By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
On Saturday, West Virginia University went into Miami and blew a 13-point lead and lost a game it could have and should have won.
Rest assured, that never would have happened in the Coliseum.
For whatever reason, teams are different away from home.
It doesn’t seem to matter which sport. It doesn’t seem to matter professional or collegiate.
You just can’t beat home cooking.
That, however, is strange. Why should it be? You play on a baseball field and the bases are 90 feet apart, the pitcher’s mound 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. A football field, unless you go to Canada, is 100 yards long. A basket is 10-feet high in every arena.
Yet, a trip as short as 80 miles, from Pittsburgh to Morgantown or vice versa, can be a journey of a thousand miles for an athletic team.
Consider the numbers.
In the NFL this year home teams are 107-85 for a .558 winning percentage, road teams 87-110 for .442 winning percentage.
In major league baseball last year home teams won at .537 clip, road teams at a .465, a figure that might even have been closer to even had not the Pittsburgh Pirates gone 17-65 on the road.
In the NBA this year the winning percentage at home is .607 with 187 victories and 121 defeats.
And in the Big East last year – a number that is inflated because top college basketball teams bring in many teams they should beat such as WVU and Robert Morris Tuesday night while not traveling to such place – home teams were 204-69 for .747 winning percentage while on the road Big East teams played at just a .416 clip.
So, what happens?
Bob Huggins has been around as a head coach almost 30 years and knows a little something about it.
“It’s got a lot to do with familiarity. It’s got a lot to do with confidence,” he said. “I think guys play with a lot more confidence at home and that’s a big part of it. Sometimes, on the road, when a couple of things don’t go your way you probably lose confidence and don’t play as freely as you would at home.”
It happened at Miami. When things turned against them, the Mountaineers couldn’t get it going back their way.
Some would have you believe it is the crowd, but Huggins doesn’t believe that’s as big an influence as you may think.
“I think what it does is add confidence and enthusiasm to the home team,” he said.
More important, though, Huggins said, is the personalities on your team, a statement that may really touch on the heart of the matter.
“I know Nick Van Excel (when Huggins coached at Cincinnati) used to say all the time it was more fun to play on the road,” Huggins said. “That wasn’t a knock on the 13,176 that went into Shoemaker. It was more of a challenge. That group enjoyed it, but that was an extremely confident bunch of guys.”
A few years back ESPN.com did an article about the home-field advantage in the NFL and what it took to win on the road, and it seemed that the players believed it came down to the type of players on a team.
“When you walk into a (road) environment, you want as many
character guys walking in there with you as you can get, because at some point on the road, something negative is going to happen, and it’s how you respond to that incident that determines the outcome,” said Montae Reagor, a defensive tackle with the Indianapolis Colts in 2006. “And leaders always respond better to those kinds of things. You’ve got to have a focus, a single-mindedness, and tough people have that.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Farrior put it this way:
“They talk about road warriors, but good teams are warriors no matter where they play,” Farrior said.
Finding the right formula is an age-old quest for coaches. Arizona’s Sean Miller, when he was at Xavier and had a number of difficult road games ahead, asked his friend and long-time coach Larry Brown for some advice. This is what he sent him:
1. Be a family … Develop trust in each other, the staff and the system. Work together to win as a team.
2. Be a playmaker … Always play to win — don’t play not to lose. Be aggressive in your approach. What do you have to lose?
3. Work hard and concentrate … Be willing to prepare to win. Know the scouting report and your team’s game plan. How can you win when you don’t know what you’re doing?
4. Silence the crowd … Enjoy the atmosphere and the challenge of doing it. There is nothing more fun than winning on the road. Have fun doing it.
5. Better than anyone … To win on the road you must defend.
Huggins understands exactly what Brown was trying to get across. He went through it all when he arrived at WVU.%
“When I first got here we were very tentative playing on the road. We got better and better at it. We’ll get better at it,” he said.
The Mountaineers need to, four of the next six games are on the road including Big East trips to Marquette, DePaul and Georgetown.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.