Dissecting a College Football Halftime Speech
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What elements go into a great halftime speech?
Fire and brimstone? Anger? Inspiration?
On January 11, 2011, Miami (OH) interim coach Lance Guidry gave an inspiring pregame speech before his Red Hawks took to the field to play Middle Tennessee State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
It was short, to the point and made you want to put on a helmet and run through a wall.
But that was a pregame speech. Halftime speeches can be a little more complicated.
While a coach can plan how he wants to address his team prior to the game, he doesn't have that same luxury as he leaves the field at the half for the locker room. A head coach has to quickly come up with a second-half game plan, go over adjustments with his staff and somehow manage to offer some words of wisdom that will ring true to his team's ears.
If his team is winning in a rout, the coach must try to sustain that momentum through the second half. Conversely, if his team is losing, he has less than 20 minutes to get his team regrouped and focused on fixing the problems that got them behind in the first place.
There have been many famous halftime speeches, but the greatest have one thing in common: That speech changed the outcome of the game.
One of the more famous halftime speeches was delivered by Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne in 1928. The Fighting Irish and the Army Black Knights were scoreless at the half and Rockne asked his team to win one for the Gipper, a reference to former Irish player George Gipp, who had died from pneumonia in 1920.
Rockne went through every player's position and told the team what he expected from them—he made a point to make it personal. He asked the secondary to "wait until you see the ball in the air...and then go and get it." Rockne made the players visualize in their minds how the game would be played in the second half.
"We're going inside him, we're going outside him, inside him outside him, and when we get him on the run once, we're gonna keep him on the run. And we're not gonna pass unless [their] secondary comes up too close. But don't forget men, we're gonna get him on the run we're gonna go, go, go, go. And we aren't going to stop until we go to that goal line."
Notre Dame eventually won 12-6.
Alabama head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant used a different tactic for his players. In one game (the year is unknown but a reference to Kenny Stabler at quarterback dates this to between 1965-67), Bryant's half time speech was like chicken soup for the soul. Instead of fiery words, he chose soft, soothing words with a reassurance at the end. Like a parent trying to comfort a child when he has a boo-boo, Bryant tried to give a team confidence while easing its pain.
"Our defense is gotta go out there and take the ball...our defense hasn't been taking the ball. Then when we get the ball, we gotta have 11 people...11 people that's just gonna do their job whatever it is, just gonna do their job and try to score every time you get the football. If we do that we'll be alright. If we do that, we'll be alright."
USC head coach John McKay may have delivered one of the greatest halftime speeches ever simply because a 1974 game's momentum so drastically changed in the second half. With his team down 24-6 to Notre Dame—and honestly, the score didn't indicate how much of a rout this had become—McKay reportedly started his half time speech with the obvious:
“I said gentlemen, we’re behind,” USC coach John McKay once recalled of his halftime speech, “and two guys who were math majors put up their hands and said, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’”
Craig Fertig, a member of that '74 squad, recalled what else McKay said:
McKay told special teams blocker Mosi Tatupu “there’s no rule in this game against blocking,” and “if you’ll get off your rear end” and David Farmer also would block, “if you two will hit somebody, Anthony Davis will go 98 yards for the touchdown.”
USC would go on to score 49 unanswered points in the second half, winning 55-24. That game is still considered one of the greatest comebacks in college football. The catalyst was Anthony Davis' second-half opening kickoff return for a touchdown—a wedge block sprung Davis loose. On the Trojans' ensuing kickoff to the Irish, the returner was leveled by David Lewis and the Irish never recovered from the Trojans' momentum, as the video below shows.
A halftime speech is designed to inspire a team. But the words, emotion and tone used in a speech are all important factors in getting a team motivated to play a good second half.
Sometimes, all a team needs is reassurance from a coach that the team will be fine. Bryant chose that grandfatherly tone with his players and his "we'll be alright" probably erased the doubtful thinking in the locker room. That gave his players one less thing to think about—just score points and everything will work out. Bryant kept it simple but also relied on X's and O's (as seen on the chalkboard behind him in the video) in his halftime speeches.
For what it's worth, Bryant was known to be a coach of very few words. ABC sideline reporter Anne Simon found that out the hard way during a halftime interview of Bryant.
Some teams need a more individualized approach to rectify mistakes. Rockne went through every unit and told them what they had to do in that famous 1928 halftime speech. Rockne focused on his offensive linemen and told them to find that "weak" tackle.
A dominant rushing attack—especially back in the 1920's—was key to winning a game. Those were the days of black-and-blue football. Rockne understood that and chose to put the game on the backs of his linemen and, of course, it worked.
McKay was known for his quips. More from the USC Trojans official website:
Asked about his team's execution after a defeat while coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
"I think it's a good idea."
When USC kick returner Mike Hunter fell flat on his face on the opening kickoff of the 1965 game at Notre Dame (a 28-7 USC loss):
"My God. They shot him."
In 1965 in 39 degree weather, USC had to wait on the field—sharing it with screaming Notre Dame students—for 20 minutes before the Irish came out of the locker room prior to the opening kickoff. In his next trip to South Bend in 1967, McKay told the referee that he wasn't coming out before Notre Dame this time, but the ref warned him that in that case the Irish would win by forfeit, 2-0.
"That would be the best deal we've ever gotten in this stadium," he said.
Humor aside, McKay knew how to lighten up dire situations in the locker room while bringing up basic fundamentals, such as blocking. McKay's approach was to keep the team loose—laughter can release nervous energy—and reinforce football's basic concepts because players may overthink a play and forget the game's fundamentals. Like blocking.
Some coaches don't have any recorded halftime speeches, but if there is one coach's halftime speech America would love to hear, it's probably Alabama head coach Nick Saban's. If they are anything like his pregame speeches, they would probably register 8.0 on the Richter scale.
Prior to the Alabama-LSU contest in 2008, Saban screamed at his team to "make his ass quit."
Put me in, coach. I'm ready to play.
That reaction is what a coach wants from his players before and during a game. Each football coach has his own unique way of motivating his team—he knows what works and what doesn't. All four of the coaches we've highlighted are winners. They've all won national championships and inspired their teams to make great second-half comebacks.
A great halftime speech isn't made great just by the words spoken—it's how they are spoken that make them great. Would Paul Bryant have ever yelled "make his ass quit"? Probably not.
Did Nick Saban ever softly say, "we'll be alright" when his team was down 20-14 to Texas A&M last year? Probably not—in fact you'd bet your mortgage he didn't. Saban isn't that guy.
Halftime speeches are fairly fluid up to the moment they are delivered—it's an unknown entity that only finds itself after a coach analyzes the emotional state of his team and decides what his players need to hear at that very moment.
Great coaches know how to push buttons and motivate a team. Rockne, Bryant and McKay were masters of the halftime speech. We know Saban is simply by his teams' second-half performances over the last four years.
If only we could be a fly on the wall during one of Saban's halftime speeches.
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