ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This year, two Florida high school football games engaged in a battle, if you can call it that. The final score was 82 to nothing. A few weeks later, the final score in another Florida game was 91 to nothing. Now, these may be extreme examples, but every week, in nearly every state, teams win by 50 or 60 points. The charge of poor sportsmanship inevitably follows. Today, as part of our series, Friday Night Lives, NPR's Mike Pesca reports on the blowout.

MIKE PESCA: A coach's halftime speech is a chance to reset strategy, buck up spirits - if you're desperate, linger on the details of how your opponents put on their pants. What to do then if you were John Petrie of Plainville, Kansas, a couple of seasons back, when in a game against Smith Center, you found your team down 72 to nothing in the first quarter - the first quarter. Petrie just reached for a little perspective.

JOHN PETRIE: You know, our kids gave it all they had, and just - things snowballed on us. And you know, what you say to kids in the locker room is, you know, basically, if this is the worst thing that you ever have to go through, you're doing pretty good in life.

PESCA: With the loss came media attention. What kind of monster would commit such a slaughter? New York Times reporter Joe Drape saw the score and asked the same question. The answer wound up being the book "Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains With The Smith Center Redmen." Drape found Smith Center's coach Roger Barta to actually be the quintessential sportsman.

JOE DRAPE: He and I have talked about this. He's very sensitive. He's won coach of the year, and it was a big honor, but a guy came up to him and said, you know, you're the jerk who ran up the score. And you know, if you go back and look at the YouTube, it was just a calamity of errors. I mean, there's fumbles returned, there's interceptions returned. He called up to the booth and had his athletic director, Greg Holmopen(ph), he said: Call the state of Kansas because this is getting out of hand, and they need to put the 40-point rule in.

PESCA: The 40-point rule mandates that when a team goes up big, the officials revert to a running clock, which significantly shortens the game and the damage. A lot of states use this because coaches feel it allows for real football to be played, just less of it. Coaches with big leads usually substitute in their second and third stringers, and they hate to tell them not to try hard. And even coaches on the losing side feel humiliated if their opponents simply kneel down on offense.

KURT VOIGT: There is an art, I guess, to winning big.

PESCA: Kurt Voigt has covered high school football for The Morning News in northwest Arkansas for 15 years.

VOIGT: I think there's little things you can do to kind of endear goodwill from other - the losing coaches.

PESCA: One such coach, Springdale's Gus Malzahn, won the state championship in 2005 with an offense so dominant that the professionals began to take notes. Malzahn is one of the fathers of the Wildcat, the NFL's latest trend du jour. Voigt's book about that season, "Year Of The Dog," details the master tactician Malzahn's methods of not scoring.

VOIGT: They broke every record they could for, you know, scoring in the state's largest classification, and what really made it amazing was they never scored more than 56 points in a game that season. There are some games they could have scored 100 very easily.

PESCA: The state of Connecticut is not content to allow coaches to police themselves. They impose an automatic suspension on the coach of a team that wins by more than 50 points. Paul Hoey oversees football for the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. When the rule passed, he heard his coaches' complaints.

PAUL HOEY: What are you doing? It's not the nature of football. They should be allowed to play. They should be allowed to score. We really believe that coaches need to understand that it is not right, and that there are things that they can do - play a full game but not run the score out of sight.

PESCA: Since the rule was passed, blowouts, as Connecticut defines them, dropped from 27 a year to three in the last two years combined. And two of those three winning, and therefore losing, head coaches successfully appealed their suspensions. When coaches from outside Connecticut are told of the rule, a pained look is sure to follow. It seems to contradict what they preach in practice: Work hard on every down and own your failures. Still, there is something in the nature of a football blowout - worse than any sport - that seems so agonizing. Joe Drape has a theory.

DRAPE: Football blowouts seems to be more methodical. You know, there's - the play stops. Everyone goes back to the huddle. Another play is run. You know, it just seems to be slower torture.

PESCA: Perhaps no one withstood a single quarter of torture worse than John Petrie in Plainville's loss to Smith Center. And while Petrie regards it as a learning experience, it should be noted that Plainville - and Petrie's new team, Trego High - will be moving to eight-man football next year. So the learning process can continue without Smith Center on the schedule.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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