The other day I called my friend an idiot. I screamed it, even if I didn’t really raise my voice, and he understood what I meant. Thankfully he took it well. He is an Oregon fan, and I was explaining how silly his assertions that they’d have fewer 7pm kicks in the BIG-10 next year were.
I was caught off guard by my intensity in that insult and was worried I’d offended a friend and coworker over something stupid. Thankfully this friend is from southern Oregon, so calling someone an idiot just means you’re comfortable with each other, and we were able to have a civil discourse after that. But it left me a bit startled at the anger seeping just below my otherwise placid temperament.
This was the moment I realized that I remain angry at the death of the PAC-12, and the likely death of big-time athletics at WSU, constantly. While the mirth has retreated from my language, posture, and conversation day to day-the white-hot visceral anger at what this conference has done to my school has not abetted in the slightest.
It’s just become normal. Life has to move on, and the world doesn’t stop for anger anymore than it stops for grief. A brief gust of indulgence is sometimes accommodated. No more, no less.
Which brings us to an irrepressibly sad WSU football game against Stanford, and an irrepressibly sad month of WSU Cougar athletics. While I can’t speak to the demeanor of our other programs, I can say that the posture of our football team indicates that the world is on their back-and the realities of having to move on from this season loom large on their hearts and minds.
The effort and desire are not gone, but the focus seems to come and go. Busted coverages, like the one that set up the winning Stanford field goal. Lazy pass sets, like the ones that set up our missed field goal. These are moments where the intensity of at least one person on the team slipped, often with the emotion of the game is at its highest, and they unraveled entire possessions.
This is what happens when you’re wondering what next season looks like more than you’re wondering what you need to do to be successful today.
In football an hour feels like a day, a day like a week, and a week like a month. Nineteen-year-olds leave college football seasons ready for a midlife crisis, having packed a few decades into a few months. Beyond that, the entire WSU athletic department is spending this season freeclimbing the cliff edge of college sports abyss. Unsure what happens when they fall, but unable to take their coach’s advice and not look down. How could you? When the water is rising and you can’t be sure how deep it goes or how cold it is, or if it is even water you’re looking at.
Football is a special game. Excellence requires everything, regardless of sport or activity. Excellence in football requires everything from everyone on the team and everyone connected to them. It takes an entire community being willing to bend their lives simply for the chance to win more football games in order to create a process that gives you a chance to win more football games, and the reality is that even with that-everything isn’t always enough.
Which is why football coaches are notorious for being huge sticks in the mud when it comes to off-field distractions. If you’re spending your physical, mental, and emotional energy elsewhere, you might end up not having that energy to spend on the field. Now, energy isn’t a zero-sum game and people are energized by a surprisingly strange range of things and experiences- so that posture typically just makes football people look silly when they insist that things like dating Taylor Swift could dramatically impact the product on the field. However, it is not unreasonable to point out that having the entire future of your athletic department hang in the halls of the Whitman County Superior Court might limit the emotional energy you have to spend in a football game.
But what about Oregon State? Oregon State still has things to play for. WSU, New Mexico Bowl equivalent aside, doesn’t really. At least nothing that can seriously compete with the life altering reality of losing P5 football next year. Every single player must be considering either their place at WSU and the possibility of transferring this spring; or WSU’s place in football and what that means for them personally. Do not underestimate that many athletes come to WSU because they believe they are good enough to play professionally or are at least good enough to compete with the best in the world. They’ve often traveled across the country to do that- and even if they plan on staying, the realities of having that dream stolen from them loom impossibly large. Shoot, *I* feel like my legacy as an athlete is being somehow diminished by the death of the PAC-12, and I played 15 years ago on a much worse WSU football team.
Add in the reality that teams have discovered some core weaknesses with our team and have removed any of the margin for error we had in September, and the emotional demands that winning football poses simply seem beyond the capacities of our team right now. One of my coaches defined intensity as ‘100% focus on the one task you’re doing right now’. He was a great coach, and rightly insisted that good football demanded this intensity. Utter focus on immediate tasks. The enemy isn’t the other guy, the enemy is our attention span. That is true, and it is a standard that might just be more than any group of 100+ people are able to do given our current circumstances.
They deserve better. This team has gone through an incredible amount the last four years, and their ability to have intensity through it all has been remarkable. But life, like football, simply isn’t fair. Winning demands what it demands, and it appears it has demanded too much of this group of people.
I don’t blame them. I just grieve for them.
And I hope that I’m wrong.