Written by SportsDayDFW.com
Spy vs. spy: Scouting practices expand as teams seek edge
LEWISVILLE - High above the field, four men in identical maroon polos are ready to watch the action below. They are not fans, they are not high school assistants and they are not affiliated with either of the teams lining the sidelines below.
But on this night, as is the case with every Friday this fall, they have been asked to carry out the same mission. Anthony Spear, Ernest Sterling, Darrell Holloway and Kenny Johnson - four middle school coaches - are here to gather intelligence on one of Plano's future opponents. In this case, it's Lewisville.
"You've got to get any advantage that you can," Johnson said. "Otherwise, you're handicapping yourself."
That's especially true for the programs in the ultra-competitive District 8-5A, where quality and quantity have intersected this season. All eight 8-5A teams have appeared at least once in HSGameTime's area rankings, and as the margin for error has been reduced, the reconnaissance work has increased.
From Allen to Plano to Lewisville, press boxes are jammed with scouts trying to glean information on their competitors. Some, such as Flower Mound's Ryan Furler, have watched the same team for multiple weeks "so that you can get used to [its] way of playing," he said.
"Everybody is picking it up a notch," added Plano coach Jaydon McCullough. "There's so much parity, it's crazy."
For decades, espionage - both overt and clandestine - has been part of football. Understanding how another team operates can often be the difference between winning and losing in a sport predicated on strategy.
"It's just critical," said former Plano coach Tom Kimbrough.
Scouting is so consequential, in fact, that McCullough says "it sets the tone" for his program.
It's no surprise then that the Wildcats go to great lengths to survey their opposition, sending out five groups of four people to district games each week and instructing each one to observe a specific team for a minimum of three games.
When they finish collecting their findings, they return with detailed accounts on that opponent's personnel, tendencies, situational performance and formations.
Plays are diagrammed and questions answered. What was the team's emotional state after a turnover? Whom do they turn to in crunch time? How serious was a particular player's injury? The entire process can take 18 hours. In recent years, advancements in technology have made the labor easier and the reports more comprehensive.
"But it's still really hard work," Spear said.
At Plano, where scouting is intensive, that is to be expected.
Starting a trend
Back when Kimbrough and John Clark presided over one of the elite high school programs in the state, Plano was at the forefront of football recon. Around 1971, when computers had yet to be popularized, a local businessman named Pat Paddock developed a program that could determine the probability of an action based on the outcomes of previous events.
The coaching staff thought the concept would work with football. But because the school's computers were unable to handle the data, Plano's assistants went to a nearby office and used a machine with more horsepower. Each weekend, it would spit out the opponent's tendencies.
"We were probably the first one to use that," Kimbrough said. "It was so foreign at the time."
In those days, technology was primitive and visual evidence difficult to obtain. When it was available, it was captured on 16-millimeter reels that teams guarded like gold bars. Coaches made deals with their friends at other programs to prevent opponents from acquiring film.
Between 1970 and 1987, when Plano won four state titles, Kimbrough and his assistants gained an edge with their ability to both obfuscate and collect.
"It was warfare then," said Chris Fisher, Plano's current scouting coordinator. "But we're not near as secretive as we were back in the day."
In part, that's because they can't be. In the Internet age everything is accessible, and one company, Digital Sports Video, has revolutionized scouting at the high school level with a computer program that can synchronize the information produced in written reports with the footage of the game.
The most recent iteration of the software, DSV Anywhere, is an online portal that costs $5,600 for the most basic package and allows players to log on and study from home by using a series of specific search filters that can isolate how a team reacts in a certain situation.
"It's become so convenient," said Fisher.
Plano is one of approximately 800 high schools in the state that use DSV, according to regional sales manager Bobby Vadnais, a former football assistant at Grapevine. The vast network has allowed teams to exchange video with a mere click of a button and begs the question: With the advent of products like DSV, why send scouts at all?
"Because you get so much more first hand," said McCullough.
Tricks of the trade
In 1993, McCullough was an assistant at Plano when he was sent to find everything he could about Converse Judson, the team Plano would face in the 5A Division I state championship game.
McCullough traveled to Houston, where he watched Judson play Aldine Eisenhower in the Astrodome. Coaches from other teams weren't allowed on the field, but McCullough needed to hear the snap count. So he impersonated a sound guy for the broadcast.
"I was just trying to be competitive," McCullough said, laughing.
That cunning is pervasive in high school football, where coaches have tried to confuse their competitors by switching the jersey numbers of a player from one game to the next. McCullough used that tactic last year against Wylie, when he moved Murat Kuzu from running back to quarterback. Wylie's coaches were dumbfounded before kickoff, McCullough remembered.
"They were trying to figure out who [No.] 5 was," he said.
The trick, McCullough said, was used to gain a competitive advantage, which is the name of the game in scouting. Johnson knows this all too well. Staring into the sun, he noted his night was just beginning, sighed and said, "You've got to do what it takes."
In District 8-5A and at Plano in particular, those words reverberate as the hunt for information continues.