Legendary programs on verge of revival

In the television series "Mission Impossible," the tape-recorded message describing the assignment always spoke the same words. "This mission, if you should decide to accept it … " The voice continued to enumerate the keys to the puzzle, the desired result and the attendant "impossible" realities.

I was taken with the final line, which stated, "This recording will self-destruct in 30 seconds." The metaphor was powerful and obvious. The assignment itself would no longer exist in a physical form in half a minute, and there was the obvious implication that the listener might cease to exist if he attempted the impossible mission.

Karl Dorrell of UCLA, Bill Callahan of Nebraska, Tyrone Willingham of Washington and Mike Shula of Alabama are attempting to teach their teams the toughest lesson in sports today: consistency. Each is seeking to revive a storied tradition while dealing with distractions his predecessors never faced. One reason for the increased degree of difficulty in this era -- and indeed one of the major distractions -- is that every loss in the world of traditional powers is considered catastrophic. Each of the aforementioned teams was close to a breakthrough win last Saturday only to fall prey to the habitual lapse in focus their players have come to expect. The fans, media and campus do not tolerate such, and the fallout is indescribable.

A line has been crossed in the journalistic expectation of today's media that makes it almost impossible for players to distinguish between fantasy and reality. When I was a young sportscaster reporting a baseball score, I once stated that the Cardinals had tragically lost in the 12th inning to the Pirates.

The news director at our station in Atlanta, a wonderful guy named Bob Brennan, dragged me into his office and harangued me for 15 minutes. "Bill, a baseball game is not a tragedy. A baseball game is a baseball game. A tragedy is a plane crash with people aboard. We are a news source, and people rely on us to use proper language! Remember, you work in the toy department. The real news is real."

Sadly, there are very few Bob Brennans around today, as we hear again and again that losses are "catastrophic," "tragic" or "devastating."

The result of that flawed thinking is that coaches and players at the traditional football powers live in a world in which a football loss is a personal tragedy. Inflamed, immature fans inflict their views in so many varied ways that the coaches and players and their families come to reflect the fanatical culture. Bricks through windows, vandalism, death threats and riots say to those young athletes, "Hey, this is the real thing. You are in serious trouble. You are terrible, and you are going to pay."

Meanwhile, as the disappointments pile up, recollections of legendary predecessors grow to mythic proportions, and the job of replacing them becomes well-nigh impossible. Gone from the collective consciousness is any error, loss or personal foible of the great ones from the past. As their legends grow, the normal mortals chosen to replace them shrink.

Poise under pressure
Try to imagine that you are coach Dorrell of UCLA. You are the first African-American head football coach at your alma mater. You have brought your well-prepared team to Notre Dame, the most famous of the legendary venues. Your team has stared down Touchdown Jesus, the Notre Dame Mystique, Charlie Weis and Brady Quinn for 58 minutes and 58 seconds. There is 1:02 on the clock. Notre Dame has the ball on its 20-yard-line with no timeouts, and you have the lead, 17-13. Your defense has played brilliantly. You know that the odds of any offense scoring a touchdown in this situation are very slim. You know you are on the verge of a legend of your own. You can feel it. You can taste it.

Then you try to keep your knees from buckling as it goes up in smoke in a matter of three plays. Your dream becomes an instant nightmare. Can you identify? You cannot. I cannot. Callahan, Willingham and Shula can identify.

So, how can a team and coach grow from such difficulty? Is it possible to achieve a modicum of success and maintain a sense of perspective? First and most important, understand that none of these men is asking for sympathy. These are tough, smart, resilient competitors -- or they would not be where they are. All enjoy certain advantages as they attempt to revive the tradition and winning expectations of their programs. How those advantages are understood and accessed determines how rapidly the team learns to stay focused the entire 60 minutes.

The good news at a traditional power in the sport of football is that you are a traditional power. You can overcome the distractions, you can win big, and you can do it without ever considering any sleight of hand or skirting of the rules. You can connect with and build upon the positive past. One thing is certain -- the football team will win big again.

These teams always come back. Good players want to be there. There is a tremendous competitive advantage to taking the field with outstanding players who are thrilled to be in your university, in your jersey, on your team.

Dorrell is bright and creative enough to show his men the fact that one more play in any phase of the game, whether on offense, defense or special teams, would have secured the victory. He will practice the specifics with each unit, building confidence that the next time there is a cliff-hanger, everyone will be ready. Callahan, Willingham and Shula will do the same.

As mundane as it seems, the truth is that traditional powers that have slipped return to the top with the same principles and practices that made them great. The modern zest for personality contests, motivational speeches, fancy spread offenses or gimmick plays has little to do with the desired result.

Football is a game of leadership, ball security, field position and physical dominance. Positive team expectations are built by establishing deeply ingrained habits in each of those areas. Consistent winning is the product of positive expectation combined with those habits.

Although it is an impossible mission to match Terry Donahue, Tom Osborne, Don James or Bear Bryant in the public's imagination, it is possible to build on their legacies. Long forgotten are the difficult moments those great men endured while earning their status. All four of last week's near miss teams will return to prominence in the near future, and we can hope it's with their present coaches. Who knows, we might even have a new legend or two in the bunch!

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is the executive director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.