"I wish I hadn't cried so much! I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears!"
Of all of the contributions that Nick Saban made to the LSU Tiger football program in his pit stop in Baton Rouge, none has left a more lasting legacy than the two simple words he offered on the tendency of Tiger Nation to rush to their pitchforks, perhaps with the hope that the falling sky may be caught upon their spikes, on their way to lynch anyone and everyone in the aftermath of anything that doesn't go according to script, or at least their idea of what the script should have been.
It is perhaps the most appropriate turn of phrase regarding the program since someone decided that Death Valley had a nice ring to it when referring to the home field advantage of Tiger Stadium.
The citizens of Tiger Nation take great pride in the passion they are known for that creates the atmosphere that opponents dread when venturing into Death Valley. It is a fire that we feel sets us apart from all other fan bases across the country, and we carry that torch wherever our beloved Tigers roam. But there is no question that the flames of such passion are difficult to contain, and when opponents escape the inferno intended for their sacrifice, the nearest remaining kindling to consume are clad in purple and gold, and the blaze turns upon them with an even angrier ferocity due to the insult and frustration.
As frustrating as Saban found that quality in the fanbase a decade ago, one can only wonder at how little patience he would have had for the technologically evolved strain of the Syndrome that Les Miles finds himself subjected to on a daily basis. Fueled by instant communication and interactive message boards where frustrated fans feed into each other's hysteria before the games are even decided and continue without interruption throughout the following week.
Most damaging, however, is the fact that local and national media frequent these sites without fail, and these venting sessions become molded into the narrative used to frame the state of the program. So in very real ways, these temper tantrums can become self fulfilling prophecies for the team as potential recruits and their parents become exposed to the Catastrophe Syndrome in a way that they never have before. Truly, there has never been a more perilous time to be at the head of the altar, and at the mercy of the alters.
The ongoing belief among a small but vocal minority, and rest assured, they are the minority, of Tiger Nation that Les Miles is the only thing holding back LSU from becoming an unstoppable behemoth of college football is perhaps the most asinine idea since Lou Tepper's drop linebacker. Most of these are either young fans that don't appreciate how difficult it is for a program to have the type of consistent success that LSU has been blessed to enjoy the past 13 years, or the fans that have so little to celebrate in their own lives that the LSU team gives them virtually their only hope for any sense of satisfaction in a given week.
This concept is nothing new, and in fact it goes all the way back to the day Miles was hired. Many Tiger fans simply did not like the hire, and have refused to ever accept that he was the right man for the job. The hope that LSU could have brought in a big name coach like Butch Davis, Steve Spurrier, Jack Del Rio, Dennis Erickson, Bobby Petrino, or Houston Nutt, who Nick Saban recommended to LSU's hiring committee, made the little known Les Miles seem bland to a culture that prides itself on spice and flavor.
Ironically, Miles has proven to be the most captivating and fascinating coach in the country since coming to Baton Rouge, but those fans that were infatuated with the big names simply refuse to embrace anything the man accomplishes, perhaps because it would mean they have been wrong all along.
And the longer Miles stays while continuing to bring the program to heights never achieved, the sillier their protestations over the years seem. So they become even more embittered in their grievances, relishing every moment when Miles or his team eventually hits a low point so that they can joyfully exclaim that they told us so. It's actually a remarkable level of conviction when you stop and think about it.
In football, not unlike in life, there are few things more damaging to the pleasures it has to offer than the picture in our heads of how we think it is "supposed to be".
This is perhaps the most harmful idea that contributes to the well documented Catastrophe Syndrome after games like the Ole Miss game last Saturday. LSU is an elite program. But the idea that LSU is so much better than Ole Miss that only a horrible no show by LSU could result in anything but a convincing win is simply nonsense. We’ve seen upsets much worse than this countless times all over the country at every program throughout the years, although it’s happened very rarely under Les Miles, who is now 55-5 against unranked teams in his time in Baton Rouge.
Ole Miss is an SEC team with a roster full of SEC athletes and coaches that are not drastically less talented than LSU's, and certainly no less motivated to win a football game.
Anyone that has undertaken to compete at any level of sport understands that nothing is guaranteed when you step onto the playing field. Advantages in 40 times, bench press reps, vertical jumps, height and weight, all become less clear cut as they become part of a chess match that forms the tapestry of how a game plays out. Things don’t go according to plan, momentum takes over, and the game takes on a life of it’s own. The same can be said for seasons, and careers. The present becomes illogically and inexplicably tied to what happened in the past, and the future becomes something no one could have imagined.
It’s what makes the game of football the most thrilling, yet frighteningly unpredictable form of competition in modern sport. Any given sunday, as they say. And that holds even more truth all over the country on Saturdays, when amateur athletes often are unable to perform as expected, and just as often play far above anyone’s expectations, as the Ole Miss Rebels did in Oxford with all of the odds stacked against them.
Disrespecting an opponent like Ole Miss that was ranked less than a month ago and will likely be ranked again in the next month is nothing but the unnecessary and unwarranted Catastrophe Syndrome that has haunted this program since before most of the current players that make up the team were even born.
The idea that "the grass is always greener" perhaps never rings more true than when applied to the fields of competition in sports. Unfortunately for Miles, his team is constantly judged by the one program that has achieved more than his own over the past several years, made infinitely more catastrophic by the fact that they are led by Miles' predecessor in Baton Rouge. The fact that their current run started at the hands of Miles' greatest team in January of 2012, whether they deserved to even play in that game is irrelevant, has turned Tiger Nation's Catastrophe Syndrome into a fatal condition for Les Miles for which there may be no cure.
Without question, there have been disappointing games and moments that have been difficult to watch over Miles' tenure, just as their have been for every coach and team that has ever stepped onto a football field since the game was invented.
The last second road loss on Saturday to an Ole Miss team that was picked by many to beat LSU before the season started was certainly no more disappointing than the home loss to the Rebels in 2001. No loss had felt more catastrophic in Nick Saban's tenure to that point than when his Tigers fell to 4-3 on the year, three games out of first place in the SEC West, with only three conference games to play. Tiger Nation showered Saban and his team with boos from the stands of Death Valley, and the cries for Saban's head filled the stadium ramps as fans fled the stadium in disgust.
Luckily, a twitter campaign was not possible, and there was no Tiger Rant in existence to perpetuate those sentiments. By the time Rohan Davey and Josh Reed were rewriting the SEC record books in Bryant Denny Stadium the following week, the defensive embarrassment and offensive disappearance against Ole Miss was a distant memory, even though the Tigers' SEC Championship hopes still seemed as unlikely as ever.
While LSU will likely not be able to represent the SEC West in Atlanta, something absolutely no one predicted was possible at the start of the season anyway, the Tigers still have plenty to play for in 2013.
Zach Mettenberger is still on pace to rewrite the LSU record book along with Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Those three, along with Jeremy Hill who could still challenge Kevin Faulk's #2 rushing season in Tiger history, can continue to improve their stock among NFL Scouts in what could possibly be their last few games in purple and gold.
Fortunately, the entire team certainly looked motivated in the second half against the Rebels. They stormed back after falling behind 17-0 to tie the game up at 24-24 before Ole Miss' valiant drive for the game winning field goal. The fact that they came up short shouldn't take away from the effort they gave to climb out of such a hole in a hostile environment. This is still a team capable of great things, much the way those Tigers in 2001 were.
The final third of the season will begin against the Paladins of Furman on Saturday Night in Death Valley. Perhaps even Charlemagne himself wouldn't be able to rally these knights to victory in Baton Rouge, but once again, competition is a strange and glorious thing. Perhaps the challenge and nothing to lose circumstances create an atmosphere where the Paladins are inspired to play better than they ever have in that Pantheon of concrete and steel that stirs such pride within all who look upon it. Perhaps even then they won't be able to overcome the odds and advantages stacked against them.
But maybe, just maybe, Furman could find the stitch in the fabric of the game that ripped open against UAB in 2000, or nearly did against Troy in 2004 and 2008, or Towson just last year.
Again, nothing on the field of play is guaranteed, and believing that any outcome is inevitable is the first step to true catastrophe.
However, if LSU steps up to the challenge and is able to strive to put their perfect game together, perhaps they ride that wave of momentum all the way to Tuscaloosa in two weeks. Success is addictive, and simply remembering how much fun it can be to execute at the highest level can be more motivating than any potential trophy or ring down the road could ever be.
And if Tiger Nation truly feels that they are a part of what makes Death Valley such a powerful force in the life of the game, it would certainly be disappointing if that stadium was half empty for what could be the game that sets the tone for this team for the rest of the season.
If the Tigers and Paladins walk out to an empty arena, perhaps that will be the moment that sets the tone for the game, and the rest of the season.
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where...."
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat