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Supreme Court Rejects Diversity Plan in Air Force Offense

Conservative majority strikes down Calhoun playbook's "pass quota."

WASHINGTON, June 28 -- In a decision of sweeping importance to playcallers, recruits and defensive coordinators across the Mountain West Conference and the nation, the Supreme Court today sharply limited the ability of the Air Force Academy to implement a proposed plan to include more passing in its offense.

The court voted, 5 to 4, to reject diversity plans from the academy's new coaching staff, declaring that the coaches had failed to meet "their heavy burden" of justifying "the extreme means they have chosen -- completely eliminating the highly distinctive and successful flexbone in making playcalling assignments," as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court.

Today's decision, one of the most important in years on the issue of run-pass balance, need not entirely eliminate the forward pass as a factor in calling plays, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a separate opinion. But it will surely prompt many programs to review and perhaps revise systems they already have in place, or go back to the drawing boards in designing plays. Shortly after the decision, Minnesota announced plans to scrap the pro-style, "spread" offense it was preparing to run this fall, likely facilitating a return to the trademark pulling and trapping of its zone-blocking attack.

Air Force coaches cannot force Shaun Carney to throw 20 times per game, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
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Chief Justice Roberts said the officials in Colorado Springs had failed to show that their plans considered the pass in the context of a larger philosophical concept, such as the West Coast or Run and Shoot, and therefore did not pass muster.

"In the present cases," Chief Justice Roberts wrote, recalling words from an earlier Supreme Court ruling, Tiller v. Big Ten, "passing is not considered as part of a broader effort to achieve 'exposure to widely diverse formations, substitution patterns and crowd-pleasing trick plays,'" such as the flea flicker, as required by the Tiller ruling.

"Even as to the pass," he went on, "the plans here employ only a limited notion of diversity, viewing passing exclusively in option/nonoption terms, rarely considering the myriad draws and screens that blur the distinctions in other such programs."

In the now familiar lineup, Justices Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. sided with the chief justice on most points.

Rather than working toward a level of diversity and its "purported benefits," the chief justice wrote, the coaches had "worked backwards to achieve a particular type of offensive 'balance.'"

"This is a fatal flaw," the ruling said. "When it comes to using the pass for the sake of the pass itself, history will be heard."

The four dissenters wrote, in effect, that the majority was standing history on its head. Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that today's result "threatens to substitute for present innovation a disruptive round of run-pass litigation, and it undermines Tiller's promise of integrated balance that offensive coordinators have long sought to make a reality."

Justice Breyer's dissent was joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens, the tribunal's longest-serving member, who wrote a separate dissent that was remarkable for its feeling.

"While I join Justice Breyer's eloquent and unanswerable dissent in its entirety, it is appropriate to add these words," Justice Stevens wrote. "There is a cruel irony in the chief justice's reliance on our decision in Tiller v. Big Ten."

Justice Kennedy's opinion concurring in part with Chief Justice Roberts, and with the overall judgment, agreed that the Air Force plans went too far. However, in language that some people on the losing side found heartening, he said that passing may still be a component of plans to achieve diversity in the offense.

"Diversity, depending on its meaning and definition, is a compelling offensive goal a coaching staff may pursue," he wrote.

But Don Coryell, an innovator of the pass-first offense at San Diego State and a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, said that today's ruling means that "run-pass balance" will be "the new catchphrase conservatives will use to attempt to eradicate any form of multi-receiver sets."

As for Justice Kennedy's "willingness to leave the door open to some forms of non-play-action passing," it will be impossible as a practical matter, Coryell said.

Troy Calhoun reacts to the Supreme Court's decision to strike down his NFL-influenced playbook: "Ruling creates 'dangerous chilling effect' for playcallers."
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The decision today runs to some 169 pages, including the dissents. It was eagerly awaited by the coaching staffs of Minnesota and Arizona as well as the Council of Spread Option Coordinators, representing offenses in Florida, Illinois, Northwestern, Missouri, West Virginia and sometimes Arkansas, which had filed briefs on behalf of Air Force and had warned of disruption if the justices overturned lower court rulings upholding the diversity plans.

The Bush administration participated as a "friend of the court" on behalf of the plaintiffs who challenged the diversity plans.

One plaintiff was the mother of an option quarterback at Air Force whose son was denied a transfer when new coach Troy Calhoun announced a required passing minimum of 35 percent.

The other plaintiffs were parents who opposed the new staff's "tiebreaker" system, which applies only to the team's 10 longstanding option plays and is aimed at keeping the nonoption proportion of playcalls within 15 percentage points of the offense's overall makeup, which last year was more than 76 percent option.

Herman Dewey, lead attorney for the plaintiff-parents of the running quarterback, said his clients were "very pleased" with today's decision. "This case was about protecting all players – regardless of arm strength – from discrimination in the name of an arbitrary 'balance,'" he said.

Unlike the academies at Army and Navy, the Air Force offensive system was once run-oriented by law. Its current diversity plan was adopted in January, after the program emerged from 23 years of  supervision under Fisher DeBerry.