Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One Logged Into The Cuckoo's Nest

January 7, 2010.

It’s a day that dawned with such hope for the Texas Longhorns. Having won 26 of their last 27 games, UT was set to play Alabama for the national title in the Rose Bowl, and a victory would give them their second championship in five years. Life was good.

But on the fifth offensive snap against the Crimson Tide, Colt McCoy, the Horns’ senior quarterback, took a hit to his right shoulder, sending him to the sidelines and effectively sealing the Horns’ fate. While the team never stopped fighting, and they even made it interesting late, the night ultimately ended in frustration, disappointment and the wonder of what might have been.

And that’s pretty much how it’s gone ever since.

As a devoted Longhorn since birth, these last 23 ½ months haven’t been much fun. With a cumulative record of 12-12, the team hasn’t been relevant on the national scene, and I’ve become all too familiar with the term “bowl eligible.” There have been blowout losses and player defections, and there was that dark day last winter when we got left at the altar by our designated Head-Coach-In-Waiting. While there have been some signs of life, and there was that sweet last-second sendoff to the folks in College Station, following the team has come to feel like a constant request to turn and cough.

And yet, I keep coming back for more.

While some people go to Facebook or Twitter or CNN when they have a free minute, I instinctively log onto, the premier fan site for everything UT sports. Team updates, recruiting videos, game breakdowns, practice reports…you name it, they’ve got it. It’s like Hamsterdam for the Longhorn addict.

The best feature, though, is the message board – the designated space where fans go to share their own opinions and thoughts. This is where the good stuff is, where the real barroom debates take place, where you can analyze what just happened on the field, and where you can get off-the-record information from people who claim to have some sort of source inside the program.

Sure, their “source” may be the third cousin of the next door neighbor of Mack Brown’s gardener, but whatever…if it’s on the internet, it has to be true, right?

That’s the beauty of an anonymous forum…pretty much anything goes, and it pretty much always does. Hiding behind a keyboard and a “To Catch a Predator” screen name, members say whatever and call out whomever they want, all basically without consequence. Nobody is safe – coaches, players, and especially anyone who dares to disagree with them.

And given the Longhorns’ extended struggles, the board has not surprisingly become a miserable place to be. Each thread is more depressing than the next. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve had to figure out supplemental ways to feed my college football obsession. Sure, watching the big games each week is nice, but it hasn’t been enough. I’ve needed something more, something I could invest in, something that could touch the fan inside me. And while it may go against everything my parents taught me about being a good human being, I have found one source of salvation that fits the bill:

Other teams’ misery.

Seeing other schools lose – particularly UT rivals Oklahoma and Texas A&M – has given me almost as much pleasure as seeing Texas win. It’s a validation of sorts, an opportunity to feel better about my own team, the same way millions get a self-esteem boost by reading celebrity gossip.

If the Longhorns couldn’t beat them, at least someone else could.

But the real payoff comes from seeing the meltdowns that occur on the message boards, so that’s where I head whenever another top program falters. And what I’ve found is that, for as much effort as fan bases put into showing how superior they are to their competitors, whether it’s “Saw ‘Em Off” bumper stickers or singing “Goodbye to A&M”, when it comes to how they view and react to their own team, they are all the same.

I mean, the exact same.

Fans lose their minds after a loss, and the message board captures it all. There are impulsive outbursts and sweeping snap judgments. There’s whining and arguing, irrationality and absurdity. There are absolute truths declared, “The sky is falling” proclamations made, and even the occasional picture of a scantily clad woman to lighten the mood.

What there isn’t much of, though, is logic or perspective.

Which really shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering it takes a special breed of nut job to be a true fan. Completely invested in something we have no hand in, we live and die with everything that happens with our program, and when things don’t go well, you would’ve thought a crime had been perpetrated against us. We spend bankrolls of cash on tickets and memorabilia and face paint, and even though we may be a 56-year-old father of two, we take pride in wearing the jersey of a 19-year-old wide receiver.

And despite not contributing a single thing to what transpires on the field, we sometimes refer to our team as the collective “we.”

So there’s a certain amount of delusion that goes into it, and because half the schools have to lose every week, that delusion is always just a click away. Go to any losing team’s message board, and like clockwork, you’ll find some variation of the following thread titles. The names will change from school to school, but the sentiments will always remain the same, because what fans lack in objectivity and common sense, they more than make up for in predictability…

“This is on the coaches.”

Despite the success he had, no coach has been more despised by a fan base than former UT Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis. Over his 13 years at Texas, he helped produce record-setting offenses, Heisman Trophy candidates and a national championship, but for many fans, facts like that just got in the way of their hatred. Instead, they enjoyed focusing on his perceived shortcomings – a simplistic scheme and his fondness for the wide receiver screen (even though nearly every other program in the country ran it) – and they blamed him for everything that went wrong in Austin, from every Longhorn punt to the ridiculous murder storyline in season two of Friday Night Lights.

Davis was by no means perfect, and it was probably time for a change when he left in late 2010, but he deserved more respect than he was ever given. Even when the Horns were putting up prolific point totals, and there was seemingly nothing to complain about, fans still dismissed his work, claiming that his ineptitude was simply being covered up by the brilliance of his players, guys like Vince Young and Colt McCoy.

So let me get this straight – Davis identified these guys as high schoolers (granted, Young was the number one recruit in the country, but McCoy was a mid-level prospect at best), recruited them, developed them, designed an offensive system for them and called plays for them, and yet he’s not responsible at all for anything they accomplished?

Welcome to message board logic.

Sunday morning quarterbacking is one of the great traditions of college sports, like fight songs and smuggled flasks of whiskey in the stands. To second-guess is to be human, and to second-guess a coach is to be a fan.

But no matter how knowledgeable we think we are, there’s only so much we can tell about what’s really going on during a game. I watch as much football as anyone, but I can’t definitively tell you why something did or didn’t happen, or what the team was trying to do in a certain situation, or what they should have done. I can make an educated guess, and I may be right, but I don’t know for sure. No fan does. Neither do the self-proclaimed experts in the media, regardless of how much they tell you that they do.

It’s not because we’re not smart enough…it’s because we simply don’t have enough information. All we have to go on is what plays out on Saturday. We haven’t been in the coaches’ meetings or practices all week. We haven’t spent hours studying tapes, identifying trends and tendencies to devise the game plan. We don’t even know what the game plan is, nor do we know the specific design, assignments and responsibilities of each play, so it’s impossible for us to know exactly what happened on any given snap. And we’re not on the sidelines, on the headsets or in the locker room during the game to know what’s being said or what subtle adjustments are being made.

But that doesn’t stop us from sitting in the stands and acting as if we know best. Because while we may only have a fraction of the information that the coaches do, we also have something that they do not:


And while you would think this would make geniuses of us all, what it really does is make us incredibly simple-minded. If a play was successful, it was a good call; if it failed, it was a bad call. That’s what it comes down to for us. We have no respect for the process – the thought, the patience, the strategy that goes into every decision – we only care about the outcome, and we only accept what works. But in doing so, as Texas Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz explains, we often miss out on the real story:

“We always say this: there are results and there are performances, and sometimes results and performances match. Sometimes the results and performances don't match. A team can run the identical plays and have the same guy against the same coverage, and one week it's a great catch, and the next week the ball gets dropped or it gets batted away or the left guard false starts when they had it set up. The difference between winning and losing is such a fine line, and I know that's so cliché, but really, that's what you see week in and week out when you start to study. When you take the end away and just watch the middle, usually you don't see a whole lot of difference.”

Or, more succinctly, you’ve got this quote from Head Coach Mack Brown:

“It’s really an advantage when you don’t watch film, because then you can be stupid.”

“Do we have anybody who can throw, catch, block or tackle?”

Colt McCoy was one of the most productive college quarterbacks ever. When his eligibility expired, he had won more games as a starter than anyone, compiling a 45-8 record while making back-to-back trips to New York as a Heisman finalist his junior and senior years. His jersey number is now retired, and his name is etched into the wall of DKR Texas Memorial Stadium alongside a select group of Longhorn legends.

But in 2007, a number of Texas fans were ready to give up on him. Following a promising freshman campaign, McCoy suffered a sophomore slump of sorts, throwing nearly as many interceptions as he did touchdowns, as the Horns stumbled to a disappointing three-loss season.

This did not sit well with the message board crowd, who began questioning McCoy, claiming he was too small and lacked the strength and athleticism to succeed at the highest level. There were cries that a program like UT should never be reliant upon an undersized, three-star kid from the middle of nowhere, and some fans wanted to give John Chiles, the more highly-recruited backup QB, a shot at the starting job.

Then Colt went 25-2 his final two seasons – all while masking the idiocy of his Offensive Coordinator! – and he was everybody’s hero again.

For as often as fans profess to being one with their team, it doesn’t take much for them to start eating their own, and their appetite fluctuates on a bipolar, play-by-play basis. Catch a touchdown, and you’re a god. Drop a pass, and you should be benched for your backup (because…you know…the guy who you beat out is always the better option).

Sometimes it seems as if fans view players like they are electronic characters in a video game, and they expect them to perform as such. They forget that these guys are real, live 18 – 22-year-old kids with real, live 18 – 22-year-old kids’ problems. Insecurities, academics, girl troubles…players are battling all of these issues, all the while trying their absolute best to send 100,000 people home happy each week.

Granted, part of being a big-time athlete is being criticized and critiqued. It’s the price you pay for the combination to the chastity belt of every coed on campus.

But part of being a fan should be remembering what it was like to be a young, dumb college student, what it was that you were dealing with back then, and how you would have felt if a state full of lunatics was judging and cursing every mistake you made. That doesn’t mean you should never get upset, but if you can’t step away from your keyboard long enough to summon that compassion, then maybe you can ask yourself this question before you crack open that next Keystone Light:

How would you feel if it were your son out there?

“This would never happen at *insert name of whatever school happens to be winning at that exact moment*”

Earlier this season, after Texas was dismantled 55-17 by rival Oklahoma, Orangebloods was not surprisingly full of hate for UT coach Mack Brown. He wasn’t tough enough, he’d lost his touch, and it was probably time for him to move on.

He was no Bob Stoops, they said.

In the minds of many Longhorn fans, Stoops, the OU head man, was the embodiment of what a football coach should be. He was tough and hardnosed, and he did tough and hardnosed things like grabbing a player's facemask when they screwed up. Thread after thread proclaimed how he had built an absolute machine of a program, how his teams were always ready to play, and how he would never allow such an embarrassment to take place on his watch.

Two weeks later, Oklahoma lost to 28-point underdog Texas Tech. At home.

And what do you know? Suddenly, Oklahoma fans were saying the exact same things about Stoops that Longhorn fans had been saying about Brown. It was as if the Sooners’ message board had turned into “Orangebloods North.” Some people questioned if Stoops would ever get OU back on top, some wondered if it was time to clean house and start over, and some even demanded that he apologize for such an abominable display of football.

The general consensus was that this type of thing would never happen to Alabama and their coach, Nick Saban.

Winning at the highest level is monumentally difficult, especially given the cyclical nature of college football, where you lose your most experienced – and oftentimes, best – players at the end of every year. You can’t latch onto one Peyton Manning and let him carry you to 15 years of greatness (and even when you do hit the QB jackpot, it’s hard to recruit any top prospect to come sit behind him for three years). You have to reinvent your team season after season.

And it’s not enough to simply recruit the best players, nor is it enough to just hire the best coaches or design the best schemes. You have to do all of that, and you have to put it all together, so that a group of 85 kids will perform at a winning level 13 or 14 times a year without a single misstep.

“That’s why they get paid millions of dollars a year,” fans say. Fair enough. Coaches do make a lot of money, and they should be expected to produce results on a consistent basis. But the same way fans view players as those electronic characters in a video game, they also seem to look at coaches as the person holding the joystick. If their team doesn’t win, fans want the coach’s head on a platter, screaming things like, “How could he allow this to happen?” as if it’s as easy as hitting ‘A’ instead of ‘B’ on the controller.

But there’s only so much a coach can do, whether fans want to accept it or not. Coaches can sleep in their office, they can watch film all week, they can come up with motivational gimmicks, they can drill the game plan over and over and over, and they can put their team in the best possible position to succeed, but that is where their powers end. They can’t control if a player is where he needs to be and slips. They can’t control if the other team just makes a better play. They can’t control if their freshman defensive back drops a game-sealing interception. They can’t control if their star QB gets dumped the night before the game. They can’t control injuries, they can’t control the bounce of the ball, and they can’t control the inherently unpredictable nature of sports.

Yet they are expected to control all of it, and the way this stuff plays out often determines if they’re perceived as a genius or an idiot.

That’s why my only expectation of a coach is that he gives my team a chance – that he puts the program in a position where he’s got enough good assistants and enough good athletes that, if the team plays well, and they get the right breaks at the right time, they’ll have a chance to win it all every year.

I concede that even that may be a little unreasonable, but then again, I am a fan. I make up for it, though, by accepting that there’s going to be the occasional rough patch, that the team is going to go through some ups and downs, because no matter how smart or prepared or hard-working the guy is, everyone does at some point.

After all, Nick Saban has lost four times in the last year-and-a-half – all games in which his team was favored.

“Why should we have expected anything different?”

When Mack Brown took over as Longhorn coach in 1998, the program’s foundation was broken. Despite all of its resources, UT had receded from the national spotlight, reeling from a 4-7 season and searching for its swagger, all the while many of the top in-state prospects were fleeing Texas to play their college ball elsewhere.

It didn’t take long for Brown to make UT relevant again, though, steadily stockpiling top-notch recruiting classes while amassing a 70-19 record over his first seven years in Austin.

But despite the success he was having, there were still plenty of fans who were dissatisfied with him. They thought he was too soft, that he clapped too much on the sidelines, that he didn’t have the killer instinct that’s required to win at the highest level. They pointed to things like his five-game losing streak to Oklahoma and his lack of conference titles as proof.

Then 2005 happened, in which Brown went undefeated – including a rout of the Sooners – claiming his first conference and national championships in the process. It was as if he had taken all of his critics’ ammunition and turned it into a to-do list. Can’t beat OU? Done. Can’t win the conference? Done. Can’t win the big one? Done. By the end of the season, the entire list had been crossed off.

Or so you would’ve thought.

All it took was a little editing, and there was a whole new list to deal with. Instead of crying about how Brown didn’t have any conference titles, it was now that he only had one. And he’d only won that because he had a superhero in Vince Young at quarterback.

When Brown answered that with another conference championship a few years later, this time with Colt McCoy at QB, the line became that he only had two titles – both of which he’d won with two of the all-time greats under center.

Who knew the list had been written on an Etch-a-Sketch?

For some fans, nothing will ever be good enough. Not even winning will satisfy them, because you either won’t win enough, or you won’t win by enough. And if you manage to accomplish both, you will have done it with players who don’t suck enough.

Of course, if a coach were to lead a bunch of untalented intramural players from one of the campus fraternities to an undefeated season in which every offensive play resulted in a touchdown and every defensive snap ended in a sack or turnover, there’d still be people complaining, “Just think how good we would be if our coaches could actually recruit.”

That’s just how it is in big-time college sports. It’s part of the job, a simple case of supply and demand: you’re supplied with a multi-million dollar salary, and in turn, it’s demanded that you constantly feed the beast.

Mack Brown tells a funny story about the aftermath of that national championship victory in 2005. The game had just ended, and he was standing outside the locker room with legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal, when a delirious fan walked up to thank him for bringing the Horns their first title in 36 years. With this accomplishment, the fan said, Brown’s legacy was set in stone, and even if Brown were to never win another game at Texas, he would be forever revered by UT fans everywhere.

As the fan walked away, the ever-wise Coach Royal leaned into Mack’s ear and warned:

“Spring practice starts in six weeks, big boy.”

“Step back from the ledge.”

You only get so many chances to win it all. No matter how well you recruit, and no matter how many Reverse Oreos your players can pull off, it’s just so hard to get everything in the universe to consistently align. That’s what made the loss to Alabama in the national title game so painful – the Horns were this close and came up short. But as heartbreaking as that night was, there was one glimmer of hope that filtered through the disappointment:

Garrett Gilbert.

A true freshman at the time, Gilbert was Colt McCoy’s backup, having only played sparingly throughout the year. As a prep star, though, he had led his team to back-to-back state titles, he’d won national player of the year honors, and he was one of the most sought after recruits in the country. He was big and strong, the son of a former NFL quarterback, blessed with all of the tools to be the next great Texas hero. Think Lance Harbor in Varsity Blues. He was the future of Longhorn football.

But the moment McCoy went down, the future became the present.

Thrown into the deepest of deep ends, Gilbert struggled initially, but he eventually began to swim. Two second half touchdown passes brought the Longhorns back, and with just over three minutes to play, Gilbert had the ball in his hands with a chance to tie or win the game.

And while he ultimately came up short, as a fan, you couldn’t help walking away from the loss with an energized eye towards the future. Gilbert had shown everything you could ever want from a quarterback – toughness, leadership, resiliency – and he had done it on the biggest stage imaginable. It was one thing to hear the hype beforehand, but to see it in action like that was another. The Garrett Gilbert story had just begun, and it seemed destined to end in greatness.

But not all stories can be fairytales.

For whatever reason, whether he locked onto his receivers or had a crisis of confidence or squinted too much while looking downfield (a complaint among some Longhorn fans), Gilbert never turned into the player most thought he would. After getting booed off the field in just the 14th start of his career, he was benched and elected to transfer a couple of weeks later.

Gilbert was about as can’t-miss as you can get, but he’s now become the cautionary tale for why you should never draw a definitive conclusion based solely on the last thing you saw. After all, it’s just one instance, the smallest of sample sizes, and things are rarely as good or as bad as they initially seem. Why not give it a little time before rendering your final verdict?

Answer: so you have something to post on a message board!

Fans are among the most reactionary, most shortsighted people on the planet. They only believe what they see. They’re like children, their outlook and mood swinging violently depending on whatever they just witnessed, and they’re especially volatile when things go wrong. One bad game, one bad half, one bad play…that’s all it takes to incite an outright tantrum.

Amid all of the insanity, though, there’s always a voice or two of reason, trying to calm everyone down. They see the big picture. They understand that it can take time for a team to grow, that one mistake doesn’t make a coach a moron, that players can develop with experience. They preach patience to just let things play out before passing judgment.

They have perspective.

Of course, there’s no room for anything sensible like that on a message board. It’s much easier to pull out your Jump to Conclusions mat and aim for the most ridiculous, over-the-top target, because somewhere along the way, it was decided that being negative and derogatory was the same thing as being rational.

The team sucks, they’ve always sucked, and they will continue to suck, and if you can’t see that, then I don’t know what to tell you, because that’s just how it is.

At least until next week, anyway.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?