Every where you look, life offers you lessons. The key is to recognize them and then incorporate them going forward.
There were a lot of lessons out there in the air last night. For me, some of those lessons happened at a 10 year old's hockey game. And they turned out to be the same lessons that U.C.L.A. needs to learn before next Friday.
I was lucky enought to watch the first half of the Bruins's game live. It was two and a half hours past the end of my shift at work and I was still waiting for a single test on one patient to wrap things up before I could leave. With nothing else to do except wait (bet you didn't know that patients aren't the only ones sitting around an ER waiting) I was at least able to find an empty room with a TV and watch our game. Halftime came just as the MRI results were called to me and work was finally done. I knew the Bruins had missed some opportunities in the first half, and had a couple plays gone differently, we could have been the ones with the lead. I had hope that the Bruins would make those fixes and the second half would be a different story.
But instead of going home after work, I raced to the opposite side of town to see my son's hockey game. His team was in the semifinal of one of the premiere tournaments of the season where the winner qualifies for an international tournament. His team was the favorite to win the whole thing, being undefeated so far this year, and we were playing a team we had beaten 3 times this year by something like 20-4 combined. I swear no one was taking anything for granted, as the tournament games had been really tough so far. But things were looking good when we had 3-0 lead halfway through the second period.
And you can guess exactly what happened from that point. We are a Bruin family here, after all.
A couple sloppy plays, some missed opportunities for passes, a bad bounce or two, a great goal "missed" by the ref and a puzzling penalty or two, a line left on for too long, a loss of momentum and a rising tide and suddenly and shockingly we were eliminated with a 4-3 loss. And all this happened while I was listening to the second half of our football game on Fox Sports radio on my iPhone, with Terry Donahue doing the color. Oh, the irony.
My lesson came while watching my son skate off the ice last night after playing his best tournament of his young life, but still barely able to contain his disappointment. As I always do, and as he always looks for, I blew him a kiss from the stands, but we both knew it did little to help. After any game like that, whether it be youth hockey or college football, when so much is riding on it, and then so much inexplicably collapses, there is such a mix of sadness and frustration and anger and fatalism that it's hard to know how to react.
And there was my learning opportunity.
Sometimes, one team does all the right things. Sometimes, the breaks all go against you and never even out. Sometimes, hard work trumps talent. Sometimes the better team doesn't win.
Make no mistake, the better team won last night in Pasadena. Stanford showed why they are a top 10 team, and if they didn't get homered by the refs in South Bend and if either of their two touchdowns in the second OT were actually awarded, maybe they win that game in the third OT and are a top 3 team now looking at a shot at the BCS title game. We were trying to get to 10 wins on the season for the first time in 7 years. Stanford now has three 10-win seasons in a row. With that in mind, I was curious to see how we would fare against what we can safely call a top tier team. We have gotten some good grades in the Eye Test lately, but Stanford was going to be our stiffest test. Also, consider that we were coming off our best football win in maybe 20 years, we already had the Pac-12 South title in hand, we were celebrating our Seniors on their last home game, but playing for a chance at one and maybe two more games at home, and this was going to be a real character game that would give us an idea how far the program has come.
And we laid an egg. We aren't ready for the big time yet.
I don't call out players in this particular piece I write every week. I'm pretty sure I haven't mentioned a single Bruin player's name all year, and I know I only did it once last year and it was to compliment several individuals in particular. But this article is about team and school and culture and not about individuals. That's because football is the consumate team game. No other sport matches 22 on 22, or 33 v 33 if you count special teams.
We've all seen how a single good pitcher can shut down an opposing team of bats and single handedly dictate the outcome. In basketball, a 5 on 5 format gives one outstanding player the chance to take over a game. I can vouch for how much one goalie in hockey can stymie an opposing team with 3 better lines of 5 better players each.
But it doesn't work that way in football. It takes everyone doing his job just right to make a play work. Whether it's a player filling the correct gap to make a tackle at the line of scrimmage or a player catching a ball on an important 3rd down or a player understanding the defense and communicating correctly against a stunt to pick up a blitz and keep his QB clean, or a coach getting his team prepared and making gutsy decisions that put his team in position to succeed, one mistake in the chain can cost the whole 11 on the field, which in turn costs the whole 100 or so on the roster, and the 70,000 in the stands, and so on.
Stanford didn't make very many of those mistakes last night. We, however, made a lot of those mistakes last night. We made too many of those non-aggression penalties, too many poorly executed plays, too many times in the wrong scheme, too many of the wrong play calls. We were outplayed and outcoached. You'd like to see things going better by game 12.
But that's where we are. We are a good team, but we are are not a great team right now. Games we should have won (Oregon State and Cal), or at least been much more competitive with an even chance to win (Stanford) are proof of that. The thing is, we can play like a great team, which is an enormous difference between this team and seasons past. But in order to not just play like, but to truly be a great team, we need to find a way to bring that excellence and consistency together, to be motivated to be our best for 60 minutes, and to play great all the time. We need to go toe to toe with teams like Stanford and Oregon, and not get slowed by teams like OSU, and never roll over against teams like Cal. A great team just doesn't make the kinds of mistakes we saw from our Bruins yesterday.
The lesson I got from U.C.L.A. and from my son's game turned out to be pretty much the same, and it was in trying to explain it to my son that I was really trying to articulate it to myself. I know how hard he and his team, and how hard Coach Mora and the Bruins, have worked. I an very proud of what my son and his team, and what Coach Mora and the Bruins, have accomplished. But if you don't execute or keep your focus or play a whole game, sometimes all that isn't enough when the margin of error isn't big enough to tolerate mistakes. Sometimes, you just lay a big fat freakin egg. Right or wrong, fair or unjust, life comes with speed bumps. And while you never have to accept failure, you do have to acknowledge it and deal with it. And it is how you recognize those failures and then learn from them and apply them next time that makes you better, and that's what can take you from being a good team to a great team. I could hug my son last night and whisper these things to him, and even in a loss, it felt really good to do so. I can only write these things this morning for my Bruin family, and after yesterday's game, it feels a little better, too.
But it will feel great if these lessons are taken to heart. Unlike my son's team, Coach Mora's team gets another chance in six days. The Bruins have a lot of learning to do from last night's game if they want to step up to the level of teams like Stanford. And after all, isn't that the goal for this program in the grand scheme of things? We've seen some big accomplishments from this team this year, but trust me, things can still feel pretty empty when you fall short of what you know you are capable of. Reaching those capabilities, and playing like a great team every week, is the next big step for this team.
It will be interesting to watch and see if Coach Mora and his staff and his players learned anything from yesterday's game. Their next test comes in six days.