It was a good weekend for Clemson athletics.
Just saying that seems weird, because it normally doesn’t need to be said. Either Clemson had a good weekend—or day, or week, or whatever—or it didn’t. Nobody needs to be convinced either way.
In this case, however, there might need to be some convincing.
The two events that created the most buzz in Clemson circles both resulted in losses. The men’s soccer team beat Syracuse in penalty kicks to advance to the College Cup title game before running into a Stanford buzzsaw at the finish line. Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy, which ultimately went to Alabama’s Derrick Henry.
The men’s basketball team didn’t help, losing by a point at “home” to the Crimson Tide on a breakaway dunk off of a stolen inbounds pass. That’s three losses in three important events for Clemson’s athletic teams.
(For the record, I was with women’s basketball this weekend. The Lady Tigers won handily at Tennessee Tech and looked good in the process.)
Men’s basketball notwithstanding—a disappointing loss, but not a crushing one in a December nonconference game to a team already compiling a better-than-expected body of work—winning and losing really shouldn’t have been the point of any of these games. Not to observers and analysts.
Coaches and players want to win everything. They are competitors. They spend every waking moment trying to win every single day. Losses are painful, no matter if they happen on the field or in an awards race or somewhere else.
For fans, losses hurt, but only indirectly. The efforts of players and coaches directly impact outcomes, while the efforts of fans are important but peripheral.
That detachment allows fans to have perspective where players and coaches might not, especially in the aftermath of a crushing loss. Too often, fans are caught treating individual games like players or coaches, living and dying with results and wearing blinders to block out the big picture.
It hurt Mike Noonan and his staff to lose to Stanford on Sunday. It hurt Deshaun Watson that he wasn’t chosen to win the Heisman Trophy. It’s supposed to hurt them.
For us on the outside, we can supply context to their pain. Sunday was Clemson’s fourth appearance ever in a College Cup final and the first since 1987. Only once since then (2005) did the Tigers reach the men’s soccer version of the Final Four. Just getting there was an accomplishment.
No Clemson player had ever been invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony before Watson. No player finished higher than sixth before he arrived on campus. It’s easy to call it “finishing last” when he finished third out of three finalists, but all college football players were eligible. Out of roughly 10,880 scholarship football players at the FBS level, Watson finished third. Just getting there was an accomplishment.
That brings us to the football team. When the Tigers take the field against Oklahoma on New Year’s Eve, winning will be the goal for players and coaches. Heck, fans should want to win, too.
But consider this: In Clemson history, outside of the 1981 season, the best finish in a final poll was sixth in 1978. The Tigers are in the final four now with a shot at a national title and will almost certainly remain inside the top six, regardless of the result of the matchup with the Sooners.
Just like Watson at the Heisman ceremony and men’s soccer in Kansas City, just getting there is an accomplishment. The season is already a success.
Instead of dwelling on outcomes, one might focus on Clemson’s nearly three-decade trek back to the College Cup or an eternal struggle to claim a Heisman finalist. That’s what this weekend was about—the journey, not the final tally.
Like I said, it was a good weekend for Clemson athletics.