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On Winning

I was having a conversation with Matt Daddy earlier today that really made me think.  We were talking about Monday's loss and how it left us angry and bitter.  We loathe losing.  It tears at the fiber of our soul.  I even went as far as calling a BCS game a 'must win' next season, lest we end up with the dreaded title of 'the team that can't win the big one.'  I ended up saying that LSU was a must win for the same reason.

Yep.  I'm already talking the LSU game.  I want this nasty taste out of my mouth so much right now.  And yet, there is a very realistic possibility we lose that game.  And if we lose to an SEC team again I'm just going to go out of my mind.  Shortly thereafter, I was talking with a coworker about still being angry and bitter, and he told me "you care more than the players do."

Probably true.  And I'm far from alone. 

Winning is like a drug.  It provides a euphoric feeling, pure joy and elation.  But like a drug, you also build resistance.  I'm just a bit young to remember that first Independence Bowl.  But I remember the first Rose Bowl, then the Cotton Bowl.  The year after?  Not in a bowl game.  And I hated it.  I'm sure a 6-5 season would have left a lot of Duck fans happy in 1985.  But, dammit, we were just coming off two high profile bowl games, and now we were sitting at home for the bowl season?  I didn't like it at all.

And then in 1997, we made the Las Vegas Bowl,  Not only made it, but won it.  Big.  While we won the Independence Bowl previously, this was my first bowl win as a Duck fan.  Elation.  And if we won the Las Vegas Bowl next year?  Almost all of us would consider the season a failure.

Like a drug, you win some and you crave more.  And what satisfied you previously is no longer enough.  You MUST have your fix.  Its so easy to get jaded as a sports fan.  Its really a natural process.

Sports are inerently emotional.  Thats why they work so well as an enterprise, we create such an emotional attachment to our team, who are inherently the good guys, up against the other team, who represent evil and everything that is bad with the world.

We have reached the level of one of the elite programs.  We have overcome our history and sit equal with the Ohio States, Oklahomas, USCs, Floridas, and Texas'.  That is the reality of Oregon football, and we can expect, and should expect, a heck of a lot more winning than losing for a long, long time.

But there is a cautionary tale.  A lot of other schools were once at that level.  What do names like Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami, Nebraska, Washington, and Florida State mean to you?

Mostly, they mean former powers that have faded into obscurity.

I don't necessairly mean obscurity as meaning they'll never be relevant again.  All those schools have big time advantages over most FBS teams.   We all believe that at some point they'll be back among the elite.  But they are all in extended periods of downturn right now. 

The ironic thing is that in a lot of those cases, it was the addiction that caused it. 

Its a fact of sports that some losing is inevitable.  We will have losing seasons again.  There will be years where we get unlucky in a couple of games.  A key player gets injured.  That quarterback prospect we were all banking on doesn't pan out.  Or, for whatever reason, the season doesn't go the way we all wanted it to go.  Its inevitable.  Nobody can play in a BCS game every single season.  There are 12 teams in the conference, and only one guaranteed spot.  No matter how good a program you are, you are going to often fall on the wrong side of that.  From time to time, your going to fall a long way on the wrong side of that.

But we need that emotional fix.  Surely, it can't be possible that [insert favorite program here] really went 6-7 this year and lost the Insight Bowl.  Something MUST be done so that we don't feel this way again.  Its this feeling, an emotional overreaction that causes us to make dumb decisions that both don't solve the problem of why said team went 6-7 this year, and lead to the extended periods of downturn that I referred to earlier.  Oftentimes, those dumb decisions fall into two categories:

1.  The program begins to engage in unethical behavior

2.  The program fires the coaching staff

I'll address both of these issues, starting with the first.

Obviously, unethical behavior runs a wide spectrum.  And I'm not just talking about blantant cheating.  Lets look at the SEC, which is the king of this phenomenon of oh God we must win the Natty every year or else that I am talking about.  Who is the king of oversigning?  The SEC.  When you hear about a player committing some heinous crime and the punishment is that he's been suspended for the first quarter of the Florida International game, where is that team probably from?  The SEC.  When their piece of shit defensive takcle knocks out multiple quarterbacks and yet their fans and coaches defend him and the behavior goes undealt with (Okay, this could be Arizona or Boise State, too).  When the schools and fans don't give a damn about trying to graduate their players or give them an education and instead they stay eligible beacuse they take countless hours of "independent study" or "history of football."  You get my drift.

None of these things are illegal.  In fact, they're somewhat different from the other things that I'm going to mention because they don't lead to an extended downturn.  But they are selling your soul to experience the euphoria of winning.  I love that my university is making a commitment to giving their student athletes a good education and maing sure they leave here with degrees.  I love that when Chip says there is a scholarship for you, that you have one, and it won't be taken away at the last minute because we signed eight other linebackers in that class.  I love that when a player screws up, that he will be held accountable.  And I love it the most when the players say that htey come here because this staff cares about them as more than just football players.  Those are all things I want in my program.  They are the soul of the program.  I want to win a national championship here.  But, if I have to sell my soul to do it, than no thank you.

Anyway, back to my original point.  Unethical behavior can also take the shape of blantant cheating, whether that be boosters willingly providing extra benefits to players (SMU in the very extreme case, but also look at Michigan basketball), creating an environment where players and enablers run wild and there is an environment of non-compliance (USC), or academic scandals (Florida State, the entirety of the SEC save Vanderbilt).  Needless to say, nothing will put you on an extended down streak faster than probation and scholarship losses.  Ask all those SMU boosters if the early 80s were worth the twenty plus years of irrelevance since.

And while its often boosters, coaches, and athletic department higher ups that call the shots on these activities, they are made possible because the fans and alumni turn a blind eye to them because they are helping their team win (I'm looking at you, Kentucky basketball and Auburn football, you know its only a matter of time).  I never want any of those things to happen here.  Whether it be things that screw kids over like academic fraud or oversigning, or blantant cheating, fire any coaching staff that does that.  Doing right by our players is the most important thing (and using them for only football and not educating them or holding them accountable is the antithesis of this.  Not to mention, getting probation and scholarship reductions is a sure way to put your team in a long period of perpetual suck (sorry, SC fans).

The other is firing the coach.  This is the most common overreaction and, let me tell you, there is no better way to turn your good football program into a crappy football program then instability with the coaching staff.  What is the common thread of the programs at Washington, Tennessee, Michigan, Miami, and Nebraska being a giant piles of nothing over the past several seasons?  Look no further than the revolving door at the head coaching position.

Lets look at Nebraska for an example.  We all know the history of Nebraska football.  During the last five seasons of Tom Osborne's career, Nebraska went on one of the all time greatest runs in the history of college football.  In those five seasons, Nebraska went 60-3.  They won three national championships, three Orange Bowls, and a Fiesta Bowl.  A truly remarkable run.  When Tom Osborne retired at the end of the 1997 season, Nebraska hired longtime assistant Frank Solich as his replacement.  In six seasons, Solich was 58-19 (with one 7-7 season taking the bulk of those losses), with a Fiesta Bowl win and a loss in the national championship game to a Miami team that is considered by many the most talented team in the history of college football.  While the 7-7 season was certainly an outlier, Solich's six years in Lincoln were pretty much the same six year run as any stretch in Tom Osborne's 25 year career except that last stretch.  Yet, while this record was good enough to keep Osborne around for twenty years until he started winning his national titles, it got Solich canned before a bowl game at the end of a 9-3 season, a mere two years after playing for a national title.

For their impatience, Cornhusker fans got stuck with Bill Callahan as their next head coach.  He went 27-22 in four years at Nebraska, including the only two losing seasons in most Nebraska fans' lifetimes.

Apparently, having to settle for an Alamo Bowl here and there between BCS appearance was more than Nebraska fans could bear.  Yet, in the years since they fired Solich, they still haven't gotten back.  There was nothing wrong with the foundation of Nebraska football under Frank Solich, its just that its really damn hard to go 60-3.

Michigan overreacted similarly with the firing of Lloyd Carr, firing him after a 9-4 season in which they opened the season with losses to two spread teams (including a 1-AA squad).  Nevermind that Carr righted the squad, won nine games, and beat spread Florida in the Capital One Bowl, Michigan had to try out this newfangled spread, and hired Rich Rodriguez.  Michigan football has been a loser ever since.  There was nothing wrong with the foundation of Michigan football.  They still finished second in the Big Ten, had a lot of good players, and beat a really good team in their bowl game.  It was a fluke of scheduling that they played two similar teams early on that they did not match up well with.  But Michigan fans got impatient.  They needed that fix.

Thats not to say coaches should never be fired.  Certainly, Ty Willngham had broken Washington far beyond what he could repair.  I supported the firing of Ernie Kent as Oregon's basketball coach because, while he had led us to some great moments, the foundation of the program was not strong.  Bad seasons were outnumbering good ones, the team wasn't very fundamentally sound, and they weren't getting the best out of the players.  Similarly, while Oregon football had 5-6 record in 2004, there was no need to overreact with a coaching change.  The season before had been fairly successful, the defense was young and inexperienced, and the Ducks lost three close games that could have gone either way.  Sure enough, the Ducks won ten games the next season.  If the Ducks went 5-7 three years in a row, then you discuss a staff change.  But not if we should suffer the inglorious punishment of having to play in the Fight Hunger Bowl one year.

In summary, beware the perils of winning.  We are going to win here, and we are going to win here a lot.  But we can't be in the national title game every season, no matter how much we may want that.  We can't win the Pac-10 every year.  There will be a year where we will play in a lower tier bowl.  We may even have a losing season or two.  But don't overreact.  Don't start allowing the morals of the program to slip in exchange for the hope of more wins.  Don't overreact and try to fix something thats not broken.  We are set up for a lot of big things.  The only thing that can get in the way is ourselves, and our impatience.