The Golden Gophers, as you probably know, dropped another winnable game to a bad Nebraska team. In what is now an annual tradition, another Minnesota sports team is failing when it matters most. It has become a right of passage for Minnesota fans to get their hopes up only to be let down. The eventual heartbreak has become the highlight of the season. There are many reasons why the Gopher basketball team can look so bad. The bigger question is why unsuccessful seasons have become the norm.
There is nothing inherently different about the Twin Cities that causes Minnesota sports teams to be so unsuccessful. Looking back at recently successful college and professional teams, championship teams are prevalent in cities of all sorts, some similar to the Twin Cities and some that couldn’t be more different. The one thing those other cities don’t have is Minnesota sports fans. We’ve created a monster, and it has a life of its own.
At some point in the past, we, the fans, got lazy. I don’t know the exact moment, but my guess it happened in early 1992. The Twins had just won their second World Series, Gopher basketball had plenty of recent success, the North Stars reached the Stanley Cup finals, the Vikings nearly made the Superbowl, and pro basketball was back after decades away. Those were the good times, the last good times. We expected the good times to keep rolling, but did nothing to make that happen. That success led to a self-perpetuating cycle of entitlement and disappointment that continues to this day.
Success, in life as in sports, is far from guaranteed. Fans naturally want to watch a winner, and when their team isn’t winning, they demand a change. Athletic directors and team owners (those interested in things other than profit) want to keep the fans happy. When times get rough fans demand a change, and sometimes athletic directors and team owners comply, sometimes when they shouldn’t, and sometimes without a plan.
Glen Mason was far from the ideal football coach. He seemed to have little interest recruiting, and otherwise committing himself to building a winning football program. He was not the long-term answer. Under his “leadership” his teams were winning though, at a rate that hadn’t been matched in decades. Mason’s teams mastered heartbreak as a highlight of a season. But for a heart to break, it has to care, and at the very least, there was significant re-engagement during his tenure. No one ever chanted for Jim Wacker to be fired, because no one cared. But Mason’s teams lost close games instead of being blown out, and had blow out wins in games that would have previously been close wins at best. Fans demanded a change without demanding a plan. They demanded a new coach without demanding changes that could fundamentally improve the program. They demanded anything but what they had, because anything would be better, and got something much worse. And when Brewster was gone, having not learned any lessons from the end of the Mason era, got their fourth or fifth choice for a head coach. Jerry Kill may be just what the program needs, but only because the athletic department got lucky. Mason wasn’t the first coach fired without a plan. Monson was let go early in the season with no obvious replacement, and Joel Maturi lucked, or so it seemed at the time, into hiring Tubby Smith. The Timberwolves, Vikings, and Wild have also made the mediocre worse by taking short cuts to getting better. Instead of demanding accountability, fans demand instant gratification, which never comes.
If the fans are the chicken, the media is the egg. The feed back loop between the media and the fans amplifies the worst tendencies of both. Fans who are pre-disposed to being disappointed want to be told they are right to be disappointed, and the media is all too happy to oblige. I don’t envy those in the traditional media. Quantity is more important that quality. In the era of #hashtag journalism, to incite is more important than to provide insight. Generating heat is more important than generating light. In an endless quest for retweets and page views, there is a disincentive to providing quality journalism. If the fans want snarky tweets about a practice facility, a snarky tweet they will receive. It is much easier to blindly criticize players for not improving than to explain the lengths they must go through to find a place to practice on their own time. It is much easier to criticize recruiting than to explain the importance of a practice facility in recruiting. It is much easier to do both than to investigate why after six years a practice facility is still in the preliminary planning stages, without any real plant to ever get it built.
I don’t expect the media to root for local teams, but I do expect them to be reasonable. I assume they would rather cover winners than losers, if only because consistent losers can be dreadfully boring. However I do expect them to be reasonable. Erick Erickson, whose politics I deplore, at the very least understands the power of poorly performing media. Instead of actual reporting, all to often, the media tells their audience what they think they want to hear, and instead the opposite happens. And to make their point, they ignore reality. Wins during the Big Ten Tournament or against Iowa suddenly don’t count. Stories about close wins include phrases like “should have lost” or “almost lost” while close losses are evidence of poor coaching and lack of toughness. This only reinforces fan disappointment and reactionary calls for immediate change. It should come as no surprise that the local media is handling the Tubby Smith situation as well as every coaching situation recent memory. At least they are consistent. They’d rather amplify discontent than examine problems and propose solutions. If we don’t learn from history, we will repeat it.
It doesn’t have to be this bad. As a fan, you can demand better. My math teachers in high school demanded that I show my work. You should do the same. If the a media makes an assertion, ask them to back it up. If they are wrong they probably won’t admit it, but they might do a bit of extra work the next time. And when they do the extra work, let them know they are appreciated. I know I should do this more often. Amelia Rayno thought that Tubby Smith’s line-up choices were hurting the team’s chances to win. Instead of leaving it at that, she did the work to prove it. In a better media environment this wouldn’t be worthy of praise, it would be the norm. If the media exposed the real problems, and fans demanded real solutions, we might not need to ask what is wrong with Minnesota sports every year. And if we don’t change, we’ll keep getting what we deserve.