Commentary

Agony of defeat trumps thrill of victory

Originally Published: August 2, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

"The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans." -- George C. Scott, playing the Academy Award-winning lead role in the 1970 movie "Patton."

Gen. George Patton spoke from a wartime perspective. But the words apply to American society in general -- college football fans, players and coaches prominently included.

For a remarkable number of people who have an emotional stake in the sport, losing is more hateful than winning is joyful. The agony of defeat outweighs the thrill of victory. Perhaps ABC understood that concept when it coined those phrases as part of its famous introduction to "Wide World of Sports": the video of Yugoslavian ski jumper Vinko Bogataj's spectacular wipeout remains far more memorable than whatever B-roll accompanied the thrill of victory.

It feels unhealthy to expend more emotional fuel on disappointment than enjoyment. And it certainly seems futile -- because unless you are Knowlton "Snake" Ames, defeat is unavoidable.

Ames was the coach at Purdue in 1891 and 1892, rolling up a perfect 12-0 record in that time. His two teams scored 512 points and surrendered 24. And then he got out while the getting was good, forever undefeated as a college football coach. According to the records at College Football Data Warehouse, he is the only coach in college history to retire unbeaten after more than one full year on the job.

[+] EnlargeTommy Tuberville
John Reed/US PresswireTommy Tuberville led Auburn to an undefeated season in 2004, but an overtime loss to LSU in 2005 still delivers pain.
In the century-plus of football since Snake Ames hung it up, we seem progressively more wired to wallow in the misery of loss. Whether that's truly human nature or a byproduct of our blame-centric modern society is debatable. Whether it's true or not for a large percentage of college football fans and participants -- perhaps even a majority -- seems beyond debate.

"Losing stays with you longer," Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said firmly. "It probably shouldn't, but the preparation you put into it -- the hours and late nights, all the work in the offseason -- when you come up short, it's hard to forget. It keeps affecting you. You can't get that out of your gut."

Tuberville went 13-0 at Auburn in 2004. But he can also remember vividly the agony of losing 20-17 at LSU the next season, when his team missed five field goals.

That's just how it works.

"A lot of athletes I have worked with compete to avoid losing, because the losing is so bitter," said Dr. Joel Fish, sports psychologist and director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia. "They not only want to win, they want to avoid losing. The highs are high, but the lows are really, really low."

Dave Czesniuk, director of operations at Northeastern University's Center for Sport and Society, said that's part of the impact of defeat: Athletes and teams devote so much preparation time to winning -- and avoiding losing -- that the emotional investment becomes that much greater. And given the football axiom that victory is tied to preparation, teams that work copious hours in a week can be devastated by a loss.

"The loss is such a surprise to the system," Czesniuk said, "and it ends up taking such a destructive toll."

If you are accustomed to success, the negative effect of losing outweighs the positive effect of winning "100 percent," said Texas coach Mack Brown. After capturing his first and only national title in an epic upset of USC in January 2006, Brown said the feeling didn't match his expectations.

"I thought, 'I've been trying for 54 years to win this game, and in some ways it feels like another game,'" he recalled.

But after losing the national title to Alabama this past January, in a game in which the Longhorns were significant underdogs even before star quarterback Colt McCoy was injured in the first quarter, the effect was debilitating.

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
Kirby Lee/US PresswireMack Brown had trouble getting past Texas' loss to Bama in the 2009 title game.

"I had trouble with it for about a month," Brown said. "I had to go back to recruiting to get it off my mind."

But Brown isn't alone. That lingering sting of defeat has become a reality for fans as well -- especially college football fans.

At many schools, home football games have become three-day events. And the days in between games are spent rehashing the last game and forecasting the next game -- on message boards, on talk radio, on Twitter and in the office.

"The whole thing is a spectrum of perspective," Czesniuk said. "Some think being a fan is for a couple hours of enjoyment. Others think it's a livelihood. For those fans, it becomes a little unhealthy. The pendulum of emotion swings so strongly based on the outcome of a game."

And with seven days between games and only 12 a year, every result is amplified.

"The intensity of the schedule leads to fans wanting to squeeze a year's worth of fun into maybe six home dates," Czesniuk said. "What fans are investing, it's got this grandiose feel to it."

Everyone reading this story has at least one crushing defeat still gnawing a spot in his or her stomach. Same with the guy writing it. Top-ranked Nebraska's kicked-ball touchdown to beat my alma mater Missouri in 1997 -- at the time the 19th straight loss to the Cornhuskers -- would be the one for me.

But in the final analysis, learning to live with the agony of defeat might be a character-building necessity. Take Snake Ames, for instance.

In 1931, Ames committed suicide, shooting himself with a .38 caliber revolver as he sat in his car. For the undefeated coach, winning them all clearly wasn't the key to happiness.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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