffs—and they’d only been there twice in the history of the school. I couldn’t accept that. I wanted them to win a state championship for all the hard work they put into football.
It wasn’t because in that moment I knew I was going to use data; it was that moment I knew I was going to completely start over in the program. Even if it meant doing nothing anybody was or doing things differently, because I’m just not a guy who believes doing everything everyone else does is the right way.
Were you always a numbers guy? What pointed you to data in particular?
Yeah, I majored in accounting my first couple years of college. I have a good memory for numbers and processing. That was a natural link for me to find out if there was a way for that to help me in the game of football.
Moneyball was a lot of people’s awakening for how data could be used, but you started working with data before the story even emerged.
Yeah, we had our own version of Moneyball. But they’re very parallel. [The Oakland Athletics] were playing at a different level than everyone else because they didn’t have the money, they didn’t have the market—but they still wanted to find a way to win. Billy Bean had to win. And I’m like that. I had to win.
And I thought, nothing’s going to change. We’re going to get the kids we’re going to get, just like everybody else does. I refuse to wait until we have an extremely talented group to randomly win a state championship, to be successful, to win games.
Do you think that working with limited resources spurs your creativity to find new solutions?
You hit it exactly. I’m creative out of necessity. Creativity was something I grew up having to do, whether it was physical for something to eat, or in my head, to get through some of the hard times. As a result, maybe that was the birth of what made me creative in the game of football. Not just in the numbers part, and bringing in analytics, but the things we do off the field, the way we prepare, the way we have no hitting and tackling in practice.
Are journalists getting your story right? Are they just focusing on the data?
The analytics part is a really small part of what we do and why we’re successful. Do I think it’s a key? Absolutely. There’s no question. But I think overall they’re missing the big story.
You’re known for your no-punt strategy. You’ve added additional moves to your arsenal, but what’s it mean for other teams—essentially your competitors—to know what you will or will not do next?
It’s one of the reasons we do so many things. Even if we don’t recover an onside kick or make a fourth down conversion, it still makes a positive, extended effect on our game that can’t be measure with analytics. Because they’re spending an inordinate amount of time on it. That’s part of our strategy. Not knowing what we’re going to do. They’re trying to prepare for things we might do, but they have no idea if we will or not. To do all these things, and to bring numbers in. When they work, they’re fantastic. And even when they don’t work, they’re still working in some aspect of the game.
What if everyone else takes the same strategy?
That would certainly even it up. I believe that if two teams in the NFL were dead even talent-wise, 50/50, and one of them is using analytics to make their decisions, and using them at the optimal level, they might increase their chance to win the game by 10%.
Do teams have an obligation to use data?
Yes. You should have an obligation to your organization, and your fans, for paying money to come see you, that are buying your jerseys, that are watching you on television and giving their time. You should have an obligation to do everything you can to give your team the best chance to win.
We’re using analytics right now for teams just to determine what fans to bring into their stadium that will spend the most money. If the owner isn’t pushing doing everything we can do to win, or doing everything he can to help his coaches win, or the coach himself is not using analytics to win, then who suffers? It’s the fans—and they’re the ones paying money in the first place.
Besides data, where do you look for inspiration?
Thank goodness I get to work with people every day. My inspiration truly is people that have a passion for what they do. I can listen to anybody, watch anyone on television that truly is passionate about what they do. Whether it is they sew sweaters, or whether they’re a coach or a CEO of a company or in charge of custodial duties. If they are passionate about what they do, that’s where I draw inspiration from. Because if you’re passionate about what you do, you’re going to constantly be doing what you can be to be the most success you can.
And as the coach of a team, it’s your job to help inspire your players and instill passion within them.
The neat thing is people want to be inspired. Tell me somebody that hasn’t walked out of a meeting or a speaker or a song or a movie that didn’t want to be inspired. Everybody wants to be inspired. There are two ways to get people to do things: to inspire them or make them do it as their boss. They always do a better job if you inspire them.
The sports industry is often on the cutting edge—especially when it comes to technology. Where do you still see room for reinvention?
Some of the best ideas I’ve had have not come from my industry at all. It takes going outside of our own profession and asking others, “What do you think? You don’t have all the same ideas already built in that everybody else does, what do you think about this?”
You’ve got to also be creative and look at all the possible benefits that could come. Because all we tend to look at as humans is the past. You’ve got to look at the possible good that could come out of being a little different, or being creative.
Who do you see leading out there in sports business?
Leading sports business is probably the apparel companies or the training companies. There’s so many of them, they’ve got to be on the cutting edge, looking for what’s new and different as a marketing tool to survive, to expand their business, to maintain their business.
As far as who’s on the cutting edge when it comes to technology, I think the game of baseball certainly is #1, and basketball is #2. If you get into the game of football, I think the Cleveland Browns made a big step this year in hiring a non-football guy in their front office to help with player evaluation. I think the Patriots are obviously doing something right, because they go and try to not necessarily look at height, weight, arm length, how fast you can run, how fast you can bench, and all that. A couple years ago when they were in the Super Bowl, they had 17 guys that were undrafted / free agent on a 53-man roster. That’s huge.
If you were in charge of a sports league, what’s the first thing you’d do?
Honestly, the first thing I’d try to do is mandate that owners sign players to contracts of three years or more, minimum. I think changing coaches or players every year enables them to look for players as the answer to winning games. As opposed to looking at analytics. And I think that’s when the game can change directions a little bit—maybe become more entertaining.
You’ve been at Pulaski for 20 years now. Do you see another career after coaching at Pulaski Academy?
My dream job would literally be to take over a small, division 1 program that really had been losing. People go, “Shouldn’t your dream job be like University of Arkansas, or Oregon, or Alabama.” No, because anybody can win there because they’re going to have talent. I want to go somewhere where they suck, really horrible, and turn the program around.
I’d also like to be an offensive analyst or consultant to the NFL. I would like to show everybody that this would work there. The analytics and offensive style that we do.
What are your recommendations to other teams out there?
Go look for different ways to win more. I saw in a thing in ESPN magazine that said the average NFL team gave up half a win per year. Half a win is the difference between getting to the playoffs or not. A home playoff game, which might mean another 50 million bottom line for you, or an away playoff game.
Make competition and wanting to win at the forefront, so much that all the other stuff doesn’t matter. That’s when you’ll be more creative, more open to new ideas to listening to other people, to searching on your own. Whether it’s in winning games on the field or winning in season ticket sales, or marketing, or the different products they sell in their pro stores.
See Coach Kelley speak Wednesday morning at Sports Summit 2016.