The Times They Are a Changing?
by Mike Trivella | University of Notre Dame
Imagine an ocean made up of an infinite number of waves. No one is sure where they come from, where they get their impetus, but from somewhere they arise, headed for the shore. As the waves come closer, they speed up and increase in power as the ocean floor beneath rises higher and higher. Eventually, the waves are at the peak of their power, cresting in majesty as a combination of water, salt and sediment crashes down onto a pearly white beach. But then, the wave is no more; the water recedes, waiting indefinitely to reform into a wave as powerful as its former self.
Not only is this the essence of physics, but it also the essence of history, and college football as a corollary.
Just as great powers, empires and dynasties rise and fall only to be replaced and somewhat forgotten, so do college football teams. Rarely do any teams rise to the top and stay there. At first glance this may sound a bit preposterous, but think about it long enough and you will come to the conclusion that sustained success over a truly long period of time in college football is impossible. Alabama? They were mediocre until they lured Nick Saban back from the NFL. Stanford? Trying to find any memorable teams between the John Elway and Jim Harbaugh Eras is downright silly. Notre Dame? We still wish we had Lou Holtz as our head coach (no offense Brian Kelly, we’ve only been ok compared to our ridiculously high standards of success). One of the brutal facts of life is that all powers eventually fall, regardless of their might. Any competition, no matter how lousy, will inevitably wear down even the greatest of powers. All it takes is time.
What happens when a power finally falls? Generally, there is a lot of bitterness on the part of the fallen, but also a lot of nostalgia. It is natural to look upon the good ‘ol days with nostalgia, to drown oneself in the good times of yesteryear and avoid the problems of today. The only problem with this, of course, is the fact that the past is but the past; how can we give ourselves the chance to be prominent once more? This is where the battle between change and tradition comes barreling to the fore.
Going back to the wave metaphor, tradition is like the sediment the waves picks up while rumbling towards shore. Some of it is predetermined in a sense, but other parts of tradition are completely spontaneous. In high school I used to wear the same undershirt, boxers and socks to every game, unless of course it was a freezing day in late November. Why did I do it? That’s easy; when I first wore that combination, the team won. Thus, tradition is something that gets picked up arbitrarily during a team’s heyday. To put it another way, why would a college football team ever continue a tradition that is associated with losing? Nobody likes losing, so why continue doing something that will most likely lead you to lose? Traditions only make sense when they help teams win, or are associated with a period of time when the team was winning.
What happens, however, when a team faces its fall from grace? What are they to do about tradition then? Take an example from the University of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are renowned for their world-class marching band, and as such they have always provided the music inside the stadium on game days. To the tradition loving, blue-and-gold through-and-through alumnus, this is how it should always be. To the average student, this gets really, REALLY repetitive, and extremely boring after a while. So, in an effort to pump the student section for the USC game, the press box started to play songs from the Dropkick Murphys, the White Stripes and Black Sabbath. The majority of students instantly loved it; the traditionalists decried it as heretical, and bashed the move in opinions pieces to the school newspaper the following week. While the band is great, it hardly gets the student base excited anymore, and I have even more reason to think it does nothing for the players. To the alumni and detractors I pose this question: what would you rather have, a motivated team that is more likely to win, or your sweet sensibilities?
Another contentious topic arising from the change versus tradition debate is the state of college football jerseys. You know something is amiss when the iconic red and gray colors of the Ohio State jerseys are replaced with something like this. It’s ok for schools like Oregon to have a different jersey for each of the twelve days of Christmas, because they have a tradition of changing it up from week to week. It’s rather odd when you see a team like Notre Dame abandon the blue and gold that has survived for decades or wear helmets that remind you, as my friend Marge once described them, “of the dimples on golf balls”. Here is a situation in which the traditionalists have the upper hand. If a team is doing well and the switch is made, why fix something that isn’t broken? If the team is losing, maybe they should concentrate more on actually finding a way to win, instead of living by the mantra “you look good, you play good”. Alabama has worn the same jersey for the past sixty years. It certainly doesn’t look as cool as Oregon’s, but the Crimson Tide will destroy you just the same.
In the end, the question about tradition boils down to being more comfortable with the past, or embracing the future. Regardless of what one thinks, the world (and the college football landscape) is constantly changing. Tradition is nice for as long as it promotes success and relevance within the system. A model for success quickly becomes a model for adequacy when used in an environment that is no longer conducive to it. As the sporting world has witnessed with the Penn State scandal, riding a tradition for too long can even lead not just to losses, but also to tragedy. Institutions have to change in order to cope with a changing environment. People have to change in order to cope with a changing environment. A lifetime of hard work, the shedding of blood, sweat and tears, is for naught if you fail to achieve the task you were charged with accomplishing.
Tradition isn’t eternal; it’s a redirection of the way history could have played out. History could have gone such and such a way, but something happened that increased the success of the program, and because of that this is how we do things at such and such a place. To those people who are strong supporters of tradition, keep in mind that when the tradition started it was probably just as radical to the traditionalists of the past as the changes proposed now are to the traditionalists of today. So to repeat a question stated earlier: do you care more about winning, or about tradition? Keeping lagging traditions intact is fine; just don’t expect to be more successful in the future. A successful college team should always remember its roots, but it must always be looking ahead to the future as well. It’s good to have a glorious past, but a glorious future would be even better.Mike Trivella is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Majoring in Accounting and minoring in Philosophy, Mike splits his time between classes, working out with friends, balancing debits & credits, pondering the true essence of the universe, and as always watching the New York Football Giants.