Losing has multiple levels.
There are expected losses. There are good losses (the so-called moral victories). There are blowout losses. There are close losses. There are heartbreaking losses.
Then there's Saturday. The kind of loss that makes you question being a fan of a team in the first place.
We've been down this road before. Multiple times. There is the Term That Shall Not Be Named for it. At this point, these losses are a part of our collective psyche. We've seen it before; we'll see it again. We've seen players fail, we've seen referees fail and we've seen coaches fail in their attempts (or lack of attempts) to stop these meltdowns. We are victims of confirmation bias: the tendency to favor information that confirms your beliefs or hypotheses. We believe we are cursed, we believe we will blow 17-point fourth quarter leads and when it happens we've already seen it coming a mile away. I said on twitter with about three minutes left to play that the field goal that put us up six meant we'd lose by one instead of four. We lost by one.
Sports fandom is, at its core, nonsensical. Rooting for a team is a decision you can own or disown at any point in your life, and the only reason it has any impact at all is because of other people. The minute you declare a side or put on a certain color shirt you have opened up your personality to say to the world, "I like this team". Once you do that, other people are allowed to make comments. "Hey, I like this team too!", they'll say. Sometimes they'll say, "Hey! That team sucks!" or "That team is ok I guess" or "I know a guy who likes that team". No matter how innocuous the comment, you have associated yourself with that team and people associate the team with you. You are attached now, and your parents will congratulate you when your team wins.
So why even bother? Why associate yourself with something as frustrating and horrifying as Washington State football?
First, context. Please read Spencer Hall whenever possible, but particularly this. If you aren't much of the readin' type, however, here's the part of that link that pertains to our conversation.
You may even choose to root for a hopeless team. If you do this, if you enlist with the Baylors, the Kentuckys, the Indianas of the college football cosmos, you clearly crave sorrow, danger, or the mad rush of tears, thousands of minutes of accumulated tears, through your door. Merely reading these three names has formed a high pressure system in your living room, and a cold front in your kitchen. When they meet over your head as you read this in your chair or on your couch, the precipitation will be unending. You are a manic gambler, a masochist, a fool, or a patron of lost causes with time, love, concern, and pain tolerance to burn.
Gambling is an appropriate metaphor for the forlorn Cougar fan. You have bet your sports fandom on a long shot - a horse running a race at 50 to 1 odds. You have done this not because you love losing, or love watching leads get blown, or love watching your team fall apart at the most critical moments. You have done this because you want to be there when that horse shockingly, improbably crosses the finish line first.
The Washington State Cougars are a lottery ticket we're all waiting to cash in. Whether you're willing to admit it or not, you had other choices in the wide world of collegiate athletics. You could root for USC and start on third base, in the center of the world's most fertile recruiting ground where touchdowns result in effortlessly tossing the ball to Snoop Dogg. You could root for Texas and enjoy the benefits of the world's richest athletic department and richest tradition of toying with conference alignments. You could even root for Washington and improve your odds within the state - after all, the travel is easier when you're able to take the freeway, and the grass literally greener.
It's an easy trap to fall into. People from across the country root for the Yankees, the Cowboys, the Lakers. There's a multitude of reasons for that, but those fans are ultimately propped up by the safety of that "Tradition of Excellence". I'd argue no team in the last 11 years has blown leads as well as the Yankees. There was the 2001 World Series where the Yanks lead 3 games to 2 heading in to Arizona. They promptly lost Game 6 in a blowout. Game 7 is more memorable: leading 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth the Yankees sent out Mariano Rivera - still widely considered to be the greatest closer of all time - and gave up 2 runs and lost the World Championship. Then, of course, the 2004 ALCS where New York blew late leads in Game 4 and 5 en route to squandering a three to nothing series lead.
Of course nobody says they "Yank'd it", because they have the soft cushion of 27 World Championships to fall back on. Winning cures all ills and drives away all demons, regardless of logic or reason. The best team doesn't always win, see: Mariners, Seattle, 2001. In America we've decided a tournament winner is the best team in baseball; not the team that had the most success in the largest round robin in sports. In the NBA teams can get away with phoning in entire regular seasons as long as they finish in the Top 16 and turn it on in the postseason. Games end arbitrarily at a defined time point - 40 minutes, 60 minutes, and regardless of how often your team lead before 0:00, if you're behind at that point you are a loser. And don't we all feel like losers now.
We all have a defined point where we became Coug fans. Give up now, and we give up on those 10, 20, 30, 50 years of fandom. Even worse, we risk giving up our fandom at a time when things may be close to turning the corner. There's a delay on investment in college sports. FCS teams are reaping the rewards of those payout games the last five years - the good ones are now consistently competitive with the bad FBS teams. Likewise, in five years the gap between the divisions will re-open when the BCS conferences begin to reap the rewards of those lucrative television contracts. The football complex that loomed over us as the ball fell to the turf against Eastern Washington will eventually be part of the reason it doesn't happen again.
It's tempting to go elsewhere, but admit it: you have a type. Kyle mentioned Oregon State yesterday: the WSU of Oregon. Small fanbase, small money, cool school colors. Refugee Coug fans will just find the most Coug-like Universities to root for: Virginia Tech, Kansas State, Mississippi State, etc. All of those teams will win games, all of them will lose games and all of them will watch late leads slip away to inferior teams. And we'll like them for the same reasons: small towns, underdog mentalities and the ability to occasionally dethrone the elite teams in their conference.
Walking back from the game I got a completely earnest "Go Cougs" from a young guy driving by in a car. Maybe he was oblivious to the game's result. Maybe he left the stadium early (not always a bad idea when dealing with WSU). Regardless, it made me happy. I realized everyone leaving that stadium was united in their pain, united in their frustration and united in the fact almost all of them will do it again.
The worst loss I've ever seen was the basketball debacle to #1 Stanford in 2004. I hate having to even bring it up, but it included WSU blowing a 5 point lead with 25 seconds left and the ball in their possession. The sequence included a four point play, a 5-second call on the Cougs that was a second too fast and an improbable buzzer beater that wasn't a buzzer beater (the officials let the final couple seconds on the clock slip away after the ball went through the net). I'm not going into more detail than that.
It's still hurts, but I laugh at it now because a kid from Wisconsin named Kyle Weaver took note of that game as evidence that little Washington State could compete with anyone. Eventually, the Cougs did a lot more than just compete.
Whether or not we're gambling on Washington State, we're gambling on Washington State. We invest our time, our emotions and our ticket prices (or Cougar Athletic Fund donation) on this football team. And why?
Because when the long shot finally crosses the finish line first, you're going to want to be there for the payout.