Lessons from Johnson at fourth and one

College football is usually something you use to distract yourself from the learning process and its associated stresses, but last Saturday’s game against Wake Forest was a pretty good lesson on dealing with adversity by Professor, I mean Coach, Paul Johnson.

I think most of us probably have a new appreciation of the words “fourth and one”. I’m referring of course to the second-to-last play of the game, with Tech having the ball on Wake Forest’s five yard line. After going to overtime with the Demon Deacons, Tech’s top-ten ranking would have been history if they failed on that play to either get a first down or score at least three points of their own.

Certainly going to overtime against a team with a losing record was not the plan for the Jackets. But you don’t always get to see this pan out the way you expected, and by overtime it was too late to do anything but finally put this game away.

Putting the game away meant getting the win. Tech had two choices. The first was to kick the easy field goal from the five-yard line to tie the game, granting each team one more drive with the ball to try to score as many points as they can. The second was to get the first round and then try for a touchdown that would win the game.

As we all know by now, Coach Johnson never gave that first, safe option a moment’s consideration. Faced with fourth down, he sent quarterback Josh Nesbitt and the rest of the offense back onto the field, where they picked up the first down and on the ensuing play scored the game-winning touchdown.

In hindsight, Coach Johnson certainly looks wise. Ignoring the fact that the game was in overtime in the first place, he was able to make a tough decision that ended up being correct. Or maybe it wasn’t that straightforward. Was it simply a lucky gamble that happened to pay off this time? Was he just sick of standing on the sidelines and wanted to get this game over?

No, this was definitely a calculated decision by a shrewd strategist. “Fourth and one” is a situation where success is chased by pursuing either a lower probability, high reward option or a high probability, lower reward option.

Coach Johnson won this game for the Jackets because he knew the supposed “low probability” wasn’t actually very low. This is a team that made its way to the forefront of college football by having an unbeatable running game. That isn’t changed by the high pressure of this particular situation and the fact that Tech hadn’t converted any of its four other fourth-down opportunities that day.

Knowing what he was working with, Coach Johnson also had the confidence to move forward knowing the facts were in his favor. Therefore, the safe choice was actually what he did, rather than the field goal. Giving each team an entire additional drive is nowhere near an automatic win for the Jackets; that’s plenty of time for some fluke play like a fumble to occur to give Wake Forest the game.

So how is this a learning experience? Each of us faces “fourth and one” all the time, even if we don’t play football. Life gives us situations all the time where we have to make a decision and as with the previous scenario, success is chased by pursuing either a lower probability, high reward option or a high probability, lower reward option.

The choice to pursue “high reward” isn’t always the correct one if its probability of success is too low. That’s why pouring all of your savings into lottery tickets is not a smart investment plan. But the “lower reward” option isn’t always great either. United States Treasury bonds offer a guaranteed return, but that return is quite small compared to what can be found in other investment instruments by accepting even a minimal amount of risk.

To be a winner like Paul Johnson, you have to be able to assess probability using facts and reason. He knows his team and knew what the probability of his team getting that one yard was. Maybe he didn’t calculate it to three significant figures, but he knew it was pretty close to one. The other thing you have to do is assess reward. For Coach Johnson, the reward of going for the first down was a near-certain touchdown.

The payoff isn’t always as widely celebrated as a win that pushes the team up to No. 7 in the rankings but success in your daily life can be just as sweet nonetheless. Let Guru, I mean, Coach Paul Johnson be your guide, and let’s hope that wins over Duke and Georgia don’t have to be so complicated.