Thursday, February 25, 2010

of titles and defenses

I'll be honest: I've had a hard time getting over the fact that my favorite team is the defending national champs.

(You heard about that, right? Yeah. National champs. 14-0. Just making sure you remember.)

So it's been hard for me to stop thinking about everything that's happened over the past two years — the out-of-nowhere '08 season, the many different escapes in '09, the bludgeoning of Florida, the crystal ball — and start thinking about defending the title in 2010. If you think about it, the "defending the title" season is almost always strange.
I alluded to this in this week's column for the SCT, but the truest measure of a champion, historically speaking, is in how it defends its championship.
I'll explain: championship seasons are almost always charmed. Every bounce goes your way, you don't suffer any severe injuries, the schedule sets up in your favor, and so forth and so on (for a good number of champions, the run to the title is often an "out of frigging nowhere" proposition and they play the "underdog/no respect" card to the fullest). Championship defenses aren't like that: every day there's a target on your back; for the other guy, you're THE BIGGEST GAME IN (PROGRAM NAME'S) HISTORY every week; and eventually those bounces and injuries do have to even out.
(Here's where 'Bama fans jump in and say, "But we're used to that, because we're everybody's biggest game EVERY year." Just trust me here: it's different when you're the champs.)
The truest champions — the ones we remember for years and years and years — are the ones that keep coming even with all those circumstances and setbacks, that won't be kept down because that's what champions do.

To put it another way, let's use the analogy of pro wrestling. Most of us (OK, me) grew up with pro wrestling as a hobby — some of us were more into it than we should've been (OK, that was me too).
Anyway, racking my brain, I can think of multiple occasions in which a "face" received a big push and challenged for a title belt. The odds were almost always stacked against him — he got jumped in the back and was injured, the other guy was constantly cheating to get ahead, the refs kept finding ways to job him out of his shot. Then, one night – usually at a big pay-per-view event — he defied the odds and captured the belt.

It's always a fun moment, when your guy finally becomes champion.
Even so, what happens the next night? The champion is introduced, officially, to a delirious crowd. And he comes charging out as his theme music plays, and the fans go berserk, and he's wearing that championship belt ... and there's a moment where everybody realizes, "Holy (expletive), he's the champ now!" Which is followed by an even louder cheer.
Only the next thing inevitably happens: some adversity presents itself. Usually it's in the form of a challenger — sometimes the guy who just gave up the belt, sometimes someone completely different — who strides out to lay down a challenge. And it's only then you realize that things have changed: the good guy is no longer the gritty underdog chasing glory; he's wearing a giant target and has to defend what he's just spent the last 6 months earning.

Which is why championship defenses are always so difficult, and title-defense seasons always so strange.
Does anyone remember, for example, the 1993 Alabama team? It was a weird season — Alabama roared out of the gate, opening 5-0 before having to escape with a tie vs. Tennessee (with Phillip Fulmer in his first season as head coach). Beset by injuries and whispers of NCAA sanctions, the Tide survived a trip to Ole Miss, blew out Southern Miss for Homecoming (the best performance of Brian Burgdorf's life as QB) before finally losing — a 17-13 home defeat vs. LSU. 'Bama wound up losing to Auburn (the capper to the magical 11-0 season under Terry Bowden) and Florida (the first of Steve Spurrier's kajillion straight SEC titles) before winning a Gator Bowl appearance vs. North Carolina.
(Note: All those games save the Gator Bowl have since been forfeited by the NCAA.)
The main thing I remember about 1993, thinking back on it now, was how unlike 1992 it was. Mal Moore was dogged by nearly everybody for the punchless offense (he eventually resigned after the season and replaced by Homer Smith). David Palmer became a bona fide Heisman candidate (wait, a 'Bama player? Gunning for a Heisman?). And the NCAA seemed to chase the UA program from the moment the season began (we now know that Antonio Langham was considered radioactive and probably should've been suspended for at least the first month of the season).

Which, of course, brings us to 2010. The oddsmakers have followed the lead of the pundits by predicting a repeat. Rival fans and bloggers are already sharpening their swords for our inevitable fall. Things will only get tougher. There's no other way.
So we should expect adversity. It's inevitable. Being a sports fan is as much about learning to live with the agony of defeat as it is celebrating the thrill of victory.

And for me, the question is not whether Alabama will surrender its crown (because eventually, we all do fall) but whether it will go down swinging like a madman? The way a champion does.
Call me a homer, but I'm betting on the latter.

For now, let's all enjoy having something to defend.

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