Anatomy Of The Flip

West Virginia has won all three coin flips this season, twice by making the correct heads-tails guess. That only leads to another, even bigger choice, however.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez has selected the defer option all three times, later choosing to take the ball to start the second half. Rodriguez said he likes having the ball to start the latter 30 minutes, and, paired with his penchant for starting games on the defense side, is an almost obvious pick. But one wonders: why make that selection with an offensive averaging 47 points and more than 500 yards per game when the seventh-year coach has said he values fast starts?

"We're trying to pin them back deep," Rodriguez said, playing up the field position battles. "Possessions will equal out most of the time. Sometimes I just do it because I want to. Really, the only thing that changes your mind is weather. If it's really windy and you can get the ball through the end zone (you kick). Our players understand and know exactly what we want when they go out there."

Most of the time. In Rodriguez's home debut, in 2001 versus Ohio, West Virginia won the toss and chose to kickoff. The official asked the players if they were sure they wanted to kick. He received an affirmation. He asked again. Current associate head coach Bill Stewart was on the sidelines.

"The coaches are yelling ‘No, no, we don't want that," Stewart said. "The official keeps looking at the players, looking back at the bench. We are waving our arms and yelling no."

The player insisted that is what the Mountaineers wanted, and so they kicked off to begin both halves of the 20-3 win, much to the chagrin of Rodriguez. "I'm still mad about it," he said. "I don't think I talked to the player again. And that was when they were running the ball all the time and we might not have but seven or eight possessions, and we gave one of those away."

From then on, WVU has anointed one player to be the team's official spokesperson for each flip. None of the other captains are to speak. The player is allowed to choose if he wants to call heads or tails. But everything else, from which side the team wants to defend to its preference for getting the ball in the second half, has been predetermined. In the overtimes, for example, West Virginia wants to, first and foremost, play defense if it wins the flip. If it loses, as it has done against both Louisville and Rutgers in 2005 and '06, respectively, it wants the action to take place at the north (hospital) end zone because of the greater noise due to the bowl structure and the proximity to the student section.

Rodriguez said he probably would continue to defer, just for the security of knowing the Mountaineers will get the ball to begin the second half barring any unforeseen onsides kicks or fumbles. It worked against Western Michigan, then didn't as well versus Marshall, when the Herd took a kickoff back deep into the Mountaineers' end and went ahead 3-0. West Virginia retook the edge with a quick scoring toss to Darius Reynaud, but the momentum was already built. It worked the exact opposite against Maryland. The Terps fumbled their first snap and WVU punched in on a run by quarterback Patrick White for a 7-0 lead that quieted Byrd Stadium's fifth-largest crowd.

In all, there are four choices: To receive, to kickoff (rarely purposefully chosen) and to choose an end to defend, or defer the choice until the second half. A team can also, if it wishes, choose to defend an end at the start of the second half as well, though possession is normally considered more valuable. Also, there is a little-known rule in American amateur football that allows the team that was scored upon to either receive the kickoff, or kickoff themselves, though that does not exist in the collegiate game.

According to a mathematician, however, heads might be the better call overall – if one knows how the referee will begin and end the toss. Persi Diaconis had Harvard University engineers build a mechanical coin flipper. The statistician found that if a coin is launched exactly the same way, it lands exactly the same way, according to a National Public Radio story. The "randomness in a coin toss, it appears, is introduced by sloppy humans. Each human-generated flip has a different height and speed, and is caught at a different angle, giving different outcomes. Using high speed cameras and equations, Diaconis and colleagues have now found that even though humans are largely unpredictable coin flippers, there's still a bias built in: If a coin starts out heads, it ends up heads when caught more often than it does tails."

Something to ponder as the East Carolina Pirates, who are more apt to take the football first, come to town.

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