Who knew it would come to this? Tough-guy football coaches — guys named Joe who eat nails for breakfast — are whining about other teams beating up on them. Media types are philosophizing about lopsided scores and sportsmanship. Middle fingers and apologies are flying because of it. Fights are breaking out.

Running up the score has got everybody running at the mouth.

The University of Utah was accused of doing it against Wyoming, with Joe Glenn's middle digit putting an exclamation point on things. The New England Patriots have been accused of it several times this season, especially against Washington, after which Joe Gibbs refused the post-game handshake. American Fork High ran up a big score against Hunter in the playoffs, and a brawl ended the game early.

For the uninitiated, in football there is an unwritten rule: When you have a big lead, you call off the dogs. In essence, you raise the white flag for the other team. Bottom line: You try to run out the clock while trying not to score. It's considered bad form to do otherwise.

Starters are supposed to be benched. Long passes are out. So are short ones if you can help it. End zones are off limits. Meanwhile, the defense gets to play as hard as it wants.

Weird. You could even argue that having a team empty its bench against you is more humiliating than having the starters score more touchdowns, but that's breaking with tradition.

Holding down the score can be trickier than it sounds. Just ask LaVell Edwards, the old BYU coach. He's an expert on the subject. His teams routinely rang up the scoreboard during the '80s and often faced the charge that they ran up the score, even though anyone who knows Edwards would swear that could never be the case.

"It's a real tough one to call," he says, of deciding where the line is drawn for running up the score. "I don't make any judgment about it when I see it."

The Cougars were so good that even they had trouble stopping their offense from scoring at times. They routinely led the nation in total offense, scoring and passing offense. To listen to Edwards tell it, it's one thing for a running team to tell its second string to run the ball in garbage time, but what about a passing team? What good does it do to have the reserves run the ball?

With a big lead, the Cougars threw short passes, mostly on third down, but sometimes the defense couldn't even stop those. Near the end of one rout, Edwards' assistants convinced him to send his starting quarterback back into the game to break an NCAA record. All he needed was a few yards. The receiver caught a short pass, but the defender missed the tackle and the play went for a touchdown. Oops.

"Their coach was really upset about it," recalls Edwards.

So who was right? Edwards, who was being loyal to his player, or the opposing coach, who didn't want his team humiliated? Or would you say a short pass is allowable and the defense should have made the tackle?

"Tough call," says Edwards.

Edwards was once the beneficiary of such sportsmanship. His BYU team was being thrashed so badly by SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl that the Mustangs put their second string in the game. BYU, down 45-27 with four minutes left, won 46-45 on a hail Mary pass on the game's final play.

"SMU had their second string in when we made our comeback, and then they put their starters back in," recalls Edwards. "By that time we had momentum, and then we had that lucky pass at the end and won. We had no business winning that game."

On the other hand, if SMU coaches had left their starters on the field in the final minutes of the game, with an 18-point lead, they might have been accused of running up the score.

It used to be easier to know when to shut down an offense, but all that changed with the arrival of the passing era.

"With everybody throwing the ball now, you can get back into a game pretty quickly," says Edwards. "It's a different game. It's harder to know when you have the game under control. If it's, say, 45-21, no, I wouldn't take them out, because the other team is capable of scoring. But when teams primarily ran the ball, a three-touchdown lead was insurmountable."

Maybe the unwritten rules need to be written; maybe they should call the game when the deficit reaches 40 points, or run a continuous clock; maybe both teams should be required to put their subs in the game. Meanwhile, everyone is trying to figure out what to do and when to do it, and making a lot of enemies.


Doug Robinson is a part-time Utah high school football coach.

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