Adopting overtime has built 20 years of thrills into college football: An oral history

Gary Pinkel used to coach with a Thursday checklist he adopted from his mentor, Don James. Each Thursday, Pinkel and his staff double-checked anything that could possibly happen in the upcoming college football game.

Good luck coming up with a Thursday checklist for overtime in 1995, when major college football experimented during bowl games with the tiebreaker.

Pinkel holds the distinction of winning the first Division I-A (now Football Bowl Subdivision) overtime game by beating Nevada 40-37 at the Las Vegas Bowl.

But honestly, Pinkel didn't know what he was doing. He leaned on offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar, who once participated in Division I-AA overtime games, to decide the most basic question everyone knows the answer to today: Should you play offense or defense first in overtime?

"I remember people telling me our fans got mad and were booing when we went to overtime," Pinkel said. "They thought I was nuts, that I was crazy for going on defense. I think they were confusing it with sudden death in the NFL."

Twenty years after major college football permanently adopted overtime in 1996, the format to end tied games is thriving. About 32 FBS games go to overtime each year. Just mentioning overtime causes fans to switch channels to see the dramatic finish.

The 2016 season is on pace for the most overtime games in FBS history. So far there has been 24 overtime games (the FBS record is 45 in 2012), and 6 percent of all games this year have needed overtime.

Each team gets the ball at the 25-yard line. Unlike the NFL, each offense has a fair shot to score a touchdown or kick a field goal. In a sport where only a dozen or so teams ever win the national championship these days, overtime may be the fairest element in all of college football.

Except for a minor adjustment in 1997 to force teams to go for two points starting in the third extra period, overtime has not changed. Think about how hard that is to get overtime right the first time. People in college football often go kicking and screaming to make major changes (postseason playoff, instant replay, more conference games, safety rules, diversity among coaches). These changes often evolve over time.

But overtime flowed up from the lower college levels and high schools and basically stayed the same. That's remarkable given the pushback from some coaches who were against overtime 20 years ago. They only knew a world where national championships hinged on whether to play for win or tie. College football today exists in an environment where Arkansas' wild overtime win over Ole Miss in 2015 helped Alabama win the national title.

"Overtime has surpassed the greatest test of all -- the test of time," said former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, who was the NCAA rules committee chair when overtime was adopted in 1996.

What follows is an oral history of how overtime came to exist and what this extra time means to college football today.


'A loser says that's the way we've always done it '

The Kansas High School Activities Association first adopted football overtime in 1971 with a format often called the "Kansas Plan. " The NFL started overtime in 1974. The NCAA had its first overtime game in the 1976 Division III playoffs between Buena Vista and Carroll. Regular-season overtime was adopted for Division I-AA, Division II and Division III in 1981. Overtime was available for the SEC Championship Game when it started in 1992 but was never needed. Not until 1996 did Division I-A fully get on board.

Vince Dooley (Georgia AD/chair of NCAA rules committee in 1996): "I don't know that we ever thought about it until then in any great detail. Maybe we should have, but we hadn't. There was some precedence --people enjoyed of the great old tie football games, like Michigan State-Notre Dame [a famous 10-10 tie in 1966]. It was kind of accepted you battled your way out there and nobody deserved to win and nobody deserved to lose. The high schools were ahead of us on that."

Terry Bowden (Auburn coach in 1996): "I think a lot of us were not in favor of overtime. We didn't exactly know why [to] do it. The game would go longer. You thought about injuries and all kinds of stuff. I think what happened is ties had been a part of football, and it's something you learned to live with. College coaches don't like unknowns. I think most of us were happy settling for ties. I know looking back it makes a lot more sense to play overtime, but at that point in time, a good many of us were not really for it."

Steve Spurrier (Florida coach in 1996): "A winner says, 'What's the best way to do it?' A loser says, 'That's the way we've always done it.' I was for it. I think the old guard was concerned these poor football players would be playing over 60 minutes and they couldn't take it. It's like they used to say, 'Well, we can't play 12 or 13 or 14 games a year.' Gosh, it's ridiculous. It's an attitude they had back then that you're only supposed to play so many minutes."

Jim Delany (Big Ten commissioner in 1996): "It shows how hard it is to make change in college football."


Bowl game experiment

Former Big Ten and NCAA officiating coordinator Dave Parry, who died in 2008, played a major role in bringing overtime to Division I-A. Parry sold the NCAA rules committee on overtime. In 1995, Division I-A decided to experiment in bowl games. On Dec. 15, 1995, Wasean Tait 's 2-yard touchdown run won the first major college football overtime game for Toledo after Nevada had scored on its first possession.

Dooley: "I think we had seen starting overtime at the 25-yard line at a Tennessee high school game. I remember being in Nashville watching a playoff game go into overtime with that format. You could say the 30 or the 35 or whatever, but you didn't want to go any further than that. You need to have some conclusion that wouldn't extend the game too long. We thought some resolution would be solved by putting it close to the goal line."

Gary Pinkel (Toledo coach in 1995): "Going into [the 1995 Las Vegas Bowl], I thought overtime probably won't happen to us for three years, but sooner or later we've got to discuss it. We were in our Thursday checklist 48 hours before the game and that's when we first discussed it. Having Mike Dunbar was really good because it gave us someone who had done it before. This was nothing like the NFL."

Dooley: "We just didn't like the NFL model."

At the time, NFL overtime was sudden death and the team who won the coin flip gained an advantage.

"We were trying to get equity to each side. We thought our idea was much more exciting. Dave Parry sat with us a lot and was a real proponent of it. As he presented what he had in mind, it just made a lot of sense. We questioned him quite a bit on everything, but he had really thought it out well. Dave deserves a lot of credit. The only question I had was the length if it got entirely too long. I was even more convinced overtime would work after we had that experimental time with the bowl games."

Pinkel: "One thing we did was we clearly talked to our players and took time in practice to work on it. We had to make sure our captains knew what to do because the captains made all the decisions on the field with the coin flip. Playing that overtime was really unusual. This was before you really scripted overtime plays like you do now. It was totally foreign."


The end of the tie

On Feb. 16, 1996, Division I-A voted to require overtime in all games. Today, a generation of fans has never experienced the highs, lows and genuine weirdness of ties. A generation of coaches no longer faces decisions like Nebraska's Tom Osborne famously going for two and failing when trailing 31-30 with a national championship on the line at the 1984 Orange Bowl. Old coaches still debate the meanings of certain ties.


Jim Grobe, Bill Snyder, Brian Kelly, Terry Bowden, Rich Rodriguez and Nick Saban are the only active FBS coaches who have a college tie on their resume. The last Division I-A tie was Wisconsin 3, Illinois 3 on Nov. 25, 1995. Because ties counted against the number of wins needed to be bowl eligible, the Badgers missed a bowl in 1995 with a 4-5-2 record.

Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin coach in 1995): "What's a tie feel like? You finish a game, you feel empty. You feel like you've played an entire game and you've got no answer. You can't celebrate. Those ties cost us a bowl game. But if we were still playing, I don't think either of us [Wisconsin or Illinois] would have scored."

Dooley: "You had three different kinds of ties. You had a losing tie, where you felt like you totally outplayed the other team, and that's a disastrous disappointment. You have the other kind of tie, where you're really knocked around most of the day and you're happy as hell. And then you have one of those old ties where both of them battle and nobody deserved to win. It's like kissing your sister."

Bobby Bowden (Florida State coach in 1996): "There were several times we were No. 1, and if we had kicked it, we would have probably stayed 1. I might have another national championship or two. I coached for years and years without a tie. I wouldn't go for ties. I'd go for wins. My boosters used to get after me, 'Don't you wish you'd kicked [for the tie]?' No, it was the dang old hero thing. ... I can tell you the tie that felt like a win. Florida had us 31-3 with 12 minutes to go [in 1994] and we came back and tied that thing. I never had a tie feel so good. We scored four straight touchdowns against Spurrier. If Steve had quit throwing the ball, they would have easily won. They'd throw it again; we'd intercept it and score. I could have gone for two at the end, but I felt like we'd come too far to have a chance to lose."

Spurrier: "Hell, they could have probably made the two. Our defense was on its heels. So they settled for the tie, which I don't know what it meant. But I know if I was Nebraska when they played Miami [in 1984], I would have settled for the tie because a tie would have given Nebraska the national championship."

Jim McElwain (current Florida coach): "I think Tom Osborne's decision to go for two, when if he kicks it they're probably national champions, is the best call that's ever been made. You're trying to win the game."

Spurrier: "[Laughing] No, how much more can you win than the national championship? You've already won the conference championship. A tie wins the national championship."

Tom Osborne (Nebraska coach in 1984): "I guess I wish I had known that because I didn't know that somebody who settled for a tie would be awarded a national championship. I don't think I would have voted that way, and I voted on the Coaches Poll at the time. ... I think knowing what I knew then, I'd probably still do the same thing today. I thought this was for the national championship. If we had overtime, we probably would have kicked the point and played for overtime. We didn't have that option. That's one reason I was certainly very much in favor of overtime. My last year in '97, we clawed back and got overtime at Missouri and won, and it enabled us to have an undefeated season."

Nebraska forced overtime with a ridiculous touchdown when a ball was dropped and deflected off a receiver 's foot into the diving hands of another receiver, Matt Davison.

"I think there's no question if we had a tie we would not have been co-champions so things even out."


The two-point overtime mandate

On Feb. 14, 1997, the NCAA approved the requirement for two-point conversions to occur after touchdowns were scored, beginning in the third overtime. Dooley cited concerns about players getting injured in longer games.

In 1996, eight of the 49 overtime games in I-A and I-AA lasted three or more overtimes (16 percent). So far in 2016, 17 percent of overtime games have lasted three periods or longer.The mandate to go for two was influenced by Georgia 's 56-49 four-overtime victory over Auburn in 1996. That also happened to be the game Georgia 's mascot, Uga V, took a bite out of Auburn wide receiver Robert Baker.

Dooley: "We were in that four-overtime game with Auburn, which was a big game, and it was clear how tired the players were getting. If it carried too long, it became a question of exhaustion and injuries setting in."

Terry Bowden: "Jim Donnan had just gotten the job at Georgia, and I'll never forget that game. We had a young team. We didn't have a lot of subs. [Ex-Auburn star linebacker] Takeo Spikes was a freshman and he was just exhausted. Guys were dragging. Making you go for two as you go deeper into overtime made a lot of sense."

Spurrier: "There's something about overtime that if you're watching four or five games and somebody says, 'Oh, they're in overtime over here, I'll turn to the overtime.' I think it's fun to watch overtime, but sometimes you can be watching a long time. Texas-Notre Dame [a double-overtime game in Week 1 this year], that was exciting. I wish I had been awake to see it. I fell asleep right at the end of the fourth quarter."


Hog wild in overtime

There's an unwritten rule in college football: Don 't go to overtime with Arkansas. This week marks the rematch of Arkansas-Ole Miss 2015, when Razorbacks tight end Hunter Henry incredibly converted a fourth-and-25 in overtime by lateraling the ball on one hop to running back Alex Collins, who weaved his way for a first down in the Razorbacks' win. Without that play, Ole Miss would have still controlled its destiny to win the SEC West and potentially left Alabama out of the College Football Playoff.

The Razorbacks have played in 18 overtime games (only Tennessee has been in more). Three of the four longest overtime games in FBS history involve Arkansas. Coach Bret Bielema lost his first three overtimes at Arkansas and has won his last two. Former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, who went 7-2 in overtime games for his career, coached in two seven-overtime games and one six-overtime game.


Longest overtime games
Overtimes Result Year
7 Arkansas 58, Ole Miss 56 2001
7 Arkansas 71, Kentucky 63 2003
7 North Texas 25, FIU 22 2006
6 Tennessee 41, Arkansas 38 2002
5 Tennessee 51, Alabama 43 2003
5 Ball State 60, W. Michigan 57 2005
5 Buffalo 26, Stony Brook 23 2013

Houston Nutt (Arkansas coach from 1998 to 2007): "The seven-overtime game against Ole Miss, it was Eli Manning and Matt Jones converting pass after pass. I remember [Ole Miss coach] David Cutcliffe coming up after the game and I said, 'Nobody deserved to lose this one.' He said, 'You're right. I wish it went in the record book as a tie.' I remember David bringing it to the attention of the SEC that spring about maybe going to more of a style like the NFL because we ran so many plays [Arkansas 106, Ole Miss 92]. I kind of liked it because when's the last time you've seen four or five overtimes? It goes back to the two-point play. Somebody's going to mess that up."

Bret Bielema (Arkansas coach since 2013): "Just the nature of where I live and how it happened, I see that [Henry lateral] play quite a bit. It's an incredible play. ... I had it formulated in my mind during regulation I was going for two [to win in the first overtime], so that's what we did and got it. I'm a big confidence guy and like to say things before they happen. We were in a tie and I just said, 'You know we're going to tie and send it to overtime and when we do that, we're going for two.'"

Nutt: "I remember talking to David Lee, my quarterback coach, against Kentucky [during Arkansas' seven-overtime game in 2003] and said, 'Look, we basically ran out of two-point plays, so let's take our best play we've been running that we think we can get 3 yards on and start incorporating that in our deal.' There's one we kind of drew in the dirt. [Tight end] Jason Peters, who became a NFL offensive lineman, caught a two-point conversion in the back of the end zone. It's funny, we're all saying, 'It's not on the chart.' I'm saying, 'No, it's not on the chart. We're past that.'"

Bielema: "I remember in one overtime game I went to my OC and asked, 'What's your third or fourth call for two in overtime?' He's like, 'I don't have one.' I'm like, 'Whoa.' I quickly addressed that within our coaching staff. ... There's a growing number of teams that go for two now and try to end it than there was five to 10 years ago. People really used to play it by the book. Now I see teams defensively that pretty much sell their soul on first to third down because they want to hold them to a field goal. They don't think they can hold up in a touchdown match."

Nutt: "A lot of people ask me why I was always in those games. I don't know. Even up here at CBS [where Nutt is a TV analyst], every time there's an overtime game, the guys [on the set] look at me funny and I go, 'Don't look at me. I'm sitting here with y'all.' ... When I was at Murray State, at the end of a tough practice, a player said, 'Man, I'm glad that's over with and I can't wait to get to the cold tub.' That kind of bothered me they couldn't wait to get out of practice. I said, 'Glad you feel that way, but guess what? We're in overtime. Ball is on the 25.' We started doing that everywhere. It's amazing. Once we got into overtime, our players felt like, 'Hey, we're gonna win.' There's a big mental part of winning in overtime."

Most overtime games played
Team OT Games OT record
Tennessee 19 12-7
Arkansas 18 12-6
TCU 17 8-9
Utah 17 9-8
Fresno State 17 7-10
Texas A&M 17 11-6
Missouri 16 11-5
Oregon 16 9-7
Northwestern 15 9-6
Auburn 15 8-7
Pittsburgh 15 6-9
Notre Dame 15 5-10

Playing defense first helps, just not overwhelmingly

Pinkel determined correctly in 1995 to play defense first. Almost without fail, the team that wins the overtime coin toss chooses defense first. It makes sense to see how aggressive to be on offense and whether to play for the win or another overtime.

Since FBS overtime started 20 years ago, the team on defense first wins 56 percent of the time. From 2001-06, the team on offense first won more overtime games in four of those six years. But for seven straight years now, playing defense first wins more overtime games.

Infamously, North Texas beat Florida International in seven overtimes in 2006 by the ridiculously low score of 25-22. Each team 's kicker missed four field goals in overtime. In 2009, FBS kickers made a lower percentage of overtime field goals (70 percent) than in all situations (73 percent). That was an oddity given that overtime tries are typically fairly short. But since then, kickers are overwhelmingly better in overtime, including a 90 percent overtime success rate in 2015 compared to 74 percent overall.

Bielema: "When a team is taking offense first and wins, they probably were the better team and had no choice."

McElwain: "Obviously, playing defense first is something most people do. How aggressive are you if you hold them to a field goal or not? Do you want to put the win in the hands of your kicker?"

Field goal success rates
Year Overtime FGs Made Overall FGs Made
2008 73.80% 70.30%
2009 69.70% 72.90%
2010 81.80% 73.80%
2011 75.90% 70.40%
2012 76.30% 72.00%
2013 87.10% 73.60%
2014 75.00% 72.30%
2015 90.30% 73.90%
2016 82.60% 74.60%

Nutt: "I'll be honest: There were times when we lost the coin toss on that deal and I was excited to go take the field, especially if you've been moving the football and momentum is in your favor. If you put seven points on there quick, that would put a lot of pressure on them. There were a couple overtimes I remember vividly saying, 'We're going to take the ball first.' I would say the majority of time we defended, but there was at least twice when I said, 'Let's take the ball.'"

Overtime winners based on first possession
Year Defense First Offense First
1995 (1 OT game) 100% 0%
1996 73% 27%
1997 60% 40%
1998 52% 48%
1999 59% 41%
2000 66% 34%
2001 47% 53%
2002 39% 61%
2003 44% 56%
2004 53% 47%
2005 69% 31%
2006 38% 62%
2007 58% 42%
2008 50% 50%
2009 52% 48%
2010 69% 31%
2011 62% 38%
2012 60% 40%
2013 56% 44%
2014 54% 46%
2015 62% 38%
2016 54% 46%
Total 56% 44%

NFL vs. NCAA overtime

College football overtime is so wild that twice a team has won in overtime by 13 points thanks to an additional defensive touchdown. (Take a bow, Arizona State 48, USC 35 in 1996 and Central Michigan 36, Eastern Michigan 23 in 1998.)

Sure, major college football was far too late to adopt overtime, but the college game can take comfort that its model is embraced more than the NFL 's approach. The NFL currently gives each team one possession to score, unless one of them scores a touchdown on its first possession and then the game is over.

This keeps special teams involved and makes the game more like regulation. But it also creates situations such as last year 's playoffs, when the Green Bay Packers were eliminated without getting the ball in overtime. "Let's go college rules," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said last January. "Just put us on the 25 or whatever it is and let us go at it. ... It sucks that we don't have an opportunity."

Spurrier: "Some college games can keep going, can't they? Overtime shouldn't last more than 15 minutes or so. The reason I like the NFL's [version] a little bit is because it doesn't take very long -- usually. Usually somebody's going to score and the other guy's not gonna score. For time constraints because of television, that's a way to do it. I don't know what's most fair."

Bielema: "I was part of quite a few ties as a player. There's the old saying, 'Everybody wants a winner.' That's why I think it's so unique where the NFL can possibly still have a tie. When that happened a couple years ago, people were like, 'What? I didn't even know that can happen.'"

The NFL's had seven ties since college football adopted overtime in 1996.

"Everybody is in a microwave world and they want answers and they want them now. Overtime has really grown on me. More than anything, it made it fair."

McElwain: "I couldn't imagine the [CFP] committee trying to evaluate ties. They'd ask, 'And how did they tie?'"

Alvarez: "Why would we change [overtime]? Why would you even think about it? I hear no one complaining. I think it's fair and equitable. I'm biased, but the NFL should take our overtime."

Delany: "It's hard for me to think back to a time with a tie. I understand ties when you have a suit on, but I don't like ties in football. There's nothing wrong with soccer ties, but I don't like the shootout in soccer either. Why don't we design football by incrementally longer field-goal contests? That's terrible. We got overtime right in college football."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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