Focus the key to victory in big games

How do teams play well in big games and become champions? It all comes down to how the players and coaches channel their focus.

Updated: October 20, 2005, 2:55 PM ET
By Bill Curry | Special to ESPN.com

Saturday's marquee football games were testimonials to all the fun stuff college sports can engender. In this column last week, I wrote about our culture's propensity to exaggerate pedestrian events in such glowing terms as "games of the century." The more I observe and describe our passion for such games, the more skeptical I become about appellations like GOC, since by definition there can be only one every 100 years.

Reggie Bush
APThe right amount of focus has helped Reggie Bush and USC become champions.
Now I have to confess that as I researched and wrote, I found myself speculating, even hoping, that Southern California vs. Notre Dame would become a real GOC. And lo and behold, it did! At least so far. Charlie Weis and his gritty band of brothers brought it all day and into the night, and probably deserved to win.

Even my somewhat cynical buddy Gene Wojciechowski lost it more than I have ever seen him lose it when he wrote, "If USC's improbable, unbelievable, amazing, and (insert adjective of your choice) win over Notre Dame isn't the best game ever, it's on the short list."

Say what Geno? I'm not ready for best ever, but it has GOC for century 21 clinched for now.

I indicated in last week's musings what would be required to have that outcome, and that the burden would be on each squad and coaching staff to come up with the requisite joy of performance, abandon and focus, a tough combination to sustain for an entire game. Again, both squads pulled it off.

Focus vs. Grimace
Now for the next question. For the mature winners, when does the focus morph into a teeth clinched, jawboned grimace? How does a coach maintain such focus without losing the joy and abandon so vital to a collision sport? How does a squad keep its collective consciousness aimed in the right direction as the distractions and diversions mount? Very few answer the bell on this one. Some do, and their methods are usually misunderstood.

Southern California's Pete Carroll is all over his team this week because he says he doesn't like the shirts they wear on road trips. This is not the NBA and Carroll is not working on "image." He is inducing his talented troops to regain focus, forcing them to think about the team rather than their wardrobe (or other dumb things), and reminding them that he is the head coach.

Carroll, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart have been remarkably candid in their remarks this week:

"I got out of my focus and tried to make a statement and that was really poor leadership on my part. I apologized to the team and it's not going to happen again."
-- Bush, after slowing to a jog on a long touchdown run.

"I think at times I've lost track of just having fun and not thinking too much."
-- Leinart

"He is handling it as well as you can handle it, but there is a tremendous burden on him and he is just a young pup trying to make it."

Carroll, on Leinart's fatigue and sense of overload.

What Pete understands is that all college players are young pups trying to make it. They are young adults, dealing with all the forces of nature, drugs, gamblers, academics, media, family problems, video games, NCAA rules and all the other blinding distractions in our society.

Oh, and one other thing. These guys are in L.A.!

Focus vs. Foolish Grin
Finally, the last question. For the immature winners, like Texas Tech, when does the focus melt into a stupid grin, with a bunch of teenagers grasping for the next compliment?

Tech coach Mike Leach had seen enough following his team's 52-21 humiliation at the hands of Texas last year, so he changed some things. He described his team's performance as resembling "a bunch of sheep looking at each other." He said, "I thought over those two weeks we got soft and passive and we got complimented too many times over the Nebraska game. We were more concerned with doing interviews than having practice. After that game, I decided that we would adjust that a little bit."

He instituted what many thought were draconian measures, limiting media contact to very few players. His rules were unprecedented in the Big 12, and drew heavy criticism.

Since then, Texas Tech is 10-1, its lone loss coming in overtime at Texas A&M.

Fine Focus vs. Space Focus
Longtime NFL offensive line coach Howard Mudd once sat down with me and explained his method of teaching linemen to block on screens. One of a lineman's most difficult jobs is zeroing in on tiny defensive backs in the open field.

Howard drew on a piece of paper as he said, "Look and imagine. You are a big guy running in the open field with a running back behind you. The corner is a better athlete than you and if you 'space focus,' simply look at the outline of his body, you will miss him every time. However, if you 'fine focus,' and zero in on the spot on his chest between his numbers, then drive for that tiny spot, you have the capacity to get a piece of him … your ball carrier will do the rest."

Howard was right, and his method works as a metaphor for an entire team. When a group of committed people develop the capacity to "fine focus" on each task, shutting out all distractions for the proper amount of time, anything can be accomplished. This is easy to talk about, and very difficult to execute. That is why there are very few champions.

Football coaches are required to live it, teach it, demand it, and get it on a consistent basis. Teaching "fine focus" is the fine focus of coaches' ever-expanding responsibilities.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. His Center Stage examinations appear each week during the college football season.

Bill Curry

College Football
Former coach Bill Curry joined ESPN in 1997 as a college football game analyst. His primary assignment is the ESPN2 College Football Saturday Night telecast, along with selected bowl games. His knowledge and easy-going manner have translated quite effectively into the broadcast booth, where he's been well-received by fans and media alike.