A dozen years after the most lopsided victory of his life, Tampa Catholic coach Bob Henriquez's hindsight isn't so much 20-20 as it is 75-9. Henriquez now wishes he had simply instructed quarterback Antonio Ramsey — a third-stringer — to take a knee in that final minute with his team leading woefully overmatched rival St. Petersburg Catholic by 66 points. "But I've got all these backups in the game," Henriquez recalled. "I figured I'd give them one play." Henriquez ordered a dive play; he got a dazzling one. Ramsey fumbled the snap, picked up the ball and tried to run. Upon being hit from behind, he flipped it to his brother Antwan, who swerved and sprinted his way to a 68-yard touchdown. "I literally remember shaking my head," Henriquez said. "I was embarrassed."
Henriquez's head remained bowed as he made the 200-mile walk to midfield for the postgame handshake. He expected Barons coach Dan Mancuso to be teetering somewhere between indignant and irate. That's when Henriquez got another shock.
"He thanked me for not scoring 100," Henriquez said. "He understood we played all the backups."
Of all the issues high school football coaches face, perhaps none resonate so profoundly as the ol' run-up-the-score debate. As sure as Jon Gruden grimaces, every coach will find himself in Henriquez's or Mancuso's shoes — or both — at some point in their careers.
And once there, they discover how complicated and controversial the matter is.
Case in point: Mancuso corroborates Henriquez's version of that 81-9 debacle, with one addendum: When the Barons were inside the TC 5-yard line in the second half, Mancuso said Henriquez reinserted his starting defense.
"That part we didn't like," Mancuso said. "But really, you can't hold your kids back."
'Eye of the beholder'
Therein lies the quagmire. At a level of football where egos are at their most delicate and sportsmanship — at least in rhetoric — remains an ideal, what exactly constitutes running up the score? And how far should a coach reasonably be expected to go to keep a score respectable?
Are you rubbing it in if your third-teamers are reaching the end zone at will? What if you're passing late in the game? What if you're a running team that is passing — with an inexperienced quarterback — late in the game?
"Running up the score," Henriquez said, "is probably in the eye of the beholder."
Sickles' Pat O'Brien, who has been on both sides of the argument, remembers his team holding a six- or seven-touchdown lead when his backup quarterback audibled to a pass play. O'Brien regretted the score, but the quarterback — a backup, mind you — did what he had been taught.
"There are some things that happen in the score that are not really the coach's fault," O'Brien said.
But in most cases, when one team is head-and-shoulder pads above the other, the margin of triumph can be dictated. In those situations, some coaches say, avoid embarrassing the teen-agers on the opposite sideline at all costs.
"You know when you have the upper hand," Countryside coach John Davis said.
"Let's say the other team just can't stop your perimeter. You're faster than they are and any time you're outside, your kid is gone. You know what, don't do that anymore. I'm not saying take a knee every time, but do some other things you can work on."
Ridgewood coach Chris Taylor insists he was doing just that in the second half of last season's 42-13 rout of Mitchell, when the Rams tried a few passes and quarterback T.J. Haab finished with 133 aerial yards.
"We were up (28-0) at halftime and we started working on throwing the ball and everybody was like, 'Oh, they're trying to run up the score,' " Taylor said.
"Actually, we're doing the one thing we weren't very good at. If I had kept pounding the football we probably could've scored four or five more times.
"But in people's eyes, that was running up the score."
So the dilemma perpetuates.
Should Gulf's Jay Fulmer have reinserted tailback Adrian "Bubba" Golden in the waning minutes of the Bucs' 52-28 win Friday at Ridgewood so he could reach the 400-yard rushing mark? Maybe that's a rhetorical question. Or a rational one.
"You ain't running it up on the coach," Davis said. "You're running it up on the kids."
"It's really a matter of respect," Henriquez said. "And unfortunately what's feeding it these days is Rivals.com and who's being offered (scholarships) … and people are trying to run up their stats against lesser opponents so at the end of the day they can be all-whatever.
"Really, it's poisoning high school athletics, as far as I'm concerned."
In Fulmer's case, he picked his poison. He reinserted Golden, who eclipsed the 400-mark and finished with what is believed to be one of the 10 best rushing nights in Florida prep history.
"In no way is that intended as a slap in (Ridgewood's) face or anything," Fulmer said. "But when a kid is that close you want to make sure he gets the yardage."
Fulmer insists he was equally unfazed three years ago when he took his first Bucs team to eventual Class 2B state champ Ocala Trinity Catholic and lost 66-0. Afterward, in fact, he said he congratulated then-Trinity coach Kerwin Bell.
Show some mercy
Those who are more cognizant of the scoreboard generally have some rules of thumb regarding one-sided matchups.
Of the dozen or so local coaches interviewed, most agree on these points: When the outcome is clear, empty your bench; the sooner the better. Let the backups run the normal offense (those kids deserve to play also), but if they start lighting it up, ease off and work on facets of the offense in which you're weak.
And by all means, encourage the state's mercy rule, which allows the losing coach to request a running game clock if his team is down by 35 or more points after halftime. The running clock becomes mandatory if the point differential is 35 or more after the third quarter.
"You can beat a team 24-0 or something like that, you don't have to beat them 61-0," Shorecrest coach Phil Hayford said.
Yet even that concept is easier stated than executed.
Armwood coach Sean Callahan insists he wasn't trying to run things up when his eventual state championship team clubbed King 84-0 in 2004. A St. Petersburg Times report from that game partially validates that claim, indicating Armwood ran 31 plays, the clock ran continuously after halftime and star tailback Demetrius McCray had only seven carries.
"It was sad," Callahan said.
But then-Lions coach Joe Severino insists a bunch of other Hawks starters remained in the game.
"You don't score 84 points with your third team in there," Severino said. "He can say whatever he wants to say."
Sometimes words, or a succession of dive plays, aren't enough.
"In each instance it can differ," Henriquez said. "There can be one situation where one team just dominates another team to the extent where they're just so much better."