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Overcoming a Devastating Defeatby: David Miller
© February 2006
We are a nation obsessed with it: from reality game shows, to toothpaste whiteners. Winning it seems, has become the “the only thing” – as Vince Lombardi so prophetically proclaimed nearly a half century ago. And today, that bar inches ever higher. So what happens when we lose? And not just lose . . . but lose badly?
The Pittsburg State Gorillas (KS) put the big hurt, on nearly every Division II opponent they faced in 2004 – setting an NCAA record of 837 points scored: besting a 118-year old record by 72 points (Harvard). Unfortunately, these mind-boggling numbers came at someone’s expense. September 25, 2004 was a black-letter day for Coach Kirby Cannon of Missouri-Rolla, as he watched helplessly while his Miner’s were dismembered, 91-27, by this 800-lb. Gorilla.
Coach Cannon reflects, “We used it as life-lesson. There will be times when you’re embarrassed in life; you’ll lose your job, something goes wrong in your family, and other tragedies that are certainly more important than the score of that game. They knew what a humiliating loss felt like. It’s certainly not good medicine but it can be an aid and a motivator not to repeat it.”
From interviewing coaches around the country, one message became very clear: dealing with defeat starts before the game. To recover from a humiliating loss, a team needs to build upon and develop a sense of family. It may be only football – but a “Band of Brothers” camaraderie can overcome a multitude of adversity. And unfortunately, it may not be only one game but an entire season. In 2004, Cheney State University (PA) suffered thought an agonizing 1-10 record, made worse by allowing a charitable 555 points – scoring only 64 themselves.
Former Lehigh University skipper Pete Lembo shares the philosophy that has been quite successful for his Mountain Hawks. “It all goes back to having a great foundation in place. If you have values that you believing and put them in your program – and for us a sense of family and togetherness if right there at the top of the list – then those core values give you an awful lot to fall back on when adversity hits.”
Clock management is a strategy that is often over looked by coaching staffs. During the Division II National Championship game last year, head coach Chris Hatcher of Valdosta State was keenly aware of the carnage left by Pittsburg State. Part of his game plan was to control the clock by utilizing the ground game and bleeding the play clock down to its final seconds. It worked and the Blazers had a happy ending: 36-31.
Head coach Bill Dee of Phoebus High School (VA) explains it can be the little things that matter. “We were down 20-0 right before the half. They were going for a two-point conversion. I told them, ‘Let’s just make something positive happen here – something to build on.’ The kids were looking for anything, but we sucked it up and stopped them. That one small play gave them a huge boost. One little thing made something positive and helped stop the bleeding.”
Other coaches may view this as an opportunity to experiment – a time to leave their “comfort zone.” Bill Gierke, head coach of Edgewater High School (FL) took a creative approach to the game he rarely finds himself in – losing badly. “When it’s out of hand and you’re not performing well, it’s best as a coach to try and do something in the game that might help you to be successful later on in the season. We made some adjustments in personal that helped us a lot. We moved some kids around in the second half – got them some experience in different positions and it really made a difference down the road.”
With games like these, halftime can be more than just drawing X’s and O’s. Depending on your team, a different approach is needed. Chris Hatcher found his Blazers on the short end of a 24-0 halftime score. Seeing his chances slip away on a mud-soaked field, he did what few coaches would do. “I just told them, ‘ya’ll got yourselves into this mess and ya’ll can get yourselves out of it!’” . . . and then walked away. Amazingly they did win the game. Most coaches interviewed agreed that “getting a pulse on your team” is crucial in determining what actions to take next. Like a physician diagnosing a patient – coaching is no different.
Take a deep breath. Football is a game of emotions and unfortunately coaches, like players, can lose their cool too . . . but don’t. Coach Gierke makes it a point to stand back and assess. “When you have a devastating loss, it’s better not to dwell on it the night of the game because everybody is emotionally involved. Sometimes you can say things either to the players or the staff and 24 hours later you might regret it. It’s better to just accept the blame as the head coach and move on.”
Take responsibility. Talk with your players and coaches openly and honestly; they’ll respect you for it. Coach Rick Darlington of Valdosta (GA) High School shares his views. “I think Bear Bryant had it right when he told the media, ‘When we win, it’s the players and when we lose, it’s the coaches’ and I agree.” Darlington takes it a little further. “If it was really good – you did it; if it was somewhat good – we did it; and if was terrible – I did it. Never blame the players, never. Even if it was their fault . . . that’s the kiss of death.”
Take something positive. Two weeks after their ‘Waterloo” Missouri-Rolla faced another top-twenty Division II team. By building upon the few positives from their earlier defeat, the Miners won a hard fought battle against Central Missouri State, 42-38, ending a 13-year losing streak.
“So much of coaching is psychology anyway,” observes Coach Darlington. During his first year he endured a 1-3 start and from a school that boasts the most wins in high school in America - 821 wins – that is devastating. “Losing three out of four to begin your season, that’s not a very good place to be. The community was saying things to our kids: a very negative atmosphere. We told them and prepared them, ‘you’re going to sit down to dinner and your daddy is going to say how stupid your coaches are and your mamma is going to say how stupid you are.’ We made sure those kids understood that we loved them no matter what happened on Friday night – come Saturday morning we were there for them. The next year we won ten straight and went to the state finals.”
Our allure for football is about winning – but it’s as much about the adversity and the struggle to win which becomes the real teacher. “Success” it has been said, “is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” How you confront those devastating defeats isn’t necessarily a reflection of your winning percentage – but rather you character.
And remember – it’s still a game. The sun will come out tomorrow – you won’t be voted off the island.
David Miller is a contributing writer to AFM
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