By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It had been a difficult loss to swallow for West Virginia University, last weekend’s 37-27 come-from-ahead defeat to Texas Tech, an emotionally draining one for coach Dana Holgorsen, and in light of that it was not surprising that the words he was speaking were as strong as they were.
He spoke of his team lacking a “will to win” in the fourth quarter, words that he almost certainly wishes he had back because it wasn’t really what he meant to say. It wasn’t so much a lack of a will to win but more that this team did not really know how to close out the game or to react when the ceiling became the floor and the floor the ceiling in their topsy-turvy world.
In a way, though, Holgorsen’s comment was a service for it leads to a discussion of such matters of a team’s will to win and to players who choke, if, indeed, there really is such a thing.
Was Kirk Gibson’s dramatic one-legged World Series home run in 1988 heroic on his part or a choke by Dennis Eckersley, who wound up in the Hall of Fame. The same can be asked about Bill Mazeroski’s home run off Ralph Terry to win the 1960 World Series.
Do we toss around the term “choker” too easily? Someone has to win those situations, and someone has to lose.
Shannon Dawson, who is Holgorsen’s right-hand man and offensive coordinator, didn’t agree with the thought that there was no will to win, even if his offense did go three-and-out three straight times.
“Our kids, every one of them, wanted to win the game. They probably wanted to win too bad,” he said on Tuesday night. “I don’t think there was anyone who wanted to lose, so in my opinion I don’t know if that’s a fact.”
It is difficult to imagine anyone who puts in what it takes to be a big-time football player not wanting to win, maybe more than anything else in the world.
Sometimes, though you just can’t get it done.
“It’s more we just didn’t make the play,” Dawson said. “You take a couple of those kids – and I’m not going to point them out – who made mistakes in the end, and I guarantee you those kids wanted to win the game. It ain’t like those kids wanted to mess up.
“Things happen. It’s a game. It’s football.”
Indeed they do. And what’s overlooked is most often they happen to the team with the least talent or the least experience, not the least will to win.
“The only way to improve is to get in that position again. Michael Jordan missed a lot of game-winning shots. He missed more than he made, but you don’t remember them. Now, if we get in that position again and make the plays you won’t remember the ones we didn’t make it,” Dawson said.
See, this winning thing isn’t a natural thing. It’s true; some people feel as if they are born losers, but that just isn’t the case, just as no one is a born winner.
“You have to learn how to win; you have to learn how to make plays in crucial situations,” Dawson said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with will to win. Heck everyone in this room wanted to win that game, and it’s devastating that we didn’t.
“If they didn’t want to win, they would have left that game indifferent with the outcome.”
And they were crushed by the outcome.
The important thing for future success is how they react to the failure.
“It’s like Bum Phillips, who just passed away, used to say,” Dawson said, referring to the former Houston Oilers football coach. “One of his favorite sayings was, ‘You can lose and still not be a loser.’ You become a loser when you start pointing fingers at everyone. He said you can lose and self-reflect and lose and then win.
“See, there’s failure without being a failure,” Dawson continued. “There’s no great things that ever have been accomplished without a certain amount of failure and struggles leading up to it. I don’t consider it a failing. It ain’t how many times you get knocked down. You have to keep getting up and stay positive the next time.
“You might not make it the next time, but you might make it the third time.”
Consider this. We mentioned Eckersley earlier. He failed yet wound up in the Hall of Fame.
Good players fail. It isn’t always choking.
“There’s NFL players out there who are tagged with that. They are pretty good players to be in the NFL and yet are tagged with being unable to play in the fourth quarter. In fact, they are some of the best players in the world,” Dawson said.
He also noted that football is a team game, and you best remember it before pointing fingers.
“There’s 10 other players out there playing with him, too, and there’s two other sides to the ball. And you have to factor in there is a whole other team on the other side of the ball trying to win, too.”
True, some players perform better in clutch situations than others, that probably being a mental thing built on confidence.
“There are people who have a knack for rising at that time, but it’s not many. You can name them,” Dawson said. “We’re not asking one kid to win the game. I don’t think we have that here. But we have three sides of the ball that can play above average at times. If we do that, we can win in the Big 12. If one of those sides doesn’t, we probably are not going to win because we can’t overcome it.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.