Zemek On The Orange - Don't Laugh At Clemson

Posted Jan 5, 2012

The Clemson Tigers obviously received an industrial strength dose of humiliation on a grand stage. That point is not in dispute. However, does the taste of embarrassment wipe away the value of the Tigers' regular season? It's time for an important sports debate to take place.

Orange Bowl - West Virginia 70, Clemson 33
| Cirminiello - WVU's Big O Moment
Fiutak - WVU's Big Night
Sallee - THE Fumble
Zemek - At Least Clemson Won Something
Harrison - Where's the D In The BCS?

Others will write about the Atlantic Coast Conference, the rise of Dana Holgorsen, and the 99-yard fumble return in the wake of the 2012 Orange Bowl. The Weekly Affirmation's focus goes beyond the 60-minute game and looks at a big-picture question: Does this loss – its scope and scale – overshadow everything else Clemson achieved this season? To be more precise, SHOULD this loss cancel out all the good things the Tigers did in the fall of 2011?

One of the worst aspects of American sports culture is once again a topic of conversation after West Virginia's weapons-grade nuking of Clemson in Miami. America is the country which – through an advertising slogan – told us that "second place is the first loser." Losing in championship games or championship series somehow confers more public ridicule on teams and athletes than other far more dubious distinctions. NBA teams that are quietly ushered out of the first round; 11-5 NFL teams that lose in the divisional playoffs; tennis players with top-level talent who keep losing in the fourth round or quarterfinals of major tournaments without making finals; and other similar performers in the sports world do not gain long shelf lives as late-night talk show fodder. The wide swath of teams that are a little bit better or worse than .500 do not become cultural punching bags.

Teams that lose championship games and prestige events – especially by big margins – are the ones that get killed in American culture. This is the way it is. Fans of teams have become conditioned to say, "Well, I'm sure glad the 1991 Denver Broncos lost to the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game, because the Redskins would have killed us again in Super Bowl XXVI." American sports fans are conditioned to say, "Boy, that Roger Federer is a bum… losing all those French Open finals to Rafael Nadal on clay. What a stain on an otherwise-great legacy and career." The American mind has come to embrace avoiding the big loss on the big stage, instead of taking the good along with the bad. Reaching a championship game means nothing without victory according to the current prevailing mindset in America. Sport is a forum in which ultimate conquest – and nothing else – matters, so much so that second place is made to feel more like a failure than an accomplishment. Moreover, the Bowl Championship Series – with its relentless and obsessive focus on one game amidst all other games – feeds (and has fed) into this mentality by creating an emotional and expectations-driven environment in which only one event matters. The BCS has fostered a competitive culture in which the team that receives a controversial and politically-arranged invitation to the national championship game is seen as a fraud if it doesn't play well. So much emphasis falls on those two tickets that the loser of the BCS National Championship Game is seen as something of a place-stealer or grave-robber if it doesn't measure up. This is the (American) world we live in. In terms of the present-day mindset of this country with respect to major sporting events, there's no question that getting ripped in a big game brings about more condemnation than just about anything else.

Ah, but should that be the case? SHOULD our sporting culture lead us in this direction? It should be said, plainly yet with great conviction, that it's better to be in Clemson's shoes than South Carolina's shoes.

Yes, you can make a strong counter-argument. Yes, the Gamecocks beat Clemson – and handily so – for three straight years. There's no disputing the fact that South Carolina went 11-2 this season and feasted on its rivals – Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Clemson – while also winning a bowl game. However, Clemson has won a conference championship while Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks have not. Dabo Swinney isn't half the coach Spurrier is, but he's stood on the sidelines in a BCS game while wearing Clemson colors. Spurrier's last taste of the Bowl Championship Series came in his January 2002 finale at Florida in the Orange Bowl against Maryland. Even though he's won the SEC East – still his best achievement to date as South Carolina's coach – Spurrier still hasn't claimed the SEC and marched to the Sugar Bowl on behalf of Gamecock Nation.

Yes, the real-world politics of the situation will likely tell us that South Carolina will gain more on the recruiting trail than Clemson as a result of the two schools' respective bowl outcomes. "Life as it is" suggests that South Carolina will benefit more from its conference-title-free season than Clemson will from its ACC championship campaign.

"Life as it SHOULD BE," however, would point us in a different direction. If American sports writ large owned a better overall ethos and mission statement, second place would be the second champion, not the first loser. Teams such as the 1990s Buffalo Bills and the 1990s Atlanta Braves would not be slaughtered in the court of public opinion.

The Clemson Tigers – who played nine conference games this season – won their conference. The majority of Clemson's season was devoted to winning the ACC (as is the case for any other non-Independent team in the Football Bowl Subdivision). Ergo, Clemson's season was fundamentally and centrally successful in ways that South Carolina's season was not – and never can be. Sure, the crushing disappointment of laying an egg on the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Orange Bowl will cut deep for Clemson. It should. However, the fact that Clemson got to this point still represents a milestone achievement for the program. Playing in the spotlight against another conference champion (as West Virginia was and is) invites the possibility of great failure, but that's what competitive athletics is all about: Taking the field with the knowledge that one could become great… or experience a profound fall from grace. Being in the arena – as former president Theodore Roosevelt said – is what counts. Taking place in the struggle and enjoying the mere possibility of glory is what makes a human person – or a community of persons such as a football program – fully alive.

Sure, Clemson's will was destroyed by West Virginia's 99-yard strip-and-score touchdown. Yes, the Tigers basically quit after their torrent of turnovers at the end of the first half. Yes, Clemson now faces the pressure of dealing with this awful memory for eight long months.

No matter – I'd still rather be ACC champion than the non-champion of both the SEC and the SEC East Division. The Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Braves would also side with the Tigers, as well they should.