Better To Be Over-Prepped Or Under-Prepped For A Debate?: It Depends

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Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The narrative seems to be that Hillary Clinton’s debate prep involves lots of practice, while Donald Trump is going to wing it. Conventional wisdom suggests the former is wiser, but earlier today, I made a point on CNN that there are different philosophies for this.

And since it’s become popular to compare this debate to the Super Bowl (partly because 100 million Americans are expected to tune in), I made the observation that different NFL coaches also have different attitudes regarding how much to prep their teams for a Super Bowl.

I’m not sure everyone understood what I was getting at, so I’ll explain.

During the 1980 football season, Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil, then a consummate slave driver, forced his team to practice hard in the weeks leading up to the big game. This was in stark contrast to his opponent, the Oakland Raiders, who had a different way of preparing, and the results were not good:

Down in New Orleans, the rough-and-gruff Raiders hit Bourbon Street, drinking and carousing and enjoying the experience with gusto. Vermeil refused to budge from his normal preparation, holding long practices and keeping the focus solely on the game.

“We had very little time to enjoy the Super Bowl atmosphere,” [former Eagles quarterback Ron] Jaworski said. “In hindsight, he probably wishes he would have let us relax a little more to really enjoy being part of the Super Bowl.”

Whatever the reason, the favored Eagles were flat and trailed, 14-0, in the first quarter. A touchdown pass from Jaworski to [Harold] Carmichael was erased on a holding penalty, and Jaworski threw three interceptions.

“We were so mentally spent,” [defensive back Herman] Edwards said. “When we got down to the Super Bowl, we were a tired team. When we walked on the football field, we were mentally tired. We didn’t have any energy.”

In fairness, a few years later, the Washington Redskins would lose to the same Oakland Raiders by virtue of the exact opposite strategy. As former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs later admitted, he regretted the lax atmosphere he permitted heading into Super Bowl XVIII:

“Well, I’ve got to tell you guys that I made a real mistake [in] the one Super Bowl we lost. This is a true statement. In the other three Super Bowls, the ones that we won, I told the guys, ‘Look, we need to be in early’. I kind of enforced that even though their families were there. And always the night before the game we moved to another site, where I could have a good night with them, we could be in meetings and keep everything quiet.

But in Tampa, it’s well documented that Russ Grimm [chuckle] decided that he would turn the guys loose on the town. … I think you need to have a bed check. I told the guys enjoy all the things you’re going to get to enjoy about the Super Bowl, but there’s times that you need to be totally isolated, studying the game plan. Practices were very important. I told them that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

There’s a fine line between being prepared and being over-prepared. And tonight, when Tracy Flick meets Jeff Spicoli, we’re going to find out which extreme is the worst.

Matt K. Lewis