Why do we love college sports? It certainly isn’t the quality — something which those (totally wrong morons) who claim the superiority of the NFL love to remind college football fans. And despite how some people like to claim their love for college football originates in its “purity” compared to the greedy franchised businesses of the NFL, there’s a new scandal every day in college sports, and they make up a multi-million dollar business that’s about as impure and cynical as it gets.
So if it’s a lower quality product that has no moral superiority, then why? For many sports, especially women’s (but not exclusively so), you could say it’s just because college is the highest platform for them — or at least the most high profile, even if a small percentage of athletes get post-collegiate opportunities in minimally-financially-rewarding, low-profile pro leagues, or spend time pursuing an Olympic team where we’ll see them at most a few times over a decade+.
But that doesn’t apply to football or men’s basketball, and by my reckoning women’s basketball is kind of a tweener between those big two and the others. So really, why do we even bother?
If we dive into it I think most of us would conclude that, while our individual introduction to Washington (or any college) varies, what makes our investment in it distinct from other sports is A) the origins of the institution and its teams were organic happenings and B) that institution will always be there.
No matter how many bad years a program has, you cannot sell a university to some douchebag from Oklahoma who will then relocate it across the country. Washington is here. Period. (While we’re at it, Clay Bennett if you ever read this: Go suck dog turds you Remember The Titans villain-looking bilge-sharter.)
Unlike with pro teams — or North American pro teams, anyway, seeing as the European club model and history is more analogous to college in many ways — there is no existential threat at the end of an exceptionally bad streak. While it’s not unheard of for smaller colleges like Western to scrap a football program occasionally, no amount of 0-12s will make the University of Washington cease to exist. Heck, Iowa State hasn’t had a first round draft pick since 1972 and had been a perpetual door mat until like, four years ago, and they still stuck around! And now they don’t even suck anymore! (For now...)
But while Washington will remain around no matter what, there’s the threat that’s brought on by the very nature of what draws us to college sports in the first place: Sure, the institution and program won’t go away but, unlike professional sports, there’s zero mechanisms to ensure... well... anything else.
There’s no salary cap for the financial arms race of facilities-building and coach-spending. There’s no draft. No trades. No anything. That’s why we like it in the first place, right?
There’s no limit to institutional freefall. There is no floor. There is no coordinating power that will come and save you. No 1st overall high school pick awaiting the team that sucks the most.
We like to think that achieving a certain level of success immunizes a program against these forces — and it can, partially. All else constant, success on the field begets success in recruiting which begets success on the field which sells tickets and TV deals which begets payouts which begets better facilities and coaches which begets success which begets recruiting which begets success.
But if that was all it came down to, whatever happened to Minnesota? You probably knew they were national champions with Washington in 1960.
Did you know they’d won it all seven times?
Probably not. Because save for the recent success-by-their-standards of PJ Fleck, their seven national championships saved them from nothing. When things go wrong, seven national championships can’t save you from becoming a nobody. Seven national championships can’t protect you from the world forgetting you ever won them at all.
It’s easy to dismiss the descent of Minnesota — after all, the world in which they won national championships is foreign to today’s college football landscape — but it seems to me that, if anything, modern college football makes it easier for a program to minnesota (that’s right, it’s a verb now) than ever before; collegiate athletic power is by the second being consolidated in the southeast, as the financial arms race bloats beyond sustainability unless you’re in a state that will throw absurd amounts of public money at a coach all for him to end up being Will Goddamn Muschamp.
Now before you throw full wine bottles at your computer screen and go “Shut up Gabey you crapforbrains-having-ass bitch, are you blaming Washington’s failures on the SEC or whatever the hell?” the answer is obviously no. It’s just that it feels impossible to consider the state of UW outside of this context.
Because with the inertia of college athletics pulling power and money to the south, every misstep by a coordinator, head coach, or AD not in that in-group is magnified. For all the institutional advantages Washington has over most of its own conference, it’s harder to claw your way out of 7-5 — or 0-12 — for a program this far west-by-north than its ever been.
The scary thought is that it’s easier than it will ever be. In the words of Bart and Homer Simpson: “This is the worst day of my life.” “This is the worst day of your life so far.”
This isn’t all me saying we need to fire everyone immediately. Or maybe we do? I honestly don’t know. What it does mean is that each loss, each win by 6-inches over a team you have a talent advantage over, each run on 3rd and 7, each disturbing answer at the media podium leaves a harder mountain to climb to get back to 2017, 2016, 2000, the 90s, the 80s, the 60s, than ever. (How someone who was so good at their job while studying under one of the best head coaches ever could look so shaky as his successor is another question altogether.)
If you’re Washington, there’s no threat you’ll cease to exist. But with college football’s inertia, there’s certainly an existential threat that reaching our standard of quality and pride is becoming less attainable.
Say what you will about the Mariners, but I’ve remained invested in them the last two dismal decades because you knew the professional mechanisms meant that, so long as they didn’t jet for Oklahoma City first (a fair possibility) one day they’d stop sucking. It would maybe take 100 years, but eventually it was inevitable.
I’d rather be emotionally invested in something that came of its own organically, with 140 years of history, instead of one that was “granted” to a population so that some already-rich club owners can make even more money. I’d rather be invested in something that can’t be ripped from its supporters any moment by a bunch of condescending billionaires (obligatory “choke on a Louisville Slugger, Clay Bennett”). But what if there’s too much working against that entity, and it’s already become too similarly-run by some more condescending gazillionaire NCAA cronies and boosters and advertisers, except without any of the mechanisms ensuring there’s a floor to be hit?
If all that is working against you, do you really want to make it harder on yourself by making the hires that have been made? By recruiting with the mediocrity with which you’ve been recruiting? By relying on the I-formation with 22 personnel as if the charts are still topped by Salt-N-Pepa and Ace of Base?
You really want to make it harder on yourself by running it on 3rd and seven?