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Gravitating to Mediocrity

Firing Coach Solich.

by Barnabas
December 3, 2003

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Gravitating to Mediocrity_Barnabas-Firing Coach Solich
LINCOLN - With roughly a dozen football players glaring in the back of the room, Nebraska Athletic Director Steve Pederson said he fired Frank Solich because the once-mighty program had tumbled in his six-year watch.

"I refuse to let this program gravitate to mediocrity," Pederson said Sunday, 17 hours after he met with Solich at South Stadium and terminated a coach who had compiled a 58-19 record. "We will not surrender the Big 12 Conference to Oklahoma and Texas."

— Elizabeth Merrill, Omaha World-Herald, December 1

hu·bris (hyü-br&s) noun
Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance.
— Microsoft Dictionary
The story itself doesn’t have much interest to anyone but Nebraska fans and Monday morning quarterbacks who follow whatever football news comes down the pike, so I won’t retell it. Football coaches get fired and replaced in a game of musical chairs, and at a pretty high level of compensation at that; it’s not unusual for the head coach of the state university team to be the highest-paid person on the state’s payroll.

Besides, I have zero qualification to second-guess the strategic implications of this particular decision for Nebraska football. But my bag is absurdity and ethics, and I find my occasions to write about them wherever I can. In this case it is not the firing itself, but the remarkable speech given by the Nebraska Athletic Director following it. According to the news accounts he managed to trash, not only Coach Solich (whose .753 win-loss record is, statistically speaking, an impossible dream for most coaches), but also the current Nebraska team with its 9-3 record, the Big 12 Conference, and Division One football in general. He managed to sound as though Nebraska has a right to be dominant, and always in contention for the national championship. That attitude is the stuff of which Greek tragedy is made. The most anyone can have is a hope that rises to a modest expectation. Nobody has the right.

So there’s more than one way to gravitate to mediocrity. Pederson spoke of one, slippage, but he illustrated another, called bluster. Bluster here is the error of declaring a fallacious assumption: When we do our very best, we are better than all but a very few. It’s a fallacy because you do not control what your competition can and will do to get an edge. You may set victory as the only acceptable goal, without bluster, only when you are competing against yourself and have control over all the factors in the competition. It’s the nature of team competition that you do not control all the factors. Blusterers in any field of endeavor inevitably set themselves up to lose because they presume to control the uncontrollable. Maybe underdogs are called that because they’re perfectly positioned to bite blusterers in the behind.

Back in the seventies, when most bowls were by invitation, the number one team refused to risk its standing by meeting Nebraska in a New Year’s bowl and played a lesser opponent that they were confident of beating. Notre Dame — always respectable, though not always in contention — accepted the bid and lost decisively to Nebraska. The Notre Dame coach, the legendary Ara Parseghian, said: “At least we met the competition.”

Of course you compete with everything you’ve got, with the best preparation you know how to make, with every intention of winning—but you had better respect your opponent as someone willing to “meet the competition.”

If bluster were limited to football, I would leave it to the sports pages. But bluster is everywhere — in church, in business, in government, in education — boosting unrealistic goals based on faulty premises.

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