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Jonny Harline: Execution Trumps Desire

11 August 2014 Brett Richins
Former BYU All-American Jonny Harline joins the DSB staff. (Photo courtesy DanRansom.com)

Former BYU All-American tight end Jonny Harline joins the Deep Shades of Blue staff. (Photo courtesy DanRansom.com)

For any former athlete, the task of critiquing their old team is a tough one.

Go too soft on them and you’re a homer with no credibility, be a little harsh and you run the risk of suddenly not feeling so welcome around your old stomping grounds.

Especially when a team is struggling, it can seem like a no win situation. So for my selfish sake and many other reasons I hope BYU does especially well this year!

With that in mind I’ve agreed to share some of my thoughts with readers of Deep Shades of Blue this season.

I like having an outlet to express myself about BYU football and connect with fans, to share some super special insight gleaned from my time in the program and possibly even dispel the occasional popular, yet erroneous, notions I hear offered, and sometimes aggressively peddled, about ways to improve the program and football in general.

Mostly, I just enjoy talking about football. So let me lay out my philosophy.

Picture yourself sitting there on a clear, sunny Saturday afternoon in the fall. And you’re in heaven. BYU football is on. Burgers on the grill, snacks, drinks, all the accoutrements (uh, yeah I took French, and I know like 30, maybe 40 words in it, no big deal) for a pleasurable viewing experience.

But today, the Cougars are struggling, they can’t quite take the lead. When they make a run, something, a small, stupid, nearly insignificant something, holds them back. Something.

You’re pulling your hair out in frustration. Why aren’t they playing better? They’re so close! Why don’t they try harder? Why don’t they quit making these petty mistakes? Why?!? You yell, to no one in particular. Or maybe to heaven, actually. It IS the Lord’s school after all, isn’t it? You want to know what the “something” is, holding them back, and how to fix it.

Most people eventually conclude at some level that the “something” is desire. You’re watching and thinking to yourself, they just don’t “want it” enough, if only they “wanted it” more, all these little somethings would stop happening to hold them back. Why don’t they “want it” as much as ME?! If they felt as strongly as I do about this, they’d play better! If I could just transfer how I feel to them, they would surely win!

I’ve felt it too. But there’s a problem. It’s just not true.

Oh, you have to “want it,” to a degree. But it’s not the goal, it’s just a small part of reaching the ultimate goal. Which is… wait for it… I can’t just say it now without some suspense… okay here it comes… Execution!

Execution is the ultimate goal in football.

Meaning, getting your job done as an individual and as a collective. That’s all there is to it. Heart, desire, emotion, passion, “wanting it,” these are all words thrown all around the football world that don’t really mean much to me.

They’re thrown around by Hollywood sports movies that teach us that a good pregame speech will win you a championship. Thrown around by youth football coaches who teach kids that working themselves up into a mad frenzy will help them finally win a game. And when they lose, they didn’t “want it” enough. It’s a cliche thrown around so much it should be a crime.

Listen to Peyton or Tom (Peyton and Tom who you ask? C’mon now, you know. It’s a football article, and I just feel like going on a first name basis with my references today) in any post game interview. “Execution,” “getting your job done,” these kinds of words and phrases will be heard in plethoras, and the words “heart,” “desire,” “wanting it,” will ne’er be uttered.

When BYU wins it’s because they executed better than the other team throughout the game, not necessarily because they “wanted it” more. Again, yeah you have to have desire, if only because so does the other guy.

Trust me, in big time college football, both teams really want to win. Desire cancels out across the ball, like X’s across the equals sign in algebra. “Canceling out,” for you guys who are like, Hey Jonny I haven’t taken a math class in 15 years what do you mean with all this X and equals sign talk?, means it’s not a factor in the outcome.

The main part desire plays is in getting your butt and the rest of your body to practice and practicing with effort and intent. It’s not a magical ingredient that makes you win if you have more of it than the other guy.

In fact, wanting it too much can be detrimental to your in-game performance. When the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in a sloppy game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Kobe (no last name required again, I think), who uncharacteristically played poorly in such a high stakes game (6-24 shooting), blamed his own subpar performance on wanting it so much that it got him off his game.

This phenomenon is particularly evident if you are focusing too much on the outcome of a game, rather than keeping your mind focused on the task directly in front of you. As Ralph Waldo famously said, “Don’t waste life in doubts and fears; spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour’s duties will be the best preparation for the hours and ages that will follow it.”

Focus on what you are supposed to be doing NOW (like working I bet, eh friendly reader?). No wonder sports are such fertile ground for experiencing valuable life lessons. Go sports!

One of the biggest heartbreaks of my life came about in no small part on account of my failure to heed this lesson. Actually, that’s not exactly right, I didn’t not heed it, I was just mostly ignorant of it at the time.

Like some of you, I’m sure, I played basketball with some of my very best friends in life from the time we were kids until we graduated high school. We always dreamed of winning the state championship, the first in Orem High history. And it wasn’t just some pipe dream, we were a great team and one of the favorites to win it.

At last the time came and we did make it to the state championship game. I was a team captain and was averaging about 25 points per game during the tournament run. I was on a roll, you could say. But in the championship game, I pulled a Kobe. Not a heroic Kobe which you’d normally expect, unfortunately. A Game-7-vs-Boston Kobe.

One of my strongest attributes, besides being able to jump high enough to nearly hit my head on the rim, was usually my mental toughness. But the state championship, a long awaited dream, was so close! And looking back, my failure stemmed from a sort of mental letdown.

I wasn’t nervous or scared, and it’s not like there was some huge single moment that I totally screwed up. The problem was that my focus was on the outcome, not totally on what I was doing at the moment. Put it this way, I wasn’t horrible (sure, I was getting double teamed all game), but I could have been much better. And you can’t just be average to win a championship. And we lost. By 3.

Of course we “wanted it,” but we didn’t execute. Our opponent wanted it too (I very much doubt more than we did), but executed better. Despite the years since and the supposed insignificance of anything related to high school, which apparently as a 31 year old I should have a somewhat aloof and dismissive attitude towards, it still hurts. A tough lesson to learn.

Geez, I’m talking a lot about basketball here. I’ll get back to football.

So contrast that with my experience playing against the University of Utah in 2006 (Aaaaagh! It’s only my first article and I’m already bringing up the famous game and catch! How lame of me! Oh well, bound to come up sooner or later. Besides it’s the most explicit example of the point I’m making, and it came up organically so back off! …ahem [regaining composure]).

By this time I’d intuitively learned that I played much more effectively when I only focused on what I could control, which was running good routes and catching the ball when I had the chance. That’s really the whole extent of what I did. Run. Catch. Geez, I feel like a caveman putting it that way, which also makes me think this article is already way too long.

Back to the game.

Cougar fans remember it well. I know because they tell me. Like all the time. Anyway, as you well know, we scored to go ahead with a few minutes left. My fellow tight end, Daniel, did the honors. I was hopeful, but not quite excited. And those hopes soon fled, because just minutes later, Utah scored. On a pretty nicely executed play actually.

What went through my mind? Not much actually. Of course part of me wanted to win. Badly. That’s not to say that the rest of me wanted to lose, of course. I just knew I couldn’t control that beyond run, catch, which I would do with all my being, but that alone wouldn’t win the game, even if I did them spectacularly. Me running a great dig route could mean nothing if outstanding tackle Jake missed his block (which he literally never did, just an example).

What mostly went on in my mind was, “This kind of sucks, we’re probably going to lose, but I’ll go out there and run, catch, until time is up.”

And I did. Jake focused on pass block, and pass block some more. And he did. John focused on… actually I don’t know. Quarterbacking is in another universe to me, but I bet it was something like, read the defense, avoid pressure, make the throw… preferably to a big target with amazing hands and handsome features like Jonny if at all possible. I kid, I kid, of course (but not about the handsome features part), because a bunch of us caught passes that drive.

In this glorious case, it did turn out that me catching a pass was the play in which we took the lead. Victory! The key to victory ironically was, unlike me as a high school basketball player wanting so badly to win a state championship, that none of us were thinking, “We have to win this game!”

There’s no magic in winning football games. You execute. Or you don’t. And you win. Or you don’t.

So of course the question is now, how do you execute?

To execute in football you need a mixture of just a few things. To execute against a better team you need more of these things, or more precisely, more precise, tightened up versions of these things. Here they are. I’ll just tell you, that’s the kind of guy I am.

The first thing is to know exactly your assignment each play. And it helps to know the purpose of your assignment as it relates to the rest of the team and its goal on each play. You need to know the fundamental techniques you should employ to accomplish your assignment. And finally, You need physical abilities; the raw speed, strength, flexibility, stamina, and other physical attributes (big hands, long arms, low center of gravity, a good brain that’s thinking clearly and not bogged down, etc) required to carry out these assignments for your particular position.

Then you practice these things so much that you don’t have to think about what you’re supposed to do or how to do it. You just know, and you just do. With as much speed and power as your body is able to produce (your natural ability, plus enhancements developed through training).

Now of course you have an opponent who is just as eager as you to get his job done, which usually involves keeping you from getting yours done; and he is also strong, and fast, and has been practicing the techniques to stop you. Aaaah, isn’t football great? So who wins? I know you caught yourself before blurting out, “The player who wants it more!” right?

In reality, it’s usually just the better athlete that play. They both want it, but who takes the right steps the fastest, who gets the leverage, who uses their hands better, who is slightly stronger? This is going on with 22 players on every play, for 150 plus plays per game. The team that executes their jobs better as a whole throughout the game wins.

I think I harp on this because before our 2006 BYU Football team became an elite level team (thank you very much), we went through severe and frustrating growing pains. Frustrating for us, and for the fans. And it easily becomes a point of tension between the team and fans when things are not going well and fans think that somehow a lack of desire, motivation, fire, or some other intangible attribute is to blame.

Kind of how we felt in the example at the beginning of this article, “Why don’t they feel how badly I want them to win?!” You might even boo! Things can get real hairy when your home crowd boos you. And the players are thinking, “I’ve worked hard, I want this so bad, what is with these people? I thought they liked us! Do we need to want it more?! Let’s yell and get more fired up because that’s what they taught us to do in junior high to play better!”

And again, the truth is, college football games are rarely truly decided by these “intangibles.” Games are really decided by things you don’t, can’t, see in a TV broadcast, but are obvious when you break down a game film in slow motion.

A couple steps here, someone a little off balance there, a mixed up (or botched) assignment over there, a penalty. All these things end up having huge impacts in a game. It truly is a game of inches (Someone please slap me when I repeat cliches like that, thanks). This is where you understand why a game turned out the way it did. Judging a football game from a TV copy is like judging a movie from a preview.

Unfortunately for us, that’s about all we have access to. So we do our best.

Beware of columnists and radio hosts who throw all the blame and praise on coaches, play calling, in game head coaching decisions and other things that don’t directly involve whether the 22 guys on the field are getting their jobs done or not! Remember, they’ve only watched the preview.

Execution is like a steak. I love to cook. I’m a cooker. A low quality, gristly, tough steak is extremely difficult to fix even with the best marinade, sauce, rub, whatever concoction you want to throw on there, even if you cook it perfectly. An offense full of players who aren’t consistently getting their jobs done can’t be fixed by clever play calling, snappy in game coaching decisions, or tricky “strategery”.

Yet all I hear when BYU’s offense is struggling is, “This play calling is horrible!” Get a group of players out there who are exceptionally good at their jobs (like we eventually were in 2006) and you could call plays by playing pin the tail on the play list. Just like with a true high quality, marbled, tender, juicy steak, you could just throw on some salt and pepper and you’re good!

So there you have it, friendly reader, or at least part of it. Fall camp is upon us and we await another season feeling like King Leonidas, wanting to shout, “Cougars! Prepare for glory!!!”…. um, that sounds cheesier than I thought it would. I thought it would be cooler like when Gerard (Gerard who? Don’t start that again! First names today!) says it.

Aaaaaanyway the success of the team will depend on the players doing their jobs. Trust me, they want to win more than we do. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about: run, catch, block, throw, tackle. The art of playing football.

It’s about: Execution.

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