November 5, 2014 by Keith Brake
Every week during this college football season, Tom Fornelli at CBS Sports has produced a column called “The Bottom 25.” The humor is lacking (not even the Grootify button can save it), yet I find myself reading Fornelli’s series because I find the thought exercise fascinating. This begs the question: what makes the documentation of a losing team so appealing?
That’s a tricky question to answer.
Entertainment professions are the only ones where this sort of fascination exists, which is why we have things like Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and the audition episodes of American Idol. An objective viewer watches those things and thinks, “Wow, at least I’m not that bad at acting/writing/singing/dancing/recognizing my artistic limitations.” Of course, these same people likely aren’t too inclined to spend sizable amounts of money on such entertainment; American Idol is free through the magic of over-the-air television, and MST3K justifies a price point by turning bad movies into good fun with some clever, if slightly obscure humor (and it’s remarkable what they did on a modest budget). A bad sports team, no matter how many frills and gimmicks the game ops staff puts out there, has no such saving grace at the prices teams charge. Few people will pay substantial money to see the Carolina Hurricanes, who as of this writing have just won their first game of the year… three weeks into the season. (At last check, the cheapest tickets at PNC Arena were $45, which I would call substantial when tossing in $10-20 in gas, $10-20 for parking, and other attached expenses.) Only the most die-hard of fans – who rest at the perfect intersection of civic pride, passion for sport, and more money than sense (and include myself) – will still attend sporting events when a team is insufferably bad.
Yet I find myself fascinated with teams like the Southern Methodist Mustangs, who are quite possibly worse than the Miami Redhawks were last year, and the last winless team in Division I college football. The Mustangs were shut out in their first game, then scored their first points of the season on a touchdown on the last play of their second game. They proceeded to fail a two-point conversion and were ultimately outscored 202-12 in their first four games. Head coach June Jones resigned after the team’s second loss (to perennial juggernaut North Texas), and things have rarely gotten better. Their best performance of the season was a 45-24 loss to East Carolina in Week 6. I read the numbers, and I just shake my head and laugh.
The other easy example to point to is Savannah State, a Championship Subdivision (I-AA, or “Where the Sun Belt and MAC will go when the power schools split”) team in the MEAC, a league that always produces a competitive champion (and that champion is usually Bethune-Cookman). Savannah State is the perennial punching-bag of that league, and every other league and team in the country. Since 2010, the Savannah State Tigers have lost by 50 or more points ten times, including twice against Georgia Southern and three times this season alone (to GASO, Middle Tennessee State, and South Carolina State). They haven’t won multiple games since they were an independent in 2009, and they haven’t had a winning season since 1998, their penultimate year in Division II.
SMU and Savannah State and teams like them are horrendous, and yet, because they lose week after week, year after year, rhythmic as the tides, they are unique. They have achieved a different kind of immortality from the teams that hoist precious metals and fine crystal (and, in Billy Donovan’s case, drop them). I think these teams are so memorable for the same reason people go on American Idol and humiliate themselves: Americans are natural optimists. We never lose faith that we can reach our goals. If we can win one game, we can win two, and if we can win two, we can win three, and so on. We tell ourselves, “One day, we’re going to come back and shove this football between your ears,” with the belief that someday, 20 years from now, after a few championships of some kind have gone in the trophy case and been commemorated, we will look back on those teams and chuckle. “Remember when they were that bad?”
Examples of this trend abound. There was the interregnum between Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman with the Detroit Red Wings where the team was known as the “Dead Things;” the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1994 to 2013; and, more recently, the Towson Tigers men’s basketball team, which set the NCAA Division I record for longest losing streak during the 2011-12 season (it stretched to 41 games). In 2012-13, they won 18 games, then won 25 in 2013-14 and got back to postseason basketball (the CIT) for the first time since the 1992 NCAA Tournament.
There are glimmers of hope in all of those bad teams. They have new coaches or promising young players who show potential. Marcel Dionne ended up
spending most of a brilliant career making the Los Angeles Kings watchable. Towson stuck with Pat Skerry after a 1-31 season when they easily could have gone out and gotten someone else. We remember those players or the coach who became a legend after he turned a team around and led it to glory. It only takes one player and/or one coach to start a turnaround, though it often requires both; compare Towson with the Edmonton Oilers which, despite having three straight first overall draft picks and an additional top three pick in the last five drafts, could end up with their fifth coach in six years if things keep up (they’re currently in 13th in the 14-team Western Conference of the NHL, ahead of Arizona on goal differential). But that team will eventually be competitive again, and all those mistakes that get made become stories like our terrible decisions in college, like the call to make that second keg stand or picking up compact cars and turning them around in their parking spaces, or doing the Haka to a policeman and getting tazed. We will laugh at those stories once we’re all CEOs and pop stars. That’s how optimism works.
I guess the answer to the question I posed initially is: sports are supposed to be entertainment, so finding ways to be entertained when our favorite teams aren’t winning is essential. For the athletes on those losing teams, these are “remember how this feels” moments; if you know what it’s like to be this bad, you will win enthusiasm AND humility. That means you never have to run up the score to leave no doubt.
Word Count: 1,088
To-Date Word Count: 2,996