"How could a USC team that destroyed Arkansas in Little Rock lose to Oregon State?" ask the experts. "Why on earth would a team that won the SEC championship a year ago get beat by Vanderbilt?" howl the Georgia Dawgs. "Did a Yellow Jacket team that manhandled Virginia Tech in Blacksburg really get run over by Clemson?" "Yes indeed," shout the Chan Gailey critics.
Those questions are raised in anger. If the pattern continues, the anger turns to rage and things get ugly.
If you think there are fewer and fewer teams that play well on a consistent basis these days, you are correct. It has never been easy to get college players to concentrate 60 minutes on Saturday afternoon or, um, let's see on Tuesday night or Wednesday night or Thursday night or Friday night or occasionally Saturday afternoon or Saturday night or Sunday night.
The intrusions into the players' lives are growing exponentially. You know most of the outside distractions: television mania, schedule shifts, instant fame, agents, gambling, academic scandals and the other usual suspects. From within, there is the grind of tutoring, strength training, class, training room, practice, travel, interviews, more tutoring, study and the ever present discipline demanded by all good programs.
The Fellowship of the Miserable
But there is another insidious factor, one that reaches into individual minds, and in time, into teams' collective consciousness. It functions much like a cancer, and can destroy the entire organism if allowed to grow. I call it the Fellowship of the Miserable, FOM for short.
I first noticed the FOM when I was a high school senior. I had no name for it, but felt it. You know some of its members. They are the folks who cannot wait to see you so they can tell you what a rotten day it is, and how nothing good will ever happen for you. We cross the street to avoid them, but they seem to find us nonetheless.
I was told I was too dumb to go to Georgia Tech, and that I would not survive the academic rigors of such a tough school. I decided to try it anyhow, and ran into coach Bobby Dodd, who was my academic salvation with his disciplinary system. It was simply a case of a great football coach who used his leverage with us. He loved us too much to allow us to self destruct when we were too immature to understand our potential. Ninety-two percent of his players graduated.
Five years later, when I graduated, I decided to take a shot at the National Football League with the Green Bay Packers. The FOM said, "Wait Bill, don't do that! You are too little, and besides, you have a Georgia Tech diploma. You're too smart to be a pro football player!"
"Wait a minute, I was too dumb a few years ago, and now I'm too smart?" I got it. It dawned on me that they were anxious to see failure, thereby cementing their basis for life, which is a negative attitude.
The FOM will look you up. They call on the phone at the least appropriate times. They follow you and seemingly stalk you. No matter how many games you win, they want more. Regardless of how much time you spend with them, it is never enough. No matter how many tickets you provide, they imagine the supply is unlimited.
I was told just yesterday by an Ohio State alumnus about a scene Buckeye player Stan White Jr. allegedly witnessed following the national championship triumph in 2002. Coach Jim Tressel was walking to the team bus when a fan approached, shouting congratulations. In the very next breath he asked, "When will you start getting ready to win it again next year?" That would seem to be the ultimate in "looking ahead," which is always a challenge.
They wait for you outside stadiums. They say they want to congratulate or comfort you, but cannot do so without throwing in a zinger every time. The implication is always that your good fortune will not continue. You know you should be kind to them, but heaven knows, how long? If you are inattentive, they become hostile, even dangerous. If you are tired and brusque, you are branded a "bad celebrity" -- selfish, arrogant or worse.
They need you all of the time. They need for your team to win every game. If that does not happen, they are denied the brief flashes of relief that seem to define their version of happiness.
If the FOM watches an impressive win or two and decides your team will be a national champion, then they begin to crow as if they were on the staff. Lose a game and you have "betrayed" them, and their allegiance switches to the winning flavor of the day. They come in all sizes, shapes and ages. They are from every ethnic, socio-economic, racial, political and religious background. If they can penetrate your locker room and get into your players' heads, your consistency is finished for the year.
They have one thing in common: In their heart of hearts, they do not want anyone to succeed at anything. Their cheerful demeanor is as deep as your current winning streak. Their praise when things are going well is abundant and more disturbing than their ridicule. My friend Joe Namath once told me that for him, the inordinate praise he received was far more dangerous than the criticism.
Consistent Team Performance
If you are Pete Carroll, Chan Gailey or Mark Richt, you are concerned with keeping the FOM from getting into your players' heads following a triumph or a disappointment. Former Georgia Tech athletic director Dr. Homer Rice taught effective leadership for many years and employs a proven scientific method. It is based on a wealth of experience and research. It is entitled the Attitude Technique. And it works.
Carroll, Gailey and Richt seem to understand its basic tenets.
When the Trojans lost a squeaker to Oregon State last week, Coach Carroll immediately reconfirmed what he has taught his team since he arrived at USC. You must have a realistic perspective; not foolishly optimistic, nor pessimistic. Nobody wins them all, and these things happen. No big deal. That was his public posture. If he was rough on his team in private, no one else was privy to that. What he was doing was underscoring the fact that realism is the healthiest way to deal with football's inevitable vagaries. His team most likely will snap back.
As for Georgia Tech, the up and down play has been the trademark of the Gailey years, and he knows now is the time to change that. While he has maintained a realistic perspective, he has preached a positive attitude, even when no one else was doing so. What must improve is the discipline to dismiss the FOM and stay on task. Hopefully for Tech, the players will understand and continue to master consistency.
Finally, and most importantly, Richt seems to understand how to build on a realistic perspective and positive attitude. He takes responsibility for the losses and maintains a close, trusting relationship with his players. When men are called "players' coaches" in the sport of football, we are not talking about a buddy-buddy relationship. We are talking about trust. Every Georgia player will tell you they know Richt really cares about them and that they want to win with and for him.
There are three basic types of motivation for human endeavor: fear, incentive and relationship. Fear is short-lived; one can only yell and scream so many times before players turn it off. Incentive is obviously not the key, as evidenced by the eBay sale of several Bulldogs' SEC Championship rings a few years ago.
The only long term motivator in the sport of football is relationship -- a relationship built on respect that will not allow players to lose focus in tough situations. Richt has engendered that kind of motivation throughout his years at Florida State and at Georgia.
As formidable as the Fellowship of the Miserable is, it cannot consistently crack teams or individuals that employ a realistic perspective, a positive attitude and relationship motivation.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is the executive director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.