Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shoulda Been A Cubs Fan

Caitlin Cary (feat. Ryan Adams)--"The Battle" (mp3) The recent flap at our school over our soccer team not making it past the semifinals in the state tournament confirms that I have some weird wiring as a sports fan.  I just don't care about winning all that much.

Specifically, I probably should have been a Cubs fan, given the penchant so many of them have for continuous losing seasons long into the future.  In fact, when I sent an article to my Cubs friend a week or so ago that suggested the tearing down of Wrigley Field was the only was to break the curse, snap the losing, his only quick response was that he liked for them to be losing.  That losing streak is legendary, of course, spanning well over a century.  Although, to be fair, it isn't really a losing streak; it's a non-winning streak, as in, the Cubs have not made it to the World Series or, obviously, won it during that time.

Our soccer team is somewhat different--highly successful in terms of won/loss record, fielding a quality team every year, but they didn't win the finals the year that they got there, and many years, their hopes are thwarted by our crosstown, archrival's soccer team, even in the years when our team is better than theirs.

Not unlike what our football team used to do to their team during the infamous "streak" that ended three or four years ago.  Now they do it to us.

When that happens repeatedly, it begins to mess with the psyche of a fan base, or in this case, a school, where an increasing sense of desperation prevades everything.  There has to be a relatively simple solution.  Parents start complaining.  Teachers start talking.  Maybe students, maybe members of the team.  All is focused on the coach.  No matter how successful a coach is, if he doesn't "win it all" often enough, according to some unspoken timetable, his program is a failure.  If he doesn't win it enough years in a row, then not losing it becomes a "pattern."

Once that pattern is identified, mentioned, there is nothing that a coach/team can do it.  A fluke goal, a ball that rolls between Billy Buckner's legs, the absence of an injured star player, an extra time out called--all of those things are forgotten in the face of the pattern.  Because the pattern says that something is wrong and that something must be fixed.  And that someone must be blamed for that pattern.  And that person is most likely the coach.

I just don't get it, even as I have fallen prey to it.  When the Tennessee Volunteers won the NCAA Div. 1 Football BCS Championship in 1999, I remember turning to my friend Steve and saying, "You know, Steve, I never thought they would win won of these.  Anything that happens from here on out is pure gravy."  And, not that much has happened since, but I'm still a hopeful Vol fan each year. 

In fact, now I'm in a weirder sports place even--I like the integrity of the Vols coach, Derek Dooley, more than I care about the team winning.  How's that attitude supposed to fly in 2012?  Me, a guy who feels sorry for the San Diego Padres coach because he's friends with my brother-in-law, who supports the Vols coach simply because he respects him, who stands up for the soccer coach because he's a friend?

Tell a student or someone caught up in the whole winning thing today that you are a Vols fan and they will say something along the lines of "Why?  They suck."  And the answer is because I have been a Vol fan for over 30 years and I will continue to be one indefinitely.  It isn't the winning, and it wouldn't have mattered if they had never won.  Tell it to some of my fellow faculty members who tore down our soccer program and coaching for the entire bus ride home from the state tournament.  They know how to fix everything.  It's pretty simple, really, just as matter of x, y, and z.

Now, it's true that I got to enjoy the glory years of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Penguins and that I'll throw around that "City of Champions" label from time to time if I need to pull out a "sports brag" for some reason, and maybe that's created in me a kind of fan's sense that 'I've won enough, Pittsburgh has won enough, let another city, like Seattle or Atlanta, win something, anything.'  See?  I can't even help the dig, much as I'm trying to take the high road.  Is it possible, though, that there's a difference between wanting to win or needing to win?  Between glad to have won and should have won?

Vince Lombardi once famously said, "Winning isn't everything.  It's the only thing."  As part of a motivational speech to players or fans, it probably got people fired up, but as a mantra for life, even in the most aspirational of ways, it's a recipe for failure.  We all know, those of us who watch sports and those of us who can do math, that, ultimately, very, very, very few teams win.  In the sports most Americans care about across college and professional levels, about 6 teams total, out of hundreds, actually win.  7 with Nascar.

That leaves most of us, fans or players or coaches, pondering whether our team had a "good season" or a "bad season."  To me, a soccer team that went 17-3 had a pretty darn good season, even if they didn't win the state.  That doesn't mean that coaches won't evaluate, re-evaluate, that players won't commit to off-season activities, etc.  But even a good, even a great season will likely still contain some bitterness, bitterness that will make the sweet sweeter.  If it ever comes.  And if it never comes, well, I'll always feel like these teams were fun to watch and to cheer for.  That's weird, I guess.


Anonymous said...

I believe Reese Bobby said it best..... "If you ain't first, you're last"?

Billy said...

Let's put the hypothetical closer to home, then. Let's say you know someone who teaches an AP -- let's just say Basket Weaving -- and the students in that class get highs of 3 and lows of 1 with the occasional aberrant 5 that's due to mere genius. Year in and year out.

Who is responsible? I'm certain you would, in this hypothetical, proclaim this teacher to be "shitty." I'm certain because I've heard you say it.

I don't understand how you can be comfortable with judging that teacher based on test results yet not expect a coach -- who gets far more credit and salary and praise for his/her successes -- to face that same results-oriented scrutiny.

If we treated athletics as another area of pure learning, then wins would not solely be the standard. But because these kids now enter high school at high skill levels, and because they've been butt-kissed by select league coaches fighting for the best players for a decade, high school coaches aren't expected to teach; they're expected to lead to victory.

It's a sad change to see happening in places claiming to be educational, but it's reality.

Whether someone's head should be lopped off for it is certainly debatable, but if you're willing to call out a bad teacher, I don't see why it's off-limits to question coaches.

Bob said...

17-3 is at least the athletic equivalent of a "4" on the AP, maybe a "5."

Billy said...

Your defense counters your argument. Records either matter or they don't.

And in the AP analogy, it's more like they got an A+ in the class and then got a 3 on the exam.

To be clear, I would love a world where coaches were no more heralded than AP teachers, where they didn't get extra schwag, extra benefits, higher salaries and more esteem. It's not fair, in my opinion, to get all that nice extra stuff without having to pay a higher price in scrutiny.

Bob said...

My argument is that loyalty and friendship and respect flavor my attitude towards players, coaches, and their sports and their cities or schools, so I use records as necessary. It just isn't about "winning it all" for me.

I've also freely admitted more than once that is a weird perspective in the hyper-sport/must-win environment of 2012.

To finish the analogy, however, millions of students take the AP each year. The top %33 of those earn either a "4" or a "5". Certainly, by those standards, one of the four teams that gets to a state tournament deserves such a high assessment.

I'd also suggest that in almost any sport at any level, the coach of a team with a winning percentage of .850 this year, with appearances in the state tournament 2 of the last 3 years, including making it to the finals one time, does stand up to scrutiny and should be allowed to feel secure.

Maybe that's just friendship talking.

Tockstar said...

I've never put much stock in the post-season of any sport. I always think it's more about the season, how the teams play day in and day out, whereas any random thing can derail a playoff game.

Of course, I'm a Cubs fan and a Vandy fan, so I'm very comfortable with losing. In fact, when Vandy beat UT in football that year, it kind of wigged me out.

goofytakemyhand said...

A 17-3 record and this futbol coach is being questioned by certain faculty members? Goodness gracious sakes alive, his career win percentage is probably .800 and his team regularly has a GPA in the 3s.

I can only imagine how these faculty members act during every bus ride home after yet another football conference loss.