LSU has just closed an athletic season in which it won three of a possible 20 conference titles. Furthermore, the biggest three sports, by season, in the SEC are football, basketball, and baseball. Of the three highest profile sports, LSU won the SEC title in two of them.
Yet, largely I believe, this athletic season has been viewed as a disappointment. It has been the Year of Almost, and for all of the bites at the apple, only women's track came home with a national title.
By contrast, Alabama won four national titles this year, an astonishing figure. The SEC only sponsors 20 sports, and Alabama brought home the national title in one-fifth of them. Not only that, this was truly cross discipline. It wasn't like Alabama brought home three track titles - Bama brought home the national title in football, softball, golf, and gymnastics. You want to take a guess how many SEC titles Alabama won in all sports during this remarkably dominant year?
Alabama's remarkably dominant year resulted in less conference titles than LSU's disappointing year. This is not to suggest LSU had as good of a year as Alabama, I don't think anyone would argue that. In fact, I think pretty much every Tiger fan would trade Alabama's overall athletic performance this year for LSU's in a heartbeat, and not one Alabama fan would make that trade.
This leads us to two far more interesting questions: (1) Do conference titles matter? (2) What is the standard of success?
The simple answer to question one is "barely at all." I wish they meant more, but let's be honest, winning a conference title carries precisely zero weight. We can pay lip service to them until the cows come home, but when the rubber meets the road, we don't value them.
LSU's three conference titles all meant precisely squat. LSU was actually punished in football for winning its biggest game of the year, by being forced to play another ten win team, while the team they beat got a free ride to the title game. Now, the SEC and Big 12 champion a playoff system that gives no weight to conference championships, and instead wants the "best four teams", whatever that means. But we know what it doesn't mean - valuing the conference champions. In fact, the Best Four partisans expressly reject a conference champions model.
Winning a conference in football clearly means nothing to the SEC, the Big 12, and the supports of their playoff plan.
Baseball? Well, there's always been a large tournament field and a conference title never got you to Omaha. Though it is frustrating to watch three SEC teams make Omaha who have a combined record of 2-7 against LSU, the conference champ, that's the way the system has always been. However, the committee placed almost no value on winning the SEC in its seeding. Florida received the #1 overall seed and LSU received a #7 seed despite LSU winning head-to-head and winning the conference. Once again, no value was placed on the conference title. None.
Even when LSU won the national title, the SEC title played no part in it. LSU women's track won the national title, but still would have done so had they bombed the SEC meet. Had the women failed to win the national title, no one would've said that it was okay because they won the SEC. Winning the SEC affords you no bragging rights, which leads us to Question Two...
What is the standard of success? More and more in our culture, we've become conditioned to believe that anything short of the national title is a failure. This even manifests itself in the pro level, in which somehow the NBA Finals is a referendum on whether LeBron James is the best basketball player on earth.
This "title or bust" philosophy isn't healthy, and it makes it more difficult to enjoy the games. This pervasive and noxious attitude that if you did not win the national title then therefore your team sucks is just like a virus. Sure, we play games to win, but celebrating a team that won a conference title, or made the Supers, or its regional isn't "accepting mediocrity" or some such nonsense. It's celebrating success.
Sure, there are levels of success. Alabama's success this year is greater than LSU's. But that does not invalidate LSU's accomplishments. It is not defining down success to be proud of what really was a great year. Could it be greater? Yeah, but it can ALWAYS be greater.
The worst is that the running down of LSU's successes is not coming from outside sources. It's not Bama fans telling us how much we suck or that our conference titles are invalid. It's coming from within. It's LSU fans, under the guise of "demanding excellence", that are unable to see the excellence right before their very noses.
There's always room for improvement. And no, we should not be satisfied with losing in the Supers to a four-seed or losing the football national title to a hated rival. But there's a long way from "unsatisfied" to being able to applaud the accomplishments of those teams, which were not inconsequential.
It's not just about national titles. It's about excellence throughout the year. It's about representing the university in the best possible way. There are fans angry about LSU fans in the Box giving Stony Brook a standing ovation after the game was over and LSU had lost. Which just proves fans will find a way to be angry about anything.
It's good to be critical. Critical self-assessment is an important part of getting better. But taking that to the point of being unable to appreciate any accomplishment short of a national title is a toxic, destructive attitude guaranteed to make even the most ardent fan bitter and angry. You can't win the title every year.
This was a great year, however you define greatness. Let's hope next year is even greater.