Putting the special in special teams: Perceived value and football at the University of Texas

Frequent Nudge blog readers might have watched Rory Sutherland’s TED talk about the intangible “perceived value” that advertising adds to products. Sutherland cites some historical examples of counter intuitive ways to change behaviors. For instance, the King of Prussia wanted his subjects to eat potatoes so he ordered people to eat them. Complete failure. Undeterred, he got the idea to restrict potato consumption to the royal family and set up a special King’s potato garden. Suddenly everyone wanted one.

A version of this strategy is alive and well on the University of Texas football team. Football fans often refer to three phases of the game – offense, defense, and special teams. Of these, special teams is the ugly duckling. Typically, special teams players aren’t offensive or defensive starters, special teams plays are after thoughts for most fans because scoring is so rare, and special teams skills involve a lot of unglamorous “dirty work” like blocking and tackling. Nevertheless, great special teams play can be a huge advantage for teams through turnovers, touchdowns, field position, and momentum swings (plenty of economists don’t buy the momentum swings argument).

Noting the importance and structural problems associated with special teams units, Duane Akina, the special teams coach of the Longhorns since 2001, has added a ton of “perceived value” to the forgotten phase. In a fascinating piece in today’s Austin American-Statesman, Alan Trubow reports on changes Akina has made:

1) He convinced many of the Longhorn’s superstars to play special teams. Superstar 0 was wide receiver Roy Williams, the seventh pick in the 2004 NFL draft, who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys. This year, star wide receiver Jordan Shipley returns punts.

2) He created a point system like to the one used by Marriott hotels in which players earn points for making certain plays, which lead to special perks like membership in “block party,” “gold,” and “diamond” clubs.

3) He kept the clubs exclusive. Subjectively, of course.

“I can’t tell you too much about the block party because it’s a team thing. Really you have to be a member of the block party to understand it,” said Akina, who came up with the idea in 2003 or 2004.

Quarterback Colt McCoy, the biggest superstar on this year’s team, has supposedly lobbied for a membership.

“I’ve tried and I’ve tried to get on that unit,” Texas quarterback Colt McCoy said. “When I’m walking by their office on the way to the offense I always stop and say, ‘Hey, I’m ready. I’m here. (No.) 12 is always ready.’ You walk by there and they’re all happy, yelling and excited. You just want to be a part of it.”

But despite being a Heisman Trophy runner-up, McCoy’s not welcome as a member of the block party.

“The rules are strict,” (special teams member) Curtis Brown said. “You only get in if you earn your way in. That’s just the way it is. We’ve got to keep it that way. If we didn’t, everybody would be a member.”

The result: Texas’ special teams have blocked 45 punts since 2002, the second most in the nation, including three this season. They have also scored six touchdowns in 2009, and have the highest kickoff return average (31 yards) of all FBS teams.

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