A week after the Oregon baseball team got eliminated from the College World Series I went on Twitter with a question in mind: Were any Ducks fans angry at coach George Horton for this disappointing end to the season? I typed his name into the search bar and scrolled through the tweets, looking at the pages like I was watching a horror movie. After such an amazing season, my biggest fear was for my question to be answered affirmatively; for a fan (or multiple fans) to overreact to one game and forget just how invaluable Horton has been for the program.
My fears were confirmed. There were several tweets, some featuring the colorful language often employed by passionate sports fans, suggesting Coach Horton had failed and should move on. Just a few tweets, an accurate representation? I looked further with a Google search that revolved around the “George Horton sucks” premise. Maybe those tweets would be all I’d find! Ha, nope. Immediately after searching I found this post criticizing Horton’s offense.
Then – because I enjoy torturing myself – I did a similar search, only for a different coach who has recently experienced loads of success at Oregon. The results were worse than I expected.
Horton at least wasn’t called a bad coach in “big games” (not directly, anyway). Chip Kelly was. Many times, in fact. Somebody even dedicated an entire website complaining about him.
Neither one of these coaches is perfect, of course, but to say they can’t win big games is simply absurd. It’s also absurd to look at a coach’s or player’s mistakes in a tiny number of games (ones that are often close) and think they’re more meaningful than their positive performances in a much larger sample. It’s fine to call them “big games” because they are. The problem though is that people often make them seem like they’re the only games that matter.
First let’s dismiss the notion that either of these coaches hasn’t performed well in big games. Here are just a handful of big games (my opinion) the Ducks won during Kelly’s tenure:
09/26/09 – 42-3 over #6 Cal
10/31/09 – 47-20 over #4 USC
10/02/10 – 52-31 over #9 Stanford
11/02/11 – 53-30 over #3 Stanford
01/02/12 – 45-38 over #10 Wisconsin (Rose Bowl)
11/03/12 – 61-52 over #18 USC
11/24/12 – 48-24 over #16 Oregon State
01/03/13 – 35-17 over #7 Kansas State (Fiesta Bowl)
The losses people point to most when criticizing Kelly are the Stanford game mentioned in the Oregonian link above, the USC game the year before, the loss to LSU at the beginning of that season and, of course, the 2011-12 National Championship loss to Auburn. Other than LSU, the Ducks lost by 3 points in each of those games. Even if Kelly managed the clock poorly late in those games, the Ducks could’ve easily won had they caught a couple more breaks (Michael Dyer and Alejandro Maldonado agree). If those games were wins instead of losses, questions about Kelly’s big game coaching become non-existent. How can three games sway people’s opinions of a coach so much?
I haven’t found as much criticism of Horton as of Kelly. However, I’m sure numerous fans besides the two bozos mentioned above have questioned Coach Horton’s abilities based on early ends to the past two seasons. Maybe they have a point. I mean, early season wins against top 10 teams like Cal State Fullerton, Vanderbilt, Oregon State, UCLA (top 10 this and last season) and Arizona (#1 last season) are great and all, but they don’t mean anything if you don’t coach your team to wins in the postseason.
This is my point. Instances of bad luck like these two plays and the infamous Michael Dyer knee play from the National Championship football game take a coach’s – or player’s – hopes of glory and smother them with a pillow. One or two plays can determine a legacy.
Believe me, I understand how heartbreaking losses in big games can be, especially when they’re so close at the end. You start thinking about the little things that went wrong that cost your team the victory: a missed kick, an incomplete pass, a missed tackle, a strikeout with runners in scoring position, a fielding error, a coach’s mistake. These all get magnified, and because losses hurt so much, fans get angry and start dishing out blame. Sometimes they’re right to blame certain people. Other times they say things like Chip Kelly and George Horton can’t win big games.
The way we look at sports can be so mystifying. If a student normally aces his or her finals but also received a C here or there through the years, nobody would say “That person is awful at final exams.” We’d look at the student’s entire body of work and conclude that overall they’re excellent at final exams.
This is how we as fans should approach sports. If players or coaches repeatedly struggle in big moments while rarely performing well, then we can accurately criticize their performance. If they perform well in just as many, if not more, big games as those they perform poorly in, then they are not bad big game coaches/players. This is clearly the case with Kelly and Horton. We need to remember that they typically ace their finals and we should not overreact when they get a C once in a while.