Friday, December 07, 2007

I Guarantee It

History is filled with classic "open mouth, insert foot moments". The Chicago Tribune with "Dewey Defeats Truman". Baghdad Bob with "There are no American troops in Baghdad". George H.W. Bush with "Read my lips, no new taxes." The Original Broadway Joe, with "We'll win, I guarantee it." Wait, that last one proved to be true.

A guarantee is hardly more divisive than in the world of sports. Some people call it smooth confidence, others blind, foolish arrogance that will only accentuate the impending downfall (mostly they bust this one out when discussing the now-annual proclamations of Rasheed Wallace once the Pistons inevitably fall behind 3-1 in an NBA Playoff Series). One of the tiresome (to say nothing of plain wrong) items on the "95 Theses" of college football fans against Charlie Weis is his supposed guarantee to never lose to Michigan State again. Only a person with the lowest degree of class, only a man consumed by arrogance and disrespect for his opponent, would ever stoop so low as to 'guarantee' victory.

And yet, some of sport's fondest memories have their roots in a guarantee. The aforementioned Joe Namath line. Michael Jordan's "We're going to win Game 7". Mark Messier following suit a few years later with the NY Rangers.

So it's fitting that now, in December 2007, another valiant warrior steps up to potentially add to the growing legend of "The Guarantee":
"We're going to win...I can guarantee a win. As long as we come out and do what we got to do. Both sides of the ball are rolling, and if our special teams come through for us, we've got a good chance to win."
This of course, it's Pittsburgh Steelers' safety Anthony Smith on Wednesday, before his team squares off with the 12-0 New England Patriots. The reaction that followed was interesting, because I think it revealed a lot about the team psyche Charlie Weis is still trying to forge in South Bend.

Before expounding any further on Smith, I want to go back to September 8th. Michigan's just been pounded by Oregon a week after the most stunning upset in college football. Mike Hart, the senior leader who came back to win a Big 10 title, contend for the Heisman and the national championship, certainly hadn't let the reality of an 0-2 start bruise his confidence when looking ahead to the following week's game:
This team's going to be ready to go, there's no doubt in my mind. I'm not going to lose. We're not going to lose.
What interests me is not so much wondering where Hart found 'the stones' to guarantee victory over a winless Notre Dame team that hadn't scored an offensive touchdown in its first eight quarters, but the reaction that followed, and then the bizarre deification of Hart after Michigan handed Notre Dame their own ass on a platter, 38-0. The boards over at NDNation were nearly unanimous: "WHY CAN'T WE HAVE A GUY LIKE THAT?!? WHERE'S OUR FIERY LEADER, OUR EMOTIONAL SPARKPLUG, OUR DOWN & DIRTY, NASTY STREET FIGHTER WHO DIDN'T TAKE CRAP FROM ANYBODY?!?? WHERE!!!? WHERE?!???"

Former All-American tackle Aaron Taylor put it a little more succinctly in his blog:
What I wanted to see was a player or players walking up and down the sideline firing up and supporting his teammates like I remember DT Chris Zorich doing. I would have felt different had I seen players yelling, shouting, grabbing, or even crying out of frustration…anything that said, “this bothers me.” I wanted to see a group of guys that, even though they knew they were outmanned, played with pride…because I don’t care what anyone says, -14 yards rushing ain’t just about being young.
What seemed lost, particularly among the internet zealots, was the idea that a "guarantee" in sports is the ultimate chicken & the egg question. Did the Wolverines' performance that day stem from Hart's brash defiance in the wake of the Oregon defeat, or did the fact that they played well validate Hart and save him the embarrassing lectures about humility and the cost of arrogance that would've followed had they lost? You can spin that one around in your head for days, you'll be no closer to an answer than I am. But fact is fact - Hart talked the talk, then he and his teammates went out there and walked the walk. This is, apparently, an attitude that is absolutley necessary in the rough-and-tumble, emotion-charged world of college football...unless you're guaranteeing victory over Michigan State, in which case you are simply an obnoxious boar with no self control and an overwhelmingly arrogant attitude.

I think we all could agree that the emotional psyche of the Irish this season, once the losses started piling on and the reality crashed down that there was gonna be no easy fix, drained pretty quickly. Some of the losses later in the year, particularly against the Naval Academy, seemed to some to highlight the problem of emotion (or lack thereof) in the Irish locker room. Weis wasn't doing enough of what Paul Johnson was doing:
The only thing that I told them today, I said when we had our team meeting before we left, I said there's three factors in winning the game today. Number one, you got to believe that you can win. Number two, you got to believe that you can win. And number three, you got to believe that you can win.
Of course, what Johnson was quick to point out in the next breath (and which nobody bothered to report on, since it doesn't make for good copy) is that he'd said the same thing to each of the other 5 Navy teams he had coached that lost to Notre Dame. And that probably each of the 38 Navy squads that lost to Notre Dame before that felt the same way and had speeches to the same effect. In this, as in evaluating all other guarantees, the result was the only thing that mattered. Which is as it should be, because we all revel in the story of the plucky underdog or down-on-his-luck fighter who showed the nerve to believe he would win and then backed it up. The same exact guys who pop off and then get put in their place don't tend to be remembered as fondly, even though there are probably just as many of them as there are guys ought there "believing they can win". As Kevin Braun could tell you, Freddie Mitchell certainly "believed that he could win" before Super Bowl XXXIX.

In the final analysis, only the result matters. If Pat Terrell doesn't bat down that floater from Steve Walsh in 1988, no Notre Dame fan remembers with painstaking clarity the pre-game fight or Lou Holtz's "Save Jimmy Johnson's ass for me!" speech. On the flip side, if Ambrose Wooden does knock down that floater from Matt Leinart in 2005, we'd all still be trading anecdotes that made the media about some great pre-game one-liners from inside the Notre Dame camp.

Oh, and for what it's worth, Hart had one more chance to back his word this season during the finale against Ohio State - remember last November, when after losing 42-39 he called out the Buckeye defense and guaranteed the Wolverines would win a rematch? He carried 18 times for 44 yards in a 14-3 loss.

So flash forward to Wednesday. Anthony Smith, a second-year player from Syracuse, just stuck himself and his team out on a limb by guaranteeing victory over what could be the best team ever assembled in the free agency era of the NFL. The media's reaction was pretty uniform: what an idiot. Just what the Patriots need, after Video-Gate, The Original 81, and Super Bowl 41.5 - another motivation to knock a team into next week. But the media analysis doesn't fascinate me - the Patriot reaction does:
Any Patriots player who said that would be guaranteed one thing: sharp tongue-lashings from his teammates and coach Bill Belichick.

"Well done is better than well said," Tom Brady said. "That's been the motto of the team."

"That wouldn't happen in this locker room. It just wouldn't," Junior Seau said. "We won't allow it. We don't talk. What we try to do is just work every day and build for tomorrow. That's all we do."

Belichick knows teams could use such pronouncements as bulletin-board material to provide extra motivation. But he suggested that wasn't part of his pregame plan.

"We can sit around and put a bunch of stuff up on a board and write stuff down on paper and all of that," he said. "I think in the end it comes down to whether you can outplay the other team on Sunday or not outplay them. On a priority basis, that's what our priority is, trying to prepare well and play well."
Place that in comparison with how Weis & the Irish responded three months ago to Mike Hart...at least, on Tuesday for the cameras before laying an egg on Saturday:
Obviously, now, he's going to get the ball because they are going to give him an opportunity to back that up. And our job, doesn't make any difference what he said or what we say. It's when they give him the ball, can we stop them? So that's what we're going to try to have to do.
Maybe Notre Dame does need a young revolutionary who's not afraid to mix it up - and if you ask me, they certainly have the makings of one in Jimmy Clausen. When I referenced Urban Meyer's man-crush on Belichick and the Patriots, there was one other quote which caught my eye, one that provides a great insight into the man who worked side-by-side with Notre Dame's head coach for over a decade and won three World Championships:
So Bill Belichick is sitting there and he wants to talk offense and different things and I keep asking about: "Coach, tell me about motivation. Tell me about discipline. Tell me about building a team. Tell me about teamwork. Tell me about attitude."

And you can tell he's getting a little upset with me because all he wants to do is draw circles on the board and talk about our players that they're thinking about drafting. Finally I ask him again about something like that and he says listen, "At New England," and this is verbatim the way he said it, he looked me right in the eye and said, "At New England, all we do is win Super Bowls." Isn't that a hell of a deal? Some people would say that's arrogant or cocky. But that's all they do - they don't have those issues.
Reading that, and then sizing up the way his team responded to getting called out by a second-year safety from Pittsburgh, actually gives a Notre Dame fan a keen insight into what must make not only Belichick, but Weis, tick. That one thought is what gets Weis up and out of bed in the morning - building and shaping and tweaking until the moment when he can say that about his program, with one key difference: "At Notre Dame, all we do is win BCS National Championships." (Doesn't quite have the same aura of invincibility when it rolls off the tongue, but it'll have to do sans playoff.)

It's not to say that the Irish couldn't take some extra juice from a player unafraid to talk the talk. But the head coach has laid out a tone: I would much rather walk the walk. And in the long grind of a season and a career, that attitude will win a lot more games than somebody who goes fishing for a soundbite.

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