The Curse Of Overconfidence

On September 7, the much-anticipated 2015 version of the Ohio State University Buckeyes will take the field for the first time — in Blacksburg, Virginia, against Virginia Tech.  The Hokies handed the Buckeyes their only loss last year, beating the Men of the Scarlet and Gray soundly here in Columbus.  Of course, the Buckeyes rebounded and went on to have a legendary season that ended with a glorious and dominating three-game run that produced a National Championship.

Buckeyes fans are eager for the new season, but the hyperbole surrounding the team is making me queasy.  You regularly see articles asking whether Ohio State will have the greatest offense in the history of college football, or have one of the best teams ever.  The overwhelming self-confidence — hubris, really — among many members of Buckeye Nation and even some members of the news media is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Fortunately for Ohio State diehards, fans and reporters don’t play the games.  Perhaps the biggest challenge for head coach Urban Meyer and his assistants this year — aside from figuring out who will be the starting quarterback — is to keep the players from reading their own press clippings and getting swelled heads.  Of course, you want players who are hungry, highly motivated, and working as hard as they possibly can for themselves and their teammates; those who are convinced that they are already among the greatest probably aren’t going to give the necessary extra effort to get the most out of every drill.

Urban Meyer, who got his bachelor’s degree in psychology, is a master motivator who seems to have an almost intuitive grasp of how young athletes think and a deep sense of how to appeal to their competitive instincts.  If anyone can keep Ohio State’s talented players on task and on point, it’s Coach Meyer — and the fact that the Buckeye roster seems very deep, with lots of gifted athletes competing relentlessly for starting positions, has to help.  Even if you’ve read article after article about your own greatness, it’s not easy to slack off when you know firsthand that the guy behind you also has enormous skills and would be perfectly happy to step in and take your place while you revel in the hype.

The Challenge Of Trying To Stay On Top

When you are on top, staying there can be a challenge.  Suddenly there are all kinds of distractions.  People who previously lean and hungry may develop a more complacent frame of mind.  And there is every temptation to start believing your press clippings.

The current national champion Ohio State Buckeyes are learning this life lesson.  If they are listening to the over-the-top accolades and compliments that every casual fan and professional pundit is throwing their way, their heads have probably already swollen to the bursting point.  They’ve been picked for all kinds of preseason award lists and slotted in to the next round of college football playoffs before one down has even been played.  And this week, one of those dreaded “distractions” occurred when four players — including All-World defensive end Joey Bosa and three players who were expected to make big contributions on the offensive side of the ball and on special teams — were suspended for the first game against Virginia Tech for violating an unspecified policy or policies.

Fans grit their teeth at these kinds of off-field activities, but it seems entirely predictable in the modern world of high-powered college sports.  For the Buckeyes, they will just have to figure out a way to overcome the loss of four key players — or not.  It’s a kind of initial test in a season of impending tests, where the enemies will be the opposing teams but also overconfidence, clashing egos, petty jealousies, and concerns about future pro careers.

I’d rather the Buckeyes not have to deal with suspensions, but if they are going to happen — and, realistically, they are — I’d rather the process start now, before the season begins.  Last year, Ohio State’s players adopted a “next man up” mentality that required every player to be ready to step in and pursue the team’s lofty goals, and it served the team well.  At the quarterback position the next man up — and the next man up after him — in fact had to rise to the challenge and perform in the clutch.  I’m hoping that Urban Meyer, who knows a thing or two about encouraging motivation and focus with student athletes, can use this incident to good effect in getting the team mentally ready, again.  It wouldn’t exactly be seemly for the supposed Team of the Century to stumble out of the gate.