Thursday, November 21, 2019

On Losing and Moving On

After the victory over Penn State we experienced a week unlike any I can remember as a Gopher fan. Unprecedented levels of local coverage and interest (at least, unprecedented positive coverage), significant national exposure, and 4 separate blog posts from 3 separate authors on Still Got Hope dot com. And yet, for many it didn’t take long for the fear of a major letdown against Iowa to take the foremost place in a lot of minds. It’s an understandable response given our past Gopher fan experiences. Moreover, the Gophers haven’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999 and its associated curse is well documented. I was not immune from these feelings, but my efforts to turn over a new leaf led me to focus on the concept that this year and program is different.

Surprisingly to me, in the aftermath of the Iowa loss I still find myself optimistic and far from devastated. Yes, it’s disappointing. Yes, I wish we could chalk up another head of the hydra, but I haven’t found myself dwelling on it. I was not shocked to find that a vocal section of the Minnesota fanbase has had a somewhat different and more fatalistic reaction, but I was a little surprised at how far into meltdown mode many seemed to drop. I may have been insulated from it by being unable to watch, away for an extended weekend at deer camp in the north woods, my mind otherwise occupied.

I came to deer hunting late compared to many in this state; I’m 37 years old and this year was my 7th year afield. I’m passable at it, but not an expert sportsman. I love almost everything about deer camp: the camaraderie and time spent with friends, the pastoral quiet and stillness of the woods, the intense excitement of finding sign or hearing a grunt, the camp fires and cooking, and beers after shooting hours end. Other than the quiet, it bears similarities to a tailgate. The venison is nice too, on the all-to-rare occasions we have a successful year in the ruminant-challenged section we hunt.

One valuable lesson deer hunting has taught me is that nothing worth having comes without some discomfort, and for me that part is field-dressing the deer. Field-dressing is a polite term for gutting the animal in the field prior to taking it for further processing. This is important both to cool down the meat quickly to prevent spoilage, and to remove organs which might potentially contaminate the meat. I’m sure there are hunters who enjoy it but most I’ve talked to tolerate it as opposed to glorying in it. I look forward to deer camp every year but even with that excitement, in the back of my mind there’s always the knowledge that if I take a deer, the field-dressing is the next thing that follows.

The gore associated with the act is one thing, but I worry more about failing and the associated embarrassment if I do. Yet this fear doesn’t stop me from putting everything I have into something I love (at least for an extended weekend). The challenge is too engaging, the potential rewards too great. So I focus on the task at hand and accept that there’s a price to pay for success.

For Gophers fans unaccustomed to success except at the barest of levels, it’s exceedingly tough to let go of the “high” of a win streak. We want to hold on to the feeling because we don’t have confidence we’ll have it again. This is a natural reaction, but the near-immediate transition from the high of 11 consecutive wins, a 9-0 start to the season, the biggest home victory for the Gophers since 1977, and a week of massive enthusiasm to the “same old Gophers” routine was as nauseating as it was predictable.

The end of a streak is the equivalent of field-dressing a deer. It’s an inevitable result to a long-enough run of success, and it’s something players and fans alike need to become accustomed to if they’re going to prevent themselves from going insane following a successful team. When you’re consistently 4-8 (Nebraska: hello) losing becomes easier in its own way because it’s familiar. I didn’t get a deer this year so I didn’t have to get my hands dirty. On balance, I’d rather have the venison.

Win streaks cannot last forever, and that’s true even for the greatest of programs. Iowa schemed well for the Gophers and exploited areas of known weakness. Minnesota perpetuated that not through new errors, but through weaknesses that have been present in varying degrees all season. We didn’t see anything bad from the Gophers we haven’t seen before, and Iowa didn’t find a “special sauce” that unlocks the key to victory that will result in yet another downfall.

Another thing that we didn’t see was a Gopher team that gave up. Going into halftime with a multi-score deficit to one of their biggest rivals on the road has historically been a sign of impending second-half collapse. Instead, Minnesota came back with a touchdown after half to bring the game within one possession, tightened up some of the defensive issues, and came within four points despite a second half that was also far from perfect. Let’s not call it a “moral victory”…it wasn’t. However, I can’t look at that performance and think “same old Gophers”. “Same old Gophers” keeps bringing field goals to a touchdown fight and loses the game by four scores or worse.

Looking back on the narrative of an entire season or a program over time, we may find ourselves with a certain degree of gratitude for this game. It taught us that the clock management errors, poor tackling, and special teams weaknesses we survived in other games this season will not go unpunished forever, especially if they all overlap.

Did we buy into our own hype? Probably. I’ll admit that my nerves increased a notch when I saw how tired P.J. Fleck looked in his interview during the College Football Playoff ranking show last Tuesday. If that’s the case, it’s not surprising given the intensity of the Penn State victory which I certainly felt too. Before we criticize that too harshly, let’s be honest about how WE would have handled that at 19 or 20 years of age.

Learning to live with success and bounce back from failure is an important life lesson beyond what happens on the field. Successful programs learn to direct that energy appropriately, and Northwestern gives our team that opportunity this coming Saturday. We’ve seen so many season-end collapses from programs over the years when adversity strikes; Minnesota has to be able to get beyond that.

If you find yourself rushing to equate a close road loss to a charged-up rival coming their own close loss within the Quadrangle of Hate to 55-0, I suggest you take a hard look at what is motivating you. It’s easy to say “I told you so” and find twisted satisfaction in failure, but it is ultimately a self-defeating approach that will numb you to the happiness and enjoyment you can find from a 9-1 season with 2 more big games ahead.

Minnesota has already met my personal expectation of a 9-3 season and 10-2/11-1 remain very much in reach. The “young team” narrative has been very overblown, but this is an experience that could pay off in years to come if handled appropriately by the coaches and players. Until proven otherwise, trust that the team and the coaches will pull it together and use this lesson to finish strong. You can do the same. As our friend Frothy has said, it’s not real, it’s baggage you’ve chosen to carry.

So the inevitable happened. Fine. Grit your teeth and get to the field-dressing. There’s beer in the cooler back at camp and your friends are waiting.