It's the ultimate poker game. When do you hold back, save your best effort for when it really matters, and take your opponent by surprise.
Maybe you hold back bad news from your employees until it's time to tell them the company is eliminating their division, so they don't steal every last office supply and file.
Maybe you show restraint when your girlfriend asks you if the jeans she's wearing make her look fat. Probably better not to use the word "huge."
Stanford beat UCLA 35-17 Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl, but did the Bruins hold something back in the Pac-12 regular season finale, knowing if they lose they'd gain a rematch with the Cardinal on Friday for the right to go to the Rose Bowl anyway?
And, if UCLA were to have won, the Bruins would instead have had to play former No. 1 Oregon in Eugene, thought to be a tougher roadie. After all, the ultimate goal is the Rose Bowl, the only shot at a BCS game for UCLA.
"We are competitors and those guys in there don't spend all that time preparing for a game, with the sacrifices they make, to not try their best every opportunity they get," said UCLA head coach Jim Mora in the bowel of the Rose Bowl after the game. "To insinuate that our players didn't give their best effort -- I've never."
Mora continued to deny he'd even remotely consider holding anything back for Friday's bigger game.
"If we're holding something back, we wouldn't have had our starters in there at the end," he said. "I wouldn't have used timeouts with 6:30 left in the game. We are trying to create a culture about winning. The only way to win is you go for it every time you step on the field. If you don't do that, then you cheat everybody, your alumni, your fans, your students."
One reporter practically laughed at Mora, insinuating he wasn't being honest, suggesting that Mora had plenty of practice holding back while coaching NFL preseason games.
Home-and-home matchups happen in basketball, hockey, and occasionally bar fights, but you don't see college football teams playing each other twice within six days. Stanford had to win. UCLA has to win next Friday. So the motivation was clearly different.
I walked off the field with Stanford head man David Shaw. He told me he's known the Mora family for years, and it's just not in his makeup to hold back. But what about his players?
UCLA star linebacker Anthony Barr admitted there might have been something missing. "The energy and the demeanor wasn't as upbeat as it had been in the past, say for example, last week (against USC). We pride ourselves on our energy and our enthusiasm, and it wasn't fully there today. I know we'll get it back."
Barr made it clear to me that he didn't think anyone was intentionally holding anything back, but all you had to do was watch the action. It's human nature. You can blame the Pac-12 money grab, creating a championship game that it did well without for decades.
Now, the tables are turned. Obviously there's no way either team holds anything back Friday, but Shaw has some work to do this week. Because Stanford won so handily, he has to convince his players they've got a real battle on their hands, whether UCLA was all in or not. In other words, don't hold back on fire on passion. Here's our conversation:
Shaw: "(The Bruins) are going to come up to Stanford, California and they're going to give us their best shot, and we better be ready for it."
Me: "Do you think your players are really going to believe that, when they just absolutely kicked UCLA's butts all over the field?
Shaw: "They better."
Me: "Kids are kids. You beat the crap out of somebody on the playground, it's hard to tell them that at the next recess that kid's going to beat the crap out of you. How do you really sell it?
Shaw: "These are Stanford kids. Smart kids. They understand that we can't approach a game any differently than we approached it the week before."
Translation: Just because the other kid left with a bloody nose, don't hold back.
I don't believe Coach Mora held anything back -- nor did his coaching staff. Whether the kids did or not will be determined this coming Friday in Palo Alto.
Photo Credits: AP