Streaks aside, Fulmer and Brown are winners
Overexposure -- for the wrong reasons -- has people questioning Mack Brown of Texas and Phil Fulmer of Tennessee.
Exposure has become a pervasive goal in our culture. A recent cartoon features a youth leader in the woods with his group of 8-year-olds. As the children stand facing him, with hands on hips, defiant expressions and jaws thrust forward, the leader speaks in one of those bold cartoon balloons with exclamation points:
People get paid large sums of cash to produce the articles, promotions, ads and appearances that produce exposure. But one surefire, inexpensive method of being out there every day is to go on a losing streak to your biggest rival in the sport of football. It will not cost you a cent, and your fame -- or infamy -- is assured. Just ask Texas coach Mack Brown or Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.
Each has lost four in a row to his conference rival, Fulmer to Georgia, Brown to Oklahoma. They might as well have removed their garments, donned some sleigh bells and trotted through downtown Knoxville and Austin in broad daylight because they already get lots of our society's favorite drug: attention.
But not for the right reasons.
For the record, Brown is the most successful head football coach in the history of Texas football for an initial six-year stint. He is the only active head football coach whose teams have won nine or more games nine consecutive years (at North Carolina and Texas).
Fulmer's overall record stands at 113-28 (.801), third-best among active coaches. His team won the national championship in 1998. And for the purposes of this discussion we will put aside his off-field problems.
When football "experts" discuss these two men, what do we hear most often? Of course we hear of the streaks the terrible streaks.
What occurs when a group of 100 teenage males on a football team are treated as streakers? What happens to their performance on the field when they are so regarded all year long? What happens when they pick up newspapers, turn on televisions, walk into class, even walk into the grocery store, and are pounced upon with the same questions 365 days a year?
We know what happens: It gets into their heads. Like the rap music on their iPods it permeates their thought processes. It becomes part of the individual and collective consciousness, creating a certain culture surrounding the topic of the annual "Big Game." It grows like a virus, mutating and taking different forms in different settings, but always present.
When I coached at Alabama our team won nine games in my second year. We had not beaten Auburn, the well-documented bitter rival. During summer vacation I visited the mall in Tuscaloosa and was approached by a lovely, well-dressed lady who appeared to be in her late 70s or early 80s. She politely addressed me, approached and took both my forearms into her hands, steadying herself as she became teary-eyed. "Coach, do you think we can win this year? We need it so very badly."
I answered in the affirmative and went on my way, better educated about the cultural significance of our one-game season, still five months away.
Even with all our effort and work, and with the vast majority of our games being wins, we were perceived more as an oddity, even an embarrassment, than as a team with a .750 winning percentage. We might as well have been streakers in a land where folks are deadly serious about proper dress.
|So what does one do? How can coaches break through and defeat the virus of a streak? Brown and Fulmer certainly know what they are doing, and have two distinct ways of approaching their teams.|
Mack Brown takes the inevitable questions about his future and that of the Texas program as a personal responsibility. He says, "I want the players to relax and really enjoy the week. I take full responsibility for everything that has happened in the past. I am the constant in the situation."
He is offering a real example to his young men. He is demonstrating leadership as it is understood by all the great men and women who have had similar experiences in sport, politics or business. He will affect his players' lives in a positive way whether or not they beat Oklahoma. Given time they will get that done, but that is not really the point of the lesson the youngsters are absorbing. And for the record, I think Texas will win this year.
Phillip Fulmer chooses to remind his players that they have been this way before, although in somewhat different form. One year ago Auburn and Georgia had manhandled the Vols, and the orange-clad faithful were up in arms. But Fulmer reminds his players that they went to Miami and whipped the Hurricanes in their own stadium.
In essence he is repeatedly teaching the valuable lesson that his team is capable of beating the highest-rated teams if and when it plays to its potential. I do not think Tennessee can beat this Georgia team, but the Vols will eventually win again.
Both Texas and Tennessee have incredible talent, which is essential in these complex challenges, and given time the veteran coaches' attitudes will overcome the current miasma to become the dominant culture on the team. Will it be this week? No one can predict how and when teenage males do anything. But sooner or later consistent teaching overcomes the negative culture.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. His Center Stage examinations of marquee matchups appear each week during the college football season.