The word serendipity is defined in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language as an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. It was so named based on a faculty possessed by the heroes of a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip.
Early in this college football season, we are blessed with The Four Princes of Serendip. Who would have ventured a guess that we would find Kansas, Baylor, Indiana and Vanderbilt undefeated as we head into October. All four have been characterized by poor records and coaching turnover in recent years.
Hopeful players, coaches and fans in these programs are dealing with the range of behaviors that accompany surprising performance by habitual losers. Before folks start frothing at the mouth let me issue a disclaimer. The term loser is only intended as a reference to recent football win-loss records, not to the universities, coaches or players. There are plenty of people who struggle on the gridiron but who are winners in life.
What is going on in and around these early surprises? What must happen for performance to continue to improve? Who will be charged with the copious details involved with remaining competitive as the schedules turn brutal?
The coaches of all four teams would not like my choice of words and fairy tales. They would insist, with some justification, that there was no surprise here, just the logical result of months and years of careful planning and hard work. Cynics will laugh and point to the hapless opponents on all four schedules. Fans of traditional powers will feel no threat, even if they are up next for these upstarts, reminding us not to get too excited until they have "played a real football team."
Fellowship of the Miserable
The loudest fan group of all (I didn't say the largest, just the most vociferous), the ones I call the "Fellowship of the Miserable," will go beyond laughter. They are the purveyors of ridicule and dissension, and enjoy compensating for their own insecurities by belittling anyone who attempts great things. These are the people who were the bullies on the playground as long as they could pick on the smaller kids. They are the ones who bragged about going out for football, then quit after a couple of weeks because they could not handle the gut checks of two-a-day practices. They will take two hours to tell you about the knee injury that prevented their making All-American at State U.
They come from every walk of life and worm their way into alumni groups, faculties, administration, locker rooms, training rooms, academic support systems and uncertain psyches. At times they are parents or other relatives of players. Believe it or not, some are members of the media. They can infect the team and change the environment. Their behavior is similar to a virus that destroys the hard drive in a computer.
Ironically, their antidote is contained within the coaching staffs and teams. If they are inside the program they can be won over, but only with one-on-one influence from a dominant personality. I learned the hard way that they cannot all be fired. They must be identified, recognized for what they are, then counteracted by the coaches and leaders on the teams.
The good fans, who are usually the majority and do not wish to join the F.O.M., need encouragement, too. The best way to provide that is performance. They must be reminded of the overall plan in as many ways as possible, but they will be heartened and begin to multiply when they see great effort and good coaching on the field. Their importance in the grand scheme must be consistently emphasized.
Homer Rice was a great athletic director at North Carolina, Rice and Georgia Tech. Now retired, he understands the dynamics of building programs from the ground up. In the early 1980s, I was one of several young coaches in a program at Georgia Tech that had become a laughingstock in every way. Bobby Cremins was the basketball coach and Jim Morris had the baseball job. Periodically Dr. Rice required us to listen as he instructed us on his Attitude Technique.
Space does not permit me to delineate the entire program here, but I can offer the beginning. The Attitude Technique posits that perspective is crucial to proper understanding of accomplishment. The Fellowship of the Miserable tends to have one of two perspectives. The first is foolish optimism. A little early success evokes cries of, "We're No. 1! We will win it all this year! Wow, we are 4-0! Nobody can touch us now. We are going to the Rose Bowl!" This can cause immature players to forget that playing Richmond or Nicholls State is not exactly like playing LSU or Wisconsin. It reminds me of an old Southern phrase, "Whistling in the graveyard."
The second is more dangerous -- the diehard pessimists. The pessimists weasel in close to the players, talk on the call-in shows and post their blogs wherever possible. They harp on the facts as they see them. And they only see bad, as they moan, "You know, this coach should not be here. We don't like him at all. We have not beaten a real football team, and we never will. All these folks that get excited have not been around here very long. We always lose."
Players digest this garbage and it surfaces on the practice field, in the locker room and even in the games as adversity is greeted by sullenness and loss of concentration.
Good coaches, athletic directors and team leaders are combating these forces now by teaching the players what is demanded, which is a realistic perspective. One should not be foolishly optimistic or pessimistic but should learn to be realistic. Much is made about this generation's lack of discipline, but I have found that when a team is told the truth and required to adhere to a disciplined system, the players work their hearts out to positively respond. They learn personal responsibility.
If you listen to the men running two of the programs mentioned above you begin to get a feel for the right approach. Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner, as his team opens its Big Ten schedule at Wisconsin, says, "We are going to try to contain, slow them down and at times stop the running game, but I don't think you can say you are going to go in and stop it." What this says to his players is that their coach is not an idiot. Nobody shuts down Wisconsin's ground game, but a proper plan can hold it in check enough to have a good chance to win.
Hoeppner is also the instigator of a brilliant marketing plan designed to encourage the many hopeful Indiana fans and create new ones. Billboards across the state read, "Crowds help win games. Hep wants you!" They are very effective.
Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, commenting on his fine quarterback, Jay Cutler, praises the entire team rather than single out an individual. When asked this week about Cutler, he stated, "We're doing a lot better job of helping him out. We're doing a much better job of protection and the receivers have really stepped up their play. And our running game is much better."
Johnson is building on the truth and sense of team with every remark. The players begin to understand and appreciate the fact that there really are no individual stars in football. Everybody can pitch in, and there is credit to go around.
Dr. Rice teaches that there are only two basic attitudes in the human organism: positive and negative. Having established a realistic perspective with hard work and constant reminders, coaches and team leaders can build a positive attitude. As the team grasps the concepts, a synergy develops that leads to the perseverance and discipline so vital to success in football.
The bottom line is that as understanding combines with positive attitude, habitual behavior changes. Complaints, alibis and finger-pointing give way to unselfish work at practice and 60 minutes of effort on Saturday. The end result is a team that will never quit. Never. Will every game be a win? No, but every game is a good shot at a win, and that excites everyone.
This is the kind of thing that is very easy to write about and very difficult to execute. But find any team that has defeated the Fellowship of the Miserable, competed against superior teams and won, and you will find people who are bonded for life. Serendipity has given way to habitual winning habits. And the most important by-product is that team members understand what life is going to demand, and they are equipped to deal with it.
I recently spoke with Dr. Rice and mentioned that I find myself teaching the Attitude Technique more and more. He smiled and said, "Just tell them that it works."
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 appear each week during the college football season.