Home field advantage is no myth

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 2:27 p.m. MDT

The home-field advantage is not a myth. It's proven.

Although mostly a psychological victory, home teams play in familiar facilities in front of supportive fans. They are more acclimated to the climate and elevation. And they even benefit from more favorable rules in some cases, such as the home team batting last in baseball.

Not only that, but multiple studies — including a recent one by Harvard University — have shown that home teams are systematically awarded more favorable officiating calls than visiting teams.

In other words, when playing on the road, the odds are not in your favor. But winning on the road can be done, even without the law of averages.

How so?

"Answer that and you'll become a millionaire," joked Utah State basketball coach Stew Morrill. Turning serious, he added, "To think there's magic involved, you're out of whack."

Of course not. But visiting teams can increase their chances, as number-cruncher and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, stating that underdogs can boost their odds by an impressive 35 percent when they compete in an unexpected way.

More commonly called a surprise attack, it's something Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham has gained a reputation for in his six-plus years guiding the Utes.

"When you prepare for an opponent, you prepare for what you see on tape," he explained. To keep his opponents guessing, Whittingham said he regularly does things his opponents haven't seen on tape.

Former BYU basketball star Jimmer Fredette, who achieved some of his biggest collegiate performances on the road, agrees. "Good offense is being unpredictable!" he said emphatically. "You have to be able to trick people."

In Fredette's case, that means dribbling the ball with varying speeds. "Playing as fast as you can all the time makes you very predictable," Fredette said. "That is the last thing a point guard or scorer wants."

Admittedly, unconventional play can increase the odds of winning, whether at home or on the road. But as Gladwell points out, the favored home team wins just as much, if not more, when both teams play to their conventions.

It's a trend even the more conservative Morrill is willing to concede.

"You got to play a little different on the road," the Aggies coach said. But at the same time, "you have to be careful not to do something you're team's not good at."

It's that line of thinking that drives the BYU men's basketball staff toward a more traditional approach, despite their former point guard's individual style.

"We don't change how we play, no matter the opponent or whether we're the favored team or the underdog," assistant coach Terry Nashif said bluntly. "We play the same at home and on the road."

With exception to his playbook, Whittingham also tries to normalize his pregame preparations at both home and away games.

"We do everything we can on Friday, the same way whether at home or away," he said, including accommodations. "We try to keep the routine as similar as possible for our players."

That said, Morrill believes the ability to ambush your opponent on the road diminishes when you enter conference play.

"They're aren't as many surprises in league play because coaches know each other's tendencies a whole lot better."

To which Fredette agrees. "Scouting is so good now it is hard to surprise a team, especially a conference team that you play regularly every season."

In fact, the numbers bear this out. Since it's a lot harder to prepare for a team you've never played or haven't seen in a long time, most road wins happen when playing nonconference teams.

So what leads to those rare home losses?

"I don't know if there's a common thread," said Whittingham. "At least, we haven't been able to pinpoint any one factor to losing a game at home. It all boils down to a lack of execution."

Morrill, whose teams have averaged only one home loss per season during his 13-year tenure, cites two reasons.

"Usually they were really good," he said of the victors. And once in a while, "you feel like a guy pulled something on you. In sports, there's no worse feeling than being outcoached, particularly at home."

If you really want to overcome home-field advantage, however, you have to believe. It sounds corny, but it's difficult to do when you consider the odds. For example, football teams win an estimated 60 percent of the time at home. Basketball teams win 70 percent of the time at home. And in the NBA, playoff teams win an overwhelming 80 percent of the time at home.

Consequently, teams who accept those numbers play as expected and lose when they're supposed to. Teams who reject those numbers play with a sustained effort throughout the game. When coupled with an uncommon offense, they're even capable of becoming slight favorites, Gladwell found, winning upward of 64 percent of the time.

Fredette believes those two ingredients — deceptive offense and mental toughness — are what's made him Jimmer. Not only that, but they keep him going.

"All my life, I have ignored the odds. I've been told by critics at every stage of my career that I couldn't play. But I also know that playing hard is 50 percent of winning and outsmarting your opponent always gives you a big advantage."

BYU vs. Utah

From 1992 to 2006, the road team won 11 of the 15 rivalry football games — including six straight from 1995-2000. However, the home team has won the last four matchups.

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