Sports is not about winning, but about losing.
Depressing way to start my first column after Stanford’s sixth Rose Bowl victory ever, I know, but it is true. Winning a handful of games at the start of the college football season won’t take you to the National Championship Game, but losing them will guarantee your absence. Defeats define us far more that victories ever could.
Talk to the average Stanford fan, and while they’ll deservedly be basking in glory right now, there is still something bittersweet about how the past year went down. What if? What if we hadn’t dropped that game against Washington, what if a dubious call against Notre Dame had gone the other way?
Perhaps the answer will come next year, with the senior trio of Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner already signed up for one more year of Cardinal football and fans already dreaming of a serious shot at the national title. But maybe it won’t.
In two seasons in charge, David Shaw has a 23-4 record as head coach of Stanford, making him the fourth best on winning percentage in school history, the second best when considering only those coaches who spent two or more years at the helm and the clear best for the last hundred years. However, those statistics are obviously misleading. Shaw took over a team at the top of its game and, with last year’s top pick in the NFL Draft returning for his final season at quarterback, the Cardinal seemed destined for a solid year in 2011.
That this past season ultimately turned out to be even better, though, took many experts by surprise. Perhaps Shaw still isn’t Jim Harbaugh, the man he replaced, and the man that rescued Stanford from the depths of a 1-11 season in 2006. But not only is he clearly very good at his day job, maybe, just maybe, he’s even better.
Only time will tell. Only time will convince the many doubters in the Southeast. And luckily for Cardinal fans, time is something we have. Over the break, Shaw also reaffirmed his commitment to the school by signing a longer contract, squashing any rumors of his departure to the NFL before they could get started and before the NFL had had time to clear room in its coaching setup.
But if there is one certainty in sport it is that however good you might think you are, you will always lose eventually. Notre Dame’s regular season was not remarkable because it won 12 games, but because it didn’t lose a single one.
Few teams can go three whole years with just five losses — counting Harbaugh’s 12-1 final season — and for good reason. The incessant four-year turnover of college football ensures that building a dynasty is near impossible. Just when you’ve developed a star player they leave for the pros, and should you be unlucky enough to have unearthed a real gem, they leave in three, or less.
The decision not to jump ship for the pros is a tough one to make, especially for senior players who, unlike Andrew Luck ‘12 in 2011, have little left to prove academically — Skov, Murphy and Gardner should all be able to graduate this year. On the one side, they have a definite shot at the NFL and a guaranteed income, even if some college dreams might be left unfulfilled. On the other, they risk injury or perhaps a catastrophic season to settle that unfinished business. Not only could the decision hurt their eventual draft position, it could even cruelly crush that ambition.
The average sports team or player knows this. It is fear of losing that drives them more than a desire to win. That is why teams often struggle to hold onto a lead late in a game; they suddenly become aware of their shrinking lead and panic takes hold. And that is why other teams stage epic comebacks; losing is just too agonizing to be considered an option.
A friend of mine recently won her fantasy football league for the third straight year. My advice to her was simple: retire. It is never going to get better than this, so why risk the pain and humiliation.
But some people are never happy. Some people are not happy with four-straight bowls, three-straight BCS appearances and two BCS winner’s trophies. Some people are willing to risk it all to achieve the remarkable — and if Stanford somehow walked away with the national crown next year, it would be a truly remarkable achievement for a school known far more for its academics than its football.
Thankfully, as a Cardinal fan, it seems Shaw, Skov, Murphy and Gardner appear to be far from average.
Tom Taylor isn’t sure whether or not he wants to “defeat” his doctoral program and graduate this year, or stick around for one last shot at the BCS title. Give him advice at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.