East Valley coaches have mixed feelings about the AIA's new basketball mercy rule, which institutes a running clock in the fourth quarter to prevent scores from getting out of hand. The Tribune surveyed 12 local coaches and, of those, five liked the rule and seven didn’t.
Without his top three players due to injuries and personal issues, Coronado girls basketball coach Rick Sharp knows what it’s like to be on the lopsided end of the scoreboard.
So when the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s new mercy rule kicks into effect and the game switches to a running clock in the fourth quarter to prevent scores from getting out of hand, what does he do?
He calls timeouts to stop the clock.
“Honestly, I don’t like it,” Sharp said of the new rule, which mandates that a running clock be used any time a team gets up by 30 points in the fourth quarter. “We lose that additional time, and it’s time my kids could use to get better. I’m competitive as a coach. Heck, if we’re down by 30 I’ll challenge my kids to get it to 20 or 15 if they can. It doesn’t do my team any good to call off the press or fall back. They need to be challenged to get better.”
The new rule, which went into effect this season, is instituted only in the fourth quarter but remains in effect even if the losing team closes the deficit below 30 points. It stops only for timeouts, technical fouls or injury in the final period — except for the final minute of the game, which returns to normal timing rules.
“The intent is to keep scores from running out of control,” AIA Commissioner of Officials Gary Whelchel said. “(Arizona) schools had been in favor of a speed-up rule, and the subject had been brought up and discussed through a sportsmanship committee. It got on the Legislative Council agenda last year and was passed.”
State associations have had an option to use a mercy rule since 2004 when the National Federation of High School Associations put it in its handbook.
“The rule we have is one we tweaked a little bit that California has been using,” Whelchel said. “Right now I’d say about half the states have adopted a mercy rule in basketball.”
East Valley coaches have mixed feelings about the mercy rule. The Tribune surveyed 12 local coaches — a mix of boys and girls coaches as well as those from highly successful teams and those struggling for victories. Of those, five liked the rule and seven didn’t.
McClintock girls coach Eric Magana, who has a team fighting injury and rebuilding this year after several seasons of title contention, supports the rule.
“I’ve been on both ends and given our situation and some others, I think it serves a purpose,” Magana said. “We played Pinnacle and Dobson right out of the gate. They’re very good teams. It (rule) was a nice thing to have.”
The need for a mercy rule gained national attention last January when Covenant, a private Christian school in Dallas, defeated Dallas Academy 100-0. Covenant later fired its unrepentant coach over the incident, apologized and offered to forfeit the game. And then just last week, also in Texas, nationally-ranked Yates beat Lee 170-35 in a boys game. Yates set a single-game state scoring record but also gained some national attention for perhaps going a bit too far in its zeal to win.
Arizona has had several games get out of hand in recent years, most notably one in the 2006-07 season when Red Mountain beat Yuma High 117-5 in girls basketball.
Seton Catholic coach Karen Self, who has amassed more than 400 wins in her career, has been on both ends of lopsided scores. She has plenty of experience with the mercy rule this season — Seton is 15-4 and 11 of its 15 wins have been by 30 points or more — and isn’t as fond of the rule as she envisioned.
“Surprisingly I haven’t liked it and I thought I would,” Self said. “It takes away from developmental minutes of other players. The quarter goes so fast with a running clock.”
Early in her career, when Seton was on the short end of a lopsided score, Self used the blowout as a learning tool by setting small goals for her team.
“Things like not giving up a three for a couple minutes,” Self said. “Just little things. Things that we could try to improve on. We wanted to get all we could out of a game.”
Now, as the winning team in those types of games, Self utilizes her own rules of engagement if the game gets out of hand.
“If we are ahead by 20 points, we stop pressing or trapping,” Self said. “If it gets to 30 we play zone. If it gets to 35 we have no fast breaks. We still play hard. You don’t want to play your bench players and have them go through the motions.”
The problem is, not all coaches are as sensitive as Self, which necessitated the need for the rule.
Sharp remembers only one game in which an opponent tried to run up the score.
“The only time I was really mad at a team was some years ago when we played Cactus,” Sharp said. “They were trying to score 100 points. They were putting up threes right and left and already had a big lead. That’s the only time I felt a team was trying to rub it in our face.”
Mountain View’s boys team (11-2) has been involved in four games with margins of 30 points — all of those on the plus side. Toros coach Gary Ernst has a mixed review of the new legislation.
“I can see both sides of it,” Ernst said. “The downside is the loss of real time you get from playing your bench. It’s impacted several of our games this year. But I don’t mind it if it is protecting teams from embarrassment.’’
With the rule likely here to stay, Self concludes it’s up to coaches to have a game plan to deal with it.
“It’s a hard balance,” Self said. “If coaches work at it, they can find a solution that works for their team whether they are on the good end or the bad end.”
If that doesn’t work, there’s always Sharp’s approach: Just call timeout.