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Quotes and news about the contrarian advantage from all fields

Posted by John Reed on

These are quotes and news items that I have come across that confirm the value of the contrarian approach to various fields. I advocate it both in football coaching (See my book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense) and in active investment strategies. My explanations and comments are in [red].

Chessmaster Garry Kasparov

What separates a winner from a loser at the grandmaster level is the willingness to do the unthinkable. A brilliant strategy is, certainly, a matter of intelligence, but intelligence without audaciousness is not enough. I must have the guts to explode the game, to upend my opponent’s thinking and, in so doing, unnerve him.

From Michael Lewis’s (author of Blindside) book The Big Short

…[Cornwall Capital money manager] Charlie Ledley—was odd in his belief that the best way to make money on Wall Street was to seek out whatever it was that Wall Street believed was least likely to happen, and bet on its happening. Charlie and his partners had done this often enough, and had had enough success, to know that the markets were predisposed to underestimating the likelihood of dramatic change.

I believe the same is true of football defensive coordinators and defensive players

I almost think the better the idea, and the more iconoclastic the investor, the more likely you will be screamed at by investors.Dr. Michael Burry, one of the few guys who made over $100 betting against subprime mortgages

The same applies to creative, highly effective football offenses and their coaches.

A-11 team success and reasons

West Valley 49, Perris High School 10: 10/23/09

Here's something to think about if you're not sure about using this offense:  Last night we rushed for 260 yards and 4 TD's and threw for 160 with 3 TD's. We did most of the damage using our spread and trips formations. We also used our "nickel" formations for big yards. We stayed with our "tradional" stuff because they couldn't align properly defensively. It got to the point whatever formation we used they were "lost." They became so confused with our moving around that they lined up with seven in the box versus base. They luckily called time out before we got off our bubble screen to the left side of the formation.

The defensive coordinator from Perris came over to me after the game and explained that they had to spend so much time in practice trying to defend our 3-3-1. 1-3-3, base, and nickel formations they couldn't spend enough time in practice defending spread or trips. Thus, a huge advantage for us!  We are now 2-0 in league and 4-3 for the season.

West Valley, CA coach TomWallace

Air Force film useless

My local Pac-10 football team Cal is about to play Minnesota. They cannot find much useful film of Minnesota’s defense. Why? Minnesota has a new defensive coordinator. They’ve only played two opponents and one was the U.S. Air Force Academy. What’s wrong with looking at the Air Force film to see how Minnesota’s defense works?

Air Force is contrarian, specifically, they run a spread option. Here are comments from my local paper.

The Bears won’t bother watching much of that came because the defensive schemes employed against the Falcons will be nothing like what Cal will see Saturday. ...Cal coach Jeff Tedford said, “Every time Air Force is on somebody’s schedule, you pretty much have to throw that game out because everybody does something specific to the option that they typically don’t do on an every-down basis.”

Since Cal does not run the contrarian option, seeing how Minnesota defends the option—which requires a totally different defense than what you would use against non-option teams—is useless for figuring out how Minnesota will defend against Cal.

It also begs the question of what film Air Force’s offense looks to see how they will be defended. The implication is that they would have to throw out almost every film of their opponent. I discuss that problem of contrarian offenses—no way to anticipate how the next opponent will defend against you because your offense is unique—on page 11 of The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense. Mainly, you need to be more flexible and better at figuring out what they are doing and adjusting for it during the game in question. Once you play a team more than one season, if their defensive coordinator remains the same, you can see what they did last year. Also, as time goes on, opponents usually create a sort of informal scouting combine against you and their approach tends to become more uniform.

Evolutionary biology

In his book A Demon of Our Own Design, author Richard Bookstaber makes a statement based on evolutionary biology that applies to defenses that have never before seen, and therefore are not ready for, your contrarian offense.

If the world changes in ways beyond the animal’s experience, however, the animal will die off. Precision and focus in addressing the known comes at the cost of reduced ability to address the unknown.

That’s why you get an edge when you use an unknown approach to offense. By focusing extremely hard on stopping traditional offenses, they have made themselves actually less able to stop your contrarian offense.

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article

The 5/11/09 New Yorker had a great article about applying contrarianism to basketball and warfare. It also applies to football. I highly recommend you read it.

The Wow Boys

In December, 2008, I read the book The Wow Boys by James Johnson. The Wow Boys were the undefeated 1940 Stanford Rose Bowl team. They were contrarian because they reintroduced the T formation with a man in motion. The T had been used in the 1890s then forgotten until 1940, Here are some noteworthy things from the book.

In 2002, ESPN TV named the modern T Formation the number 2 sports innovation of all time after baseball free agency.

According to 1940 Stanford head coach Clark Shaughnessy, his T used finesse, deception, and speed and attacking the entire width of the playing field to succeed.

At Loyola of the South College, Shaughnessy used shifts, double shifts, and triple shifts. There are 17 index entries for the word “shift” in my new book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense.

Page 29 of The Wow Boys pushes brush blocking. My contrarian book advocates it on p. 144. That Wow page also pushes game theory without calling it that; Contrarian Edge, on your different pages.

Coach Shaughnessy was big on having the players wear the lightest possible uniforms and equipment to maximize their speed and minimize their fatigue.

Shaughnessy sometimes sent plays into the huddle on 5x7 cards which the messenger then stuffed into his pants. I did the exact same thing only with message pad memos, in 1996.

Here is Coach Shaughnessy talking about innovative coaches and non-innovative ones and why.

It’s a matter of self preservation. Coaches get fired when they lose, and even when they win sometimes. So they just follow the line of least resistance and go with the pack. If a coach dares try something new and it flops, he gets fired because he’s a screwball and only a stupid person would attempt such a thing. But if he tries something [that was] successful with another team and it fails, he’s got a perfect out. He can blame it on the material, and keep his job, particularly if he’s a good apple-polisher [ass kisser].

It doesn’t make a heck of a lot of difference what you do. Just make it new. [or old I would add—like the T formation was when Shaughnessy brought it back in 1940.]



Warren Buffett on contrarianism

On page 86 of his book Enough John Bogle quotes richest man in the world Warren Buffett on innovation:

What the wise man does at the beginning, the fool does in the end.

There are three i’s in every cycle: first the innovator, then the imitator, and finally the idiot.

More game theory thinking

I said in Contrarian that it would be good to have your opponent know you are calling plays randomly (if you are) because it would make him and his defenders paranoid and tentative. They would yell, “Base! Base!” to stay in their most conservative, all purpose, most-practiced defense. But as I study more game theory, I wonder if the optimum mixture of unpredictability would be to keep the opponent thinking you have patterns or tendencies when you do not, rather than making sure they know that you have no patterns at all. You could do this by calling plays randomly and keeping it a secret. At the high school and lower levels, it would probably take years for your opponents to stop seeing patterns and tendencies where there were none. At the college and pro levels, they would figure it out faster because of more sophisticated scouting and movement of coaches and players at the end of every season.

At those levels, you could go by “The Book” from time to time, that is, have some traditional tendencies—just enough to make them think you have tendencies and waste time analyzing and teaching them to their players. Then go random in your play calling some of the time or most of the time. Ideally, you would run the play that the defense is least ready for, the one play they do not to see you run when they are in that defense. That would probably take on-field audibles by your QB or other offensive field captain.

I also think we are missing a whole dimension of scouting the opponent’s defense. Most defenses have tendencies with regard to situation, field position, offensive personnel, and offensive formation. Offensive coaches need to identify those defensive tendencies and call plays accordingly. For example, if your upcoming opponent always puts in a nickel package when it’s 3rd and more than 5, you would want to call plays that attack the weak points in the nickel defense. For example, a nickel package is probably not what the defense would want to be in if you lined up in a double-tight-end eight-man line and ran a quarterback-keep double-lead play to the bubble in the defensive line.

Whenever the offense is in a non-neutral situation, the defense will probably do something predictable following what radio and TV announcers call “The Book.” (neutral is 1st and 10, 2nd and 6, 3rd and 2) For example, in 4rth and one they will get into a gap-8 if you are not in a kicking formation. So run a play that is good against the gap-8, i.e., not a trap or run inside the tight ends. Faking a run inside the tight ends would be good.



Offensive coaches have their own situation tendencies, but those tendencies ignore the defense. That’s backwards. Start with what the defense is likely to do then attack the weak points of that defense when you get into a situation where the opponent’s defense becomes predictable.

‘Hate, hate’

I saw former Miami and Notre Dame coach Bob Davie interviewed about the 2008 Notre Dame-Navy game. He said defensive players “hate, hate” playing against Navy because they run what he called the “wishbone.” Actually, I believe it is the flex-bone triple option. The wishbone is a formation out of which a triple option offense was run in the 1970s. Neither Navy nor anyone else runs the wishbone formation any more.

In my Contrarian book, I repeatedly said the option offense was great contrarian stuff. I also said that with a contrarian approach, you are trying to “bother” the defense—to use Urban Meyer’s word. When they “hate, hate” what you are doing, you are bothering them. Sounds like another “mating call” of the contrarian coach’s opponents.

11/7/08 Wall Street Journal

In a brief item title “The Clipboard Intellectuals,” Darren Everson said,

Mike Leach, the Texas Tech football coach with a law degree is the latest in a breed of clipboard brainiacs who’ve brought intellectualism to athletic outposts. A common thread among coaches with advanced degrees is an innovative risk-taking bent that pressures opponents.

The article then cites the additional examples of college basketball coach Tom Davis (Ph.D. in history), Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa (a member of my homeowners association and holder of a law degree), and Hall of Fame Bills coach Marv Levy (whom I interviewed at length for my Football Clock Management and holder of master’s degree from Harvard. When I talked to Levy, I suggested that he and I and Homer Smith form the Overeducated Football Coaches Association. All three of us have advanced degrees from Harvard.).

I am not sure I agree with Everson’s theory. You would need to be more rigorous and answer the questions:

• What percentage of coaches overall are innovative risk-takers? [Innovative risk-taker may be redundant. See some of the quotes below.]
• What percentage of coaches with advanced degrees are innovative risk-takers?

It may be that the percentage of coach who have advanced degrees and are innovative risk-takers is the same as, or even lower than, the percentage of such coaches who do not have advanced degrees. Anecdotal evidence like Everson’s is not very persuasive. Having said that, however, I do not know Tom Davis, but I have talked to Leach, LaRussa, and Levy about advanced coaching tactics (I also wrote a baseball-coaching book.) and admire all three of them greatly. (I do not care for Smith.) I do suspect that advanced-degree-holding coaches do better than typical gym rat coaches who had little interest in academics when they were students. For example, there have been three major league baseball managers who had law degrees. Two are in the Hall of Fame. The other is Tony LaRussa.



The Art of Strategy: The Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life

From The Art of Strategy: The Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life by Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff to mix moves when any systematic action can be exploited by the other player, how to change a game to your advantage, and how to manipulate information in strategic interaction.

The key lesson of game theory is to put yourself in the other player’s shoes.

Risky innovations are [underdog’s] best and perhaps only chance of gaining market share [winning].

The importance of randomized strategies was one of the early insights of game theory.

Mixing your plays does not mean rotating your strategies in a predictable manner. Your opponent can observe and exploit any systematic pattern almost as easily as he can exploit an unchanging repetition of a single strategy. It is unpredictability that is important when mixing. [emphasis in original]

The importance of randomized strategies was one of the early insights of game theory.

We warn you that some of the strategies that are good for achieving these goals may not earn you the love of your rivals.

That last sentence echoes my book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense in some of the “mating calls of the contrarian coach’s opponents” like, “When are you gonna stop running that @#$%^& offense?” or “It may be legal, but it’s not football.!”

The Art of Strategy says there is a new field called behavioral game theory. Sounds interesting and pertinent to contrarian football. Behavioral economics is a combination of psychology and economics. It mainly reflects the fact that people often behave irrationally and predictably irrational. Indeed, there is a book called Predictably Irrational about that subject which I reviewed.

On page 57, Art of Strategy says,

Long-run progress and success of a society [or team] need innovation and change. These in turn require individualism and a willingness to defy social norms and conventional wisdom; selfishness often accompanies these characteristics.

That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: George Bernard Shaw said,



The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Art of Strategy says over and over that when you are trying to anticipate what the other coach or opposing players will do, you must not assume they think like you or share your tastes or preferences. I have often observed that coach A spends a lot of time making sure he stops opponent coach B from doing the things that coach A likes to do. I’ve done it myself. For example, I kicked onside the vast majority of the time. To prevent that from being done to me, I put six rather than five guys on the front line of my kick return team. But I never faced a coach who kicked onside more than at the end of a game in which they were behind. Stupid!

Texas Tech-Texas, 11/1/08

The Saturday morning 11/1/08 San Francisco Chronicle had a Jake Curtis story headlined “Ready to shine.” The subheadline was “Texas Tech’s [coach Mike] Leach is just a win away from stardom.”

It further said Leach would “gain immediate national fame as a wacky offensive genius if the [#6] Red Raiders knock off No. 1 Texas in Lubbock on Saturday.”

Tech did just that winning 39-33 in the last second, literally.

Other comments about Leach in the story:

• Leach doesn’t go by the book in anything he says or does
• Leach does for it on fourth down at unlikely times (Texas Tech has the same number of fourth-down attempts as punts in the last two years.)
• he is probably the person most responsible for the popularity of the passing spread offense
• if [Tech] beat[s] the Longhorns, Leach will make that public-perception leap from coaching curiosity to eccentric mastermind.

The public and sports writers are slow learners. I have been pointing to Leach as an example of a top contrarian coach for some time. He is mentioned—along with Urban Meyer, Chris Peterson, and Gus Malzahn—in my book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense.

I got to know Leach a little when he and I were clinic speakers an the American Football Quarterly Universities held in Fort Worth and Orlando in 1998 and 1999. My Football Clock Management book had just come out and I was a regular columnist for that magazine. When we were at Fort Worth, he was the offensive coordinator for Hal Mumme at Kentucky whose quarterback was Heisman finalist Tim Couch. In orlando, he was the offensive coordinator of Oklahoma.

Mike’s success is, in part, a testament in favor of contrarianism in football offense. Although the longer his offense gets famous and imitated, the less contrarian it will become. Contrarianism is about being different, not using the spread or the spread option or any particular formation.

Miami versus New England, 9/21/08



Miami defeated New England 38-13 in a game where Miami ran six single-wing plays, four of which went for touchdowns. This is an example of the power of contrarianism in football offense. My book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense urges readers to use unusual or unique approaches. They can be either old or new or both. The single wing, which was invented by Pop Warner, is old and out-of-fashion.

Some media accounts refer to what Miami did as a “direct snap.” That means the ball was snapped directly to the running back instead of to a quarterback who then gave it to a running back. That is correct, but the single wing is a more specific way to describe it. I also have written a number of other books about the single wing including:

Single Wing Offense for Youth Football
Coaching Youth Football
Coaching Youth Flag Football

Miami also ran their single wing, which they call “Wildcat,” against San Diego on 10/5/08, once again, with great success.

New England’s Belichick, apparently learning from Miami, put in his own single-wing play and successfully used it against the Niners on 10/5/08.

Contrarianism rules.

Game theory in Logic of Life book

I discuss a branch of mathematics called game theory in the Play Calling chapter of Contrarian Edge on pages 170 and 171. Author Tim Harford also discusses game theory at some length in the Las Vegas chapter of his 2008 book The Logic of Life.

A [poker] player who never bluffs never wins a big pot, because on the rare occasion that he raises the betting, everyone else will fold before committing much money.

Optimal success comes when you combine bluffing (pretending to be strong when you are weak) or reverse bluffing (pretending to be weak when you are strong) with some non-bluffing (acting strong when you are strong). Always bluffing or never bluffing simply reveals your secrets to the enemy. In football, you bluff or reverse bluff with formations, statements to the press, personnel packages, and going against your tendencies with regard to play calling.

Harford says game theory dictates that you should bet when you have good cards or awful ones, but not when you have mediocre cards. Over the long run, the strategy that works best is occasionally bluffing when you have awful cards. It is the only way you can win if you have awful cards. Similarly, if you have bad football players, a heavy dose of every coaching trick in the book, including application of game theory, is the only way your going to win.



The worse the opponent is, the less useful the strategy is. For example, I often comment that subtle fakes rarely work in youth football because the linebackers are too blind to see them. Similarly, when you are against a dumb coach, you need to just capitalize on his stupidity. Game theory assumes the opponent is smart. If he’s not, it won’t work or it will take a much longer time to work. But generally, the coaches of your toughest opponents are smart.

Steve Jobs’ advice

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Steve Jobs, Apple CEO in 2008 commencement address at Stanford University

Most confident when everyone else thinks I’m nuts

‘[Ken] Heebner is a true contrarian who says he’s most confident as an investor “when everyone else thinks I’m nuts’.” Fortune Magazine 6/9/08 [Ken Heebner is the most successful investor in recent history. He beat the market by 20% over the last ten years.]

Beaten path

The beaten path is the safest but the traffic’s terrible. founder Jeff Taylor

Innovation: the Attacker’s Advantage book

From the 1986 book Innovation: The Attacker’s Advantage by Richard Foster: [my words to show how the statement applies equally to football offense]

most companies [football coaches] hold on to current technologies [fashionable offenses] far too long and abandon new ones far too quickly because they do not understand the deceptive curve on which new technology [offensive schemes, techniquest, and tactics] develops—slowly at first, then rapidly, then slowly again as it approaches inevitable limits.

No amount of marketing [say conditioning in football] or “back-to-basics” or fine-tuning of corporate culture [football practice] can save a company [team] if the wrong technology [scheme, technique, tactic] decision is made.

...they must be close to ruthless in cannibalizing their current products and processes [football offense] just when they are most lucrative [successful], and begin the search [for the optimal offensive scheme, techniques, and tactics] again over and over. competitor [opponent defenses] must be nearing its limits, while other [offensive coache]s, perhaps less experienced, are exploring alternative technologies [contrarian football offenses] with higher limits.

[New offenses] are technological discontinuities [abrupt, dramatic changes in the way things are done]. The results of discontinuity are almost always brutal for the defenders.

The defender, lulled by the security of strong economic [past defensive success] for a long time and by conventional management [coaching] wisdom that encourages him to stay his course, finds it’s too late to respond. The final battle is swift and the leader loses. [He is] doomed by doing too little, too late.

In short, when it comes to technology [football offense] the best strategy may be to do the unfamiliar...A frightening prospect personally and professionally.



He need not be a scientist, but he must be somebody who understands how science and innovation develop, someone with the the conviction to insist that the company [team] abandon its technology [old scheme] and skill base when everything in classic economic [conventional coaching wisdom] terms is going well, someone with a thick skin to endure the criticism that will come when the first steps toward new products and processes inevitably go astray or prove disappointing.

The process [of improving your current offense] can also work the other way as technological [player] limits are approached. Rather than showing more and more progress with less and less effort, each new step makes less and less progress. [In other words, the longer everyone has been using a particular approach to offense, the harder it is to improve the effectiveness of that offense within your team. At that point, it’s easier to make great progress improving your team only with a new offense that others have not mastered.]

Moving into a new technology [approach to offense] almost always appears to be less efficient than staying with present technology [approaches to offense] because of the need to bring the new technology up to speed. [But in the long run, the new approach, when perfected, will be more effective than the old one that everyone has been defending for decades.]

The actions necessary to cross technological discontinuities [perfect a contrarian offense] frequently attract criticism, sometimes rightly so because they are often questionable and risky.

There are always people who resist change, even resent it, especially old-timers who have been working under a familiar system for many years.

Google founder

From Google founder Larry Page in the 5/12/08 Fortune article “Larry Page on How to Change the World.”

Breakthrough ideas are around the corner but most of us are failing to take a chance on them....a world of timidity; not enough people are willing to place the big bets that could make a difference...

Almost everyone who has an idea that’s somewhat revolutionary or wildly successful was first told they’re insane.

Origin of the Species

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

Tiger Woods changed his swing—knowing it would make him worse first but later, better

Page 153 of the book More Than You Know by Michael J. Mauboussin says Tiger Woods got his coach Butch Harmon to help him revamp his swing. He got worse in the short term, but better in the long term. Same is true of making significant contrarian changes to a football team.

From 7/97 to 2/99, he only won one PGA Tour event. In the spring of 1999, he said,

Winning is not always the barometer of getting better.

He then won 10 of the next 14 events in 1999. He subsequently became the first golfer to be reigning champ in all four majors simultaneously.



David F. Swensen, Chief Investment Officer, Yale university in his book Pioneering Portfolio Management

“...investment success requires sticking with positions made uncomfortable by their variance with popular opinion.”

“Playing follow the leader exposes institutional assets to substantial risk.”

“Over time, managers in efficient markets gravitate toward closet indexing, structuring portfolios with only modest deviations from the market, ensuring both mediocrity and survival.”

[“Closet indexing” means pretending to be innovative and unique while really buying almost every stock in the stock market so that your results will never deviate too much below the market in general. It is analogous to a football coach who uses the same offense as everyone else, not because he thinks it gives his team the greatest chance for success, but because he thinks it minimizes the chances that he will get criticized and/or fired. He should be fired for failure to use a unique offense.]

“Managers searching among unloved opportunities face greater chances of success, along with almost certain tirades of criticism in the event of failure.”

“Analyst earnings estimates tend to hug the consensus. Going out on a limb, while occasionally rewarding, places the analyst’s reputation at risk.”

[No guts, no glory.]

“In efforts to innovate, entrepreneurs encourage experimentation, accepting occasional shortfalls as the price paid for potential gains. Repeated failure precedes success in most entrepreneurial endeavors, requiring an organizational culture that encourages experimentation and accepts mistakes. By explicitly permitting failure but holding down its costs, investment organizations create an environment allowing managers to construct truly novel investment portfolios.”

“Bureaucrats employ conventional wisdom and seek consensus, punishing failure quickly and ruthlessly.”

“The courage to pursue nonconventional paths proves essential to building a successful investment program.”

“Long-term success requires individualistic contrarian behavior based on a foundation of sound investment principles.”

Quotes from the Mind of Bill James by Scott Gray
Author Bill James has partly revolutionized baseball by studying it in a scientific way. At first, he was ignored by the baseball establishment. More recently, his ideas have been heralded in the book Moneyball and by the fact that he was hired by the Red Sox not long before they won their first two World Series in a very long time. The book about James has a number of quotes that are good for explaining why this Web site is needed.

Take nothing on looks; take everything on evidence. There is no better rule.
Charles Dickens in Great Expectations

Teams despised what they saw as outsiders, troublemakers. It was a real culture battle—tough guys against analytical guys. Career baseball people saw us as unworthy. Like in any society, there was a fear of change, a loss of control.
Randy Hendricks, Major League Baseball agent and Bill James fan



To understand baseball without reference to its statistics is an absurdity, like understanding American politics without reference to elections. The only choices are—use statistics carefully, or use them loosely.
Given an option, all men prefer to reject information.
Bill James

Misguided faith leads to stubborn repetition of foolish decisions.
Scott Gray

In God we trust; all others bring data.
W. Edwards Deming, renowned quality control expert who gets much credit for the quality of modern Japanese products

…it is singular how long the rotten will hold together, provided you do not handle it roughly. For whole generations it continues standing, “with a ghastly affectation of life,” after all life and truth has fled out of it: so loathe are men to quit the old ways, and conquering indolence and inertia, venture on new.
Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution

…most people want to believe rather than to know, to take for granted rather than to find out
James Thurber

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