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A 'Gipper'-free zone

Former Green Bay Packers center Bill Curry recalls just one halftime speech during his entire 10-year playing career. He was a rookie when the Packers, coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi, were getting drubbed by the Detroit Lions. The Lions had just returned an interception for a touchdown, adding to the Packers' misery.

Both teams shared the same sideline, and as Lions lineman Alex Karras was exiting the field, he turned to Lombardi and screamed, "How'd you like that, you fat bleeping bleep?!" Curry expected Lombardi would excoriate his underachieving club at halftime. Instead, the coach stood alone through most of the intermission and said nothing. Just before the Packers returned to the field, Lombardi told his team, "Men, we're the Green Bay Packers," and walked out. Green Bay won the game, crushing Detroit in the second half.

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"That's the only halftime speech I remember, and it wasn't really a speech at all," Curry says, laughing.

Not exactly a "win one for the Gipper" moment. In fact, the heroic soliloquy delivered to rouse the troops and spur them to victory (think "Remember the Titans" or "Friday Night Lights") is generally a figment of Hollywood's imagination. So when the University of Southern California meets Texas next week for college football's national championship, experts agree on one thing: The Rose Bowl battle in Pasadena, Calif., may take place near Tinseltown, but the outcome isn't likely to hinge on any silver-screen motivational tactics.

"I always wanted to coach against the guy who jumped up and down on the sideline and got up on the table at halftime and hollered," says Jackie Sherrill, a former head coach at Texas A&M and Pittsburgh, who says such histrionics distract a team at best, numb them at worst. "Put it like this: When you line up and a guy knocks the slobber out of you, you're not thinking about what the coach on the sidelines is telling you."

So what of Ronald Reagan in the 1940 film "Knute Rockne: All American"? "None of that happens 15 minutes before a game," says Rod Woodson, a former All-America defensive back at Purdue University who went on to a 17-year NFL career. "A coach can't inspire a team to play or better or worse at that point. It happens during the week, at practice, in [training] camp, and so on."

Former NFL quarterback Archie Manning laughs when asked about the big halftime speech. Simple logistics, he says, refute much of that kind of talk. "You're not even in there very long," Mr. Manning notes, since most intermissions run 15 to 20 minutes. "And most coaches say the same things over and over. Probably 20 guys on the team could give his speech for him."

More than the need for crisp anecdotes and fiery exhortations, experts say the downfall of many football teams, especially in the college game, is asking players to do things they're incapable of handling. Sherrill, who won 180 games in 26 college seasons, says many coaches succumb to overreaching.

"You have to put players in a position to perform and prepare them mentally, as well," he says. "One thing about Pete [Carroll of USC] and Mack [Brown of Texas], they put their guys out there and let them play."

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Three-time national championship winner Barry Switzer says it's best not to confuse football and films beyond study sessions of game tapes examining the other teams' tendencies.

"It never changes," Mr. Switzer says. "Football is a game of repetition, mental and physical. You may try to articulate it a little different, but it's the same thing: Get better players, make fewer mistakes, and drill the fundamentals into your players' heads. The rest of it is a joke. Teams aren't winning because of what they had for breakfast or what some coach said in the locker room."

Tell that to the Gipper.


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