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Jacobs: The games within the games are also worth watching

A thirsty basketball coach is apt to reach for a cup or plastic bottle of water parked under the team bench or perched near the edge of the scorer’s table for easy access. But occasionally a splash of liquid will find its way onto the playing floor – and not by accident. That simple, time-tested stall tactic is more likely to generate knowing laughter than expressions of outrage. Unless, of course, it’s your team at the disadvantage.

Sports lore is rife with similar, often unprovable twists, tweaks and tricks, many of them older than today’s participants. The recent furor over accusations of deflated footballs used by the New England Patriots, now Super Bowl champs, brought this to mind, highlighting by contrast the tolerance we usually bring to attempts at gamesmanship.

The severity of our reaction often depends on the identity of the offender. Thus the distrust of dour Patriots coach Bill Belichick, punished in 2007 for spying on opponents, compared with the enduring amusement over the strategic application of liquids by irreverent Horace (Bones) McKinney, coach at Wake Forest from 1958-65.

McKinney, featured in a national magazine story as a “Magnificent Screwball,” charmingly mixed comedy with competition. To restrain his chronic forays off the bench, he spent part of a 1964 game against Maryland voluntarily held in place by a seat belt. During a 1961 NCAA tournament victory, he grabbed a ball that went out of bounds by Wake’s bench and, remarkably unnoticed by officials, passed it downcourt to guard Billy Parker, who promptly scored.

Before modern marketing convinced us bottled was better, McKinney kept a bucket of water by his seat on the bench, periodically reaching down to ladle out a drink. He was known to intentionally splash a dipperful onto the court when it suited his purposes, allowing his Demon Deacons to rest and confer while the water was wiped from the floor.

Convincing skeptics

Presumably McKinney’s stratagem irked opponents and officials. Yet it didn’t precipitate a firestorm of criticism or calls for an investigation. Neither did repeated accusations that Dean Smith turned up the heat at Carmichael Auditorium, the home of his Tar Heels from 1965 through early 1986.

“There are people who really believe I would tell some janitor, make sure it’s hot in here,” Smith, a masterful psychological warrior, said in 1985 in anticipation of vacating “Blue Heaven” for the more commodious Dean Dome. “I tell you a sure way it’s going to be hot – if it’s hot outdoors and all of a sudden 10,000 people show up.” During the 1960s, coach Vic Bubas faced comparable charges at what was then Duke Indoor Stadium.

Neither coach completely convinced skeptics of his innocence.

Buildings can be manipulated to gain an advantage in other ways. Electronic message boards at the end of a court have been known to flip strategically just as an opposing player attempts a foul shot. Officials routinely eyeball basket heights and rims prior to games but can’t banish suspicions about home-team-friendly adjustments at certain arenas.

Smith thought he was on the receiving end of a dirty trick while playing N.C. State at Carmichael in 1976. Before TV ruled the sports universe, media timeouts during basketball games were not orchestrated at predictable intervals. So Marvin (Skeeter) Francis, in charge of media relations for the ACC, was stationed at the scorer’s table to signal for timeouts at what he deemed appropriate moments in that regionally televised contest.

But when Francis, previously Wake’s sports information director, called a halt that interrupted a Tar Heel run, Smith detected prejudice. He briefly confronted Francis during the game, then denounced him during a press conference following the 68-67 loss. Smith later apologized, but the incident passed into ACC lore.

Foul shooters injured

One widespread and long-lived basketball manipulation was the claim of injury by a lousy foul shooter. “We would have these terrible free throw shooters say they were hurt when they got fouled, said John Clougherty, a 30-year referee and current ACC coordinator of men’s basketball officials. “They changed the rule because it was being abused.”

The scenario had a player supposedly unable to perform hobbling to the bench, to be replaced by a far more adept foul shooter. Once the free throws were made, a miraculous recovery occurred and the hurt player returned to action. The practice was short-circuited shortly after UConn pulled the trick against Notre Dame, according to Mike Brey, then a member of the NCAA Rules Committee. Since the 2010 season the coach from the fouling team can designate someone off the opposing bench to substitute at the line for the injured player. The inevitability of the worst free thrower being chosen has curtailed fakery.

College baseball doesn’t get the same level of attention as basketball but historically has accommodated more pervasive gamesmanship, from doctored bats to grass grown long to help a home team prone to slapping grounders, to base paths soaked with water to slow visitors reliant on speed. Pitchers may file down seams, roughen surfaces or add substances in order to alter the flight of the ball.

“That’s the entertaining part of it – scuffing the ball, raising the height of the grass,” Doug Rhoads, the ACC’s coordinator of football officials, says somewhat incongruously of baseball trickery. “That’s part of the fun of the game.”

Baseball gamesmanship

Sometimes simple psychological warfare suffices to gain an edge. Bruce Winkworth, who has observed N.C. State baseball for more than 30 years, recalls Clemson coach Jack Leggett discombobulating Wolfpack starter Carlos Rodon during a game in 2013. Leggett insisted the N.C. State ace didn’t make proper contact with the rubber when delivering pitches. Intentionally or not, the argument had its effect.

“Carlos was just standing there fuming,” Winkworth says. When the game resumed, Rodon was ineffective. “That’s a classic example of gamesmanship. Jack Leggett got under his skin.”

Lately coaches have been getting under each other’s skin on the football field as accelerated offenses proliferate. From Cal to Clemson, college to the NFL, accusations of faked injuries as dilatory tactics have been flying.

“It’s not just Florida State where it’s happening,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said a few days after detecting ostensibly hurt defenders moving “as slow as humanly possible” to get off the field against the fast-paced Pack during a 56-41 FSU victory in Raleigh last September. “I think it’s unsportsmanlike, personally.”

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher shot back, “I accuse him of not knowing what he’s talking about.” Doeren quickly apologized. But, as with Dean Smith and Skeeter Francis, the point was made.

As for governing fall-down slowdowns, the ACC’s Rhoads, slated to retire later this year, readily concedes there’s little that officials can do short of earning medical degrees. “It’s not covered under the playing rules,” says the former back judge. “It’s a coaching ethics thing that has to be approached by them.” Coaches will understand if we don’t hold our breath awaiting a timely solution.