In the movie Kicked in the Head, Kevin Corrigan's character Redmond gets a fortune cookie that reads "your attendant godling has lost her way." This thought dominates his actions throughout the movie. He believes he is lost on some spiritual level, and that re-connecting on that level is the key to fixing his life.
This is very much how I feel about USF football right now.
All throughout this two-year losing stretch, I've had this nagging feeling that USF football was broken on some deeper level. Something beyond wins and losses, beyond personnel and administration and realignment and all that crap. Something less tangible and more difficult to explain. We're not just carrying a bad won-lost record -- something is wrong with our existence. And I think I've figured out what it is:
USF football has lost the belief it once had in itself.
We as fans don't believe in this team, and as a team they don't seem to believe in themselves. And that's a big, big problem. Because if USF football has a defining trait, it is the genuine belief that they could win any game they played. We've lost that. We've reverted to the default USF fan attitude of "how are we going to screw up this time?"
To put this into perspective, I want to cite Jamie's piece on USF all-time great Chad Barnhardt. He talks about a 1998 game against Liberty.
What I remember most, and I think some of the people in the room felt it too, was this thought: "That's okay, we're going to win. We have Chad Barnhardt." And we were right.
Even in the very early days of football, with really no history to back up what I was feeling, I had faith in the team and Barnhardt in particular. That game, our first taste of the late-game heroics that would come to be a staple of our football team, repaid the faith.
If you didn't follow USF sports at that time, it's tough to understand what a huge leap of faith this was. If USF athletics was known for anything, it was for wasting golden opportunities in the most improbable ways possible. It was the super-clutch Chucky Atkins missing two free throws at Marquette with an NIT Final Four trip at stake. It was getting the inside track in the 1996 NCAA baseball regional, losing in 13 innings to the Gators, then blowing the chance at a rematch by losing 13-12 to a bad UMass team. Just a few days ago, it was men's soccer sneaking into the NCAA Tournament at 8-5-4, getting an undeserved home game, hitting the post late in regulation, and losing in overtime to a team they beat in the regular season.
Believing in a new USF sports team was like believing in Charlie Brown to kick the football. But kick the football they did. We had faith in the team, and the team rewarded that faith over and over and over. USF didn't win every time, but we believed they could. And the team believed they could. Not through empty slogans or gestures, but through a mindset that was instilled in the program from day one. And any player who didn't buy into that mindset didn't stick around.
I've cited this story before, but: check out the post-game quotes from USF's 2000 loss to Kentucky. Mind you, this was USF's second I-A game, they were crushed in their first one (41-12 to San Diego State), and Kentucky was coming off a couple good SEC seasons.
"We didn't go into this game for any other reason than to beat Kentucky," (Jim) Leavitt said. "And that's what we didn't get done, bottom line."
"I was giving my full effort trying to get into the end zone and unfortunately I fumbled," (Otis) Dixon said. "I was going 100 mph trying to help my teammates."
"We run every Monday and Tuesday much harder than that," said defensive back Anthony Henry... "We were tired at times, but we still should have won the ballgame."
Leavitt said he wasn't discouraged, but he was disappointed. "We're not good enough, obviously," Leavitt said. "We got beat by a better team. That's all there is to it. We've got a ways to go."
Compare that to Skip Holtz's comments after the Miami game:
"As a football coach, coming out here I felt like this was a game we could be competitive in. I thought this was a game that we had an opportunity - a great opportunity to maybe correct some things that went wrong earlier in the season or some of the close football games that we lost. We weren't able to get it done as a football team. I thought there were a lot of football players that competed hard."
Dammit, Skip, the word is "win." W-I-N. It's okay to say it. Quit sputtering for synonyms and just say "I felt like this was a game we could win." It's a perfectly acceptable aspiration for a football team. Stop being so damn vague and coachspeaky about everything. It's rubbing off onto your players.
Seriously: go watch the post-game interviews with Matt Floyd, Kayvon Webster, and Demetris Murray from the same game. Not one of them mentions the W-word either, except to say that Miami deserved to win. But they praise their opponent, praise their teammates, stress the importance of practice, and talking about "building" from the game at least four times each in a combined six and a half minutes. They're disappointed about losing the game, yes, but it doesn't seem to eat at their soul quite as much as it did to Anthony Henry and Otis Dixon back in 2000.
If you're not comfortable with that line of inquiry, check out what the media thinks of this team. Here's a recent Q&A from ESPN Big East blogger Andrea Edelson:
Adelson: This team just does not have a killer instinct in the fourth quarter. USF has lost all manner of heartbreakers going back two years now. They have big leads and blow them. They come back from deficits to take a late lead, only to blow them. Until the Bulls can put teams away, it feels as if they are in an endless cycle of heartache.
The Bulls can't put teams away.
The Bulls can't put teams away.
The Bulls can't put teams away.
Putting teams away -- at least under certain conditions -- is the defining characteristic of the Bulls. It's what USF football is known for, if it's known for anything at all.
As I've said in other articles, there are scenarios where I could understand USF having a losing season or two. We could have had a couple bad recruiting years and face a talent shortage. We could have had mass defections after the coaching change. We could have gotten a disproportionate number of unlucky breaks. The rest of the league could have gotten better. We could have played a more difficult non-conference schedule. None of these things is the case here. In fact, most are quite the opposite.
It's clear that the team's mentality isn't what it once was. That mentality was our attendant godling. Not only has she lost her way, we seem to have gained her netherworld counterpart. We've become the opposite of what we once were: a team that finds ways to lose. We've become what we once destroyed: an overconfident "major conference" team ripe to be upset by a motivated underdog. USF used to humiliate teams like USF.
Yes, there are a lot of tangible things that need fixing as well, just as there were in Redmond's life in Kicked in the Head. Redmond shouldn't be making coke drops for his shiftless freeloading uncle played by James Woods; some of what we've seen from USF coordinators the last three seasons reaches similar levels of bad judgment. There are plenty of posts about that, so I won't go into it here.
But it's clear that USF football's body and soul are both in need of repair.