October 1, 2017
What I know about football is not much, and I learned it playing football in high school. (Hadn’t planned on revealing my age, but it was 1978-1980). High school football meant a lot to me because it was very hard. Every team has an opponent, and every player is competing against (at least) one other player who is trying their hardest to do the opposite. It’s hard, it’s competition, and sometimes the worthiest wins, sometimes not. In a sport with 11 players on the field, sometimes 10 do their job, one does not and that dooms the play to failure; 100% failure not 10% failure, not 90% winning. Likewise in a game a team can win 90% of the plays but lose the game. (NB: I know the math is off I don’t care). In my case the plays had symbols where I, the “O,” was to block the “X” but always X didn’t want to be blocked. Sometimes I managed to get in X’s way for several seconds in a row, but then he would get loose and go blow up the entire play.
Watching a sport, in this case football, like every fan I know what I like and what I don’t. When I see things go on that I don’t like, I want them to be different. And I mull a lot more after a loss than after a win. (According to an excellent essay in today’s NYT Book Review, politics can be that way too). Being a Gamecock fan since I showed up in Columbia for classes in the Fall of 1980(and not before, it was my choice), I have mulled over quite a few losses in various sports.
One virtue I have as a fan is a sense of the limits of my knowledge. My experiences playing (the best I could, but often poorly) in high school inform me there’s a lot I don’t know. That is one reason why it really bugs me when fans of the same team I root for claim to know more than the coaches of the Gamecocks who earn their living at that particular sport. Coaches make mistakes. But it is almost never because they miss the obvious, as some fans think. It is not because they are stupid at their sport, although implying so makes some fans feel better (It doesn’t, but they think it does, almost as important to them).
What I know about football is that better players, playing together, beat an opposing team of players not as skilled, or do not play together as well, nearly all the time. Players doing what they are capable of, that which they have practiced to do, beat opponents trying to do something they have never done, or are not accustomed through practice and experience at doing. And sometimes the margin between winning (a one-on- one, a play, a drive, a game) and losing is very small.
A little more concrete: Football is fundamentals, blocking and avoiding blocks, throwing and catching and defending throws and catches, running and tackling, turning the ball over and sometimes creating turnovers (but more often, recovering the gifts that are given). Football is also “mentals” as my coach loved to say and as the guys on the team liked to mock behind his back. But mostly the physical fundamentals.
Football is not a Coach calling brilliant plays. This is what most fans seem to think and talk about. This bugs me. If this was true, then teams would find some braniac who learned how to call plays by playing Xbox. The most basic offensive play is the straight ahead run, in our high school veer we called it “dive,” and if it is executed perfectly it’s a great play. A triple reverse pass, if it fails, is the worst play. A play that works is good; a play that fails is bad. But the outcome of no play is determined before it is called.
Another thing I learned about a team is there is so much more going on behind the scenes than any observer (fan) can know. Players get hurt. They just aren’t playing well for any number of reasons, and there isn’t always a suitable replacement.
As a Gamecock fan I’ve spent the years since 1980 often pondering what makes one coach successful and others not. Obviously some people are better than others at certain things and coaches are no exception. In life, bad things happen to good people and obviously that is true in sports.
Why coaches calling for the firing of the coach bugs me
So here’s my point of this piece. Fans feel bad when their favorite team loses, that’s universal. The depth of their feelings vary. Deeper feelings are not always a virtue, is something I didn’t know in 1980 but I have learned or decided or been taught over the years.
In the age of the Gamecock Internet, I have gotten myself kicked off of every Gamecock sports web board that regulated admission (they kindly kept my subscription money each time, which should have been a valuable lesson to me). The reason was that people bad mouthing coaches and players bugs me and I cannot let go of it.
Why do I care about other people’s God Given Right To Bad Mouth? Two reasons.
I played high school football because it was hard. The overwhelming majority of males at my school did not, and I feel safe saying the same is true everywhere. The number of men who have actually played high school football (the majority of those, like me, had no possibility or hope of playing in college) is very small compared to the number of fans who directly express their public opinion that they know more than the coaches. Where did they supposedly pick up that knowledge? Is it possible without coaching, much less actually playing the game?
Note: Tackle football hurts. If you have never put on a helmet and driven your head into the head of another human being wearing a helmet, then you have no idea what that is like. If you have been in a violent car wreck, you have some idea what it sounds like, at least.
My other reason is even more personal. My high school team won just slightly more than it lost (which is slightly better than the history of Gamecock football). After every game, win or lose, my dad would express some form of the following: “you played hard and I am proud of you, but your coaches are terrible.” My dad himself did play in high school. But this criticism bugged me; although I did think my coaches made mistakes, some obvious, some subtle, some inconsequential, some costly, I knew what their plan was because I knew the work we all put into the games in mind and body numbing practices. (I was the worst practice player ever — all I wanted to do was survive and move on). So that is a reason why people ranting in public bothers me so much that sometimes I cannot put it away.
If you must rant about the team, do it in private
Gamecock fans on the internet say they have a right to “rant.” As I am doing. But there is a difference between expressing emotion, and being negative. Being critical of a thing you claim to love is a perilous undertaking.
I don’t like it when a play in football doesn’t work. But I don’t think I know more than the coach did who called it. I don’t think the problem is that one play was called instead of a different one. Pretty sure that no coach in the history of Gamecock sports ever told the players to do something wrong.
The stupidest thing I ever read on the Gamecock internet was “the games mean more to us fans than to the players.” Second worst is fans that think they know more than the coaches. You don’t.