On January 10, 1999, HBO ran a pilot of a show that would go on to become, perhaps, the greatest drama ever produced for television. In the first scene of the first episode of "The Sopranos", the world is introduced to Tony Soprano. The iconic character is a narcissistic Mafioso type who is rising into power in the New Jersey Mob. In one of the sweetest shots in the entire series, Tony was quite literally "born" to world in this opening picture:
Tony was a unique character for television in that he was a true anti-hero. Although often defined by the vile ruthlessness he would portray in implementing his own definition of justice, what really compelled the audience - and changed the face of television as an art form - was the complexity of the character as portrayed by the late James Gandolfini. Audiences were drawn to the character not just because of his audacity, but because of the struggle that Soprano had in coming to grips with his own morality. He was a man who constantly got whatever he wanted, and yet could never break free of the delusion that the world was working against him. His struggles with his own self-pity and his inability to come to terms with his own hypocrisy were every bit as compelling as the drama associated with the various plots laid out throughout the series.
So, what does this have to do with UW Football? Frankly, not a single thing.
But, this is the offseason and I'm always looking for another subject upon which to base a list. So, in honor of David Chase, James Gandolfini and the greatest television series ever produced, I give you my Top Lessons UW Football Can Learn from The Sopranos.
1. Commitment and Loyalty Trumps Talent...
Throughout the series, Tony was challenged by his suspicions about the loyalties of those on his team, including his closest advisors. Characters were constantly being vetted as possible federal informants and the escalation of mistrust between Tony and his own wife became the primary plot line for an entire season. The culmination of the story line that led Tony to murder his own nephew, Christopher, was the ultimate statement on the "value" (paranoia?) that Tony placed on commitment to the family. The preposterousness of the entire series was that the those who were most loyal to Tony were those with the least "talent" to do their jobs. Some were idiots (just about every "soldier"), some were slobs (Big Pussy, Bacala), and some were eccentric wrecks (Paulie Walnuts).
In our recent Pro and Con piece, we debated Chris Petersen's recruiting style. We discussed what it meant to be an OKG and how that plays out on the recruiting trail. The ultimate lesson here for UW is that you can have success (a la Tony Soprano) by starting first with a core of committed and loyal players who both set the tone for the rest of the team and provide leadership when the captain isn't present on the scene. If those players have exceptional talent (think Danny Shelton and how important his buy-in to Chris Petersen's system was in influencing guys like Elijah Qualls and JoJo Mathis), that's all the better. But loyalty and commitment must come first if the culture is to take root.
2. ...But Talent is Important
Let's face it, Tony would never had been able to take over the northern NJ crime family or to ward off multiple threats from the Lupertazzi's had he not had access to talent that played key roles. Whether it was Ralph Cifiretto and his shrewd business techniques keeping the money flowing in from the Esplanade, the empathy of Bobby Bacala keeping Uncle Junior ... and later Tony's sister Janice ...on a leash, the diplomacy skills of Silvio keeping the troops in-line or the violent capabilities of Christopher taking care of certain threats in a way that only Michael Corleone could fully appreciate, Tony did develop and surround himself with a diverse set of able talent.
As UW continues down its growth trajectory, a balance must be struck between the romantic notions of an OKG and the abilities of the talent to have an impact in the game. While it would be great to have a team full of guys like Jeff Lindquist, DiAndre Campbell, Andrew Hudson an John Timu, we also have to make room for the upside talents who bring a more differentiated set of skills to the table even before Chris Petersen's "development machine" begins to take hold. Think about the impact that guys like Napolean Kaufmann, Reggie Williams, Corey Dillon and Shaq Thompson have had on the program in their eras. Those guys were not two-star recruits that were developed from scratch. They were exceptional talents whose capabilities were amplified by going through the program.
3. You Can't Control Every Variable, So Control Those That You Can
In the series, Tony and his crew were constantly forced to deal with situations that were explicitly outside of their control. Whether it was the heat being turned on by the Feds, the release of certain unsavory characters from "the can" or the tactics employed by rivals, Tony's business and his well-being were constantly being affected by variables that he had no influence over. But, Tony - who (surprisingly) was a fan of Sun Tzu - was always able to adjust to the curveballs thrown at him. Whether it was threatening a juror, negotiating a settlement or whacking his own cousin, Tony showed a certain relentlessness about adjusting to the situation on the ground, even as his displays of self-pity became insufferable.
The lesson here is pretty obvious. No matter how good your strategy is, victory isn't achieved until you've been kicked in the nuts and gotten back up. Chris Petersen, having coached at a perennial underdog school, knows the importance of resilience better than most coaches (see the Fiesta Bowl, 2007). It starts with a belief in yourselves and your system. It extends to a certain degree of toughness and grit that is born from a commitment to stick with it no matter the situation. It gets ingrained when success is achieved and the players get the positive reinforcement of seeing goals get met. UW doesn't have that mental makeup as a team yet. Since even before Ty Willingham took over as coach, we've seen this team struggle with adversity. We've even seen a few instances of players flat-out quitting. This is, perhaps, Chris Petersen's greatest challenge in rebuilding the UW program.
4. Don't Ever Stop Being Vigilant
Early in the series, Tony survives an attempted hit orchestrated by Junior. Already a paranoid character, Tony's sense of self-preservation skyrockets from that point forward. While it was somewhat frustrating - and occasionally comical - to see the lengths that Tony would go to save himself (even going so far as to sacrifice some of his closest relationships), one cannot argue with the results that Tony achieved. He survived multiple attempts on his life, several attempts at prosecution and many challenges by rivals on his authority as Boss. Tony was nothing if not prepared and he always had a plan.
There are many parallels that can be made between Tony and Chris Petersen when it comes to an appreciation for the details that go into preparation. While Tony was always preparing to survive the next threat, Petersen is driving home the importance of preparing to succeed. But it's not just a tag line. It's a philosophy that focuses on diving deep into the details and being meticulous about getting things right. It takes a high level of focus and vigilance to stay rooted in the minutiae - and it doesn't matter if you are a football coach, a player, or a blog reader. In fact, I wonder how many of you that have clicked on this article have already skipped past this part and moved on to the comments.
5. Enjoy the Ride
SPOILER ALERT: Do not proceed if you don't want know how the series ended.
Many people who watched the Sopranos were frustrated by the series finale. The famous "fade to black" left a lot of questions unanswered for viewers who were expecting loose ends to get tied up. If you are one of those people, I have some news for you. Tony Soprano dies in the last scene.
The mechanics of how the scene was constructed and how it is that we know Tony gets whacked can be debated in the comments below. However, I want to highlight an interesting sidenote from that scene that I think resonates. Just before the scene ends, Tony is reminded by his son, A.J., of something that he said in the finale of season 1. I don't recall the exact line, but it is something along the lines of "sometimes you have to remember the times that were good". It's a completely ironic sentiment given how Tony obsessed on all the negatives in his life. But, in that scene, you see a connection between Tony and his son that is authentic and good. And you realize that just before Tony gets popped, the last thing on his mind is the good that he has in his family, as flawed as they may be.
The imagery of the last scene has an important parallel in our little world of college football. Success is not guaranteed. No UW fan who went through the high of 1991 could foresee the low of 2008. Players who come into the program know that the there is a shelf-life associated with their football careers. If they happen to get through it injury-free, it could be as much as five years. Or less. We often hear players talk about how "it went by so fast".
So the lesson is this: Enjoy the ride. You don't know when it will evolve, change, or end. Hold on to every opportunity that is provided and savor the moments of success when they come - whether it is an unexpected win in a big game or the pride in the flawless execution of a drill. There is a lot good out there. Grab it all.