How To Succeed When You’ve Failed

I probably need to explain the image above, which hopefully leads into the overall topic as well as I hope it does. The scene is from HBO show Silicon Valley, and depicts Gavin Belson, the CEO of a fictitious Google-ish company called Hooli. He’s currently trying to save face with Hooli board members after a setback with his newest project, Nucleus. This leads him to produce the above slide, where he tries to explain that failure could actually be success. The scene is a really solid parody of what an actual CEO would do.

Despite the parody, I’m going to run with Belson’s argument while applying it to some recent events. Let’s start with the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game. It was a match-up between the top two overall seeds, Notre Dame and Baylor. Notre Dame came in as the defending national champions, with four of the five starters from last year returning while Baylor came in as the number one overall seed with only one loss in the 2018–2019 season.

For the vast majority of the title game, Baylor seemed to have a considerable advantage by virtue of their front court of Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox. It was a double digit lead for the majority of the game, until Lauren Cox came down awkwardly on her left leg. The entire broadcast was silent, barely any noise from the crowd. Cox would not return to the lineup. The injury changed the course of the game considerably, as Notre Dame stormed back with a barrage of threes to eventually take a one point lead. Baylor would eventually take a two point lead off a bucket by Chloe Jackson. Arike Ogunbowale was fouled, leading to an opportunity to tie on two free throws. Ogunbowale missed the first, and then made the second despite trying to miss it on purpose. Baylor would run out the clock for the championship.

The point of this haphazard recap is to bring it back to our “Success=Failure” thesis. Personally, I have trouble watching sporting events, especially those events of importance because someone has to lose. In the NCAA tournament, this means that careers end most likely with TNT/CBS/TBS/ESPN shoving a camera in the players face in the milliseconds following their defeat. The emotion is painful to see. In this case, regardless of how Notre Dame/Baylor ended, there would be pain drenched in narrative.

On one hand, Baylor losing while blowing a double digit lead due to an injury to an important starter would take away what would have been a deserved win. It also potentially leaves viewers to question whether a Notre Dame victory could still be considered legitimate had they played a full strength Baylor team. Notre Dame’s loss can be seen as a failure because of how many starters they returned from their National Championship team, why couldn’t they repeat?

I’d argue that if repeating was easy, then UConn would still be continuing their most recent championship streak. But, it isn’t. Notre Dame in this case, shouldn’t consider this season a failure. Maybe it’s harder to argue for major programs in the Power 5 or professional sports teams with resources like Notre Dame, but not every season that ends with a loss has to be a failure. For reference, Notre Dame beat Stanford, who was the only team to beat Baylor this year. This is to say, the NCAA tournament is entirely dependent on winning six individual games and how you win is entirely isolated and dependent on what happens in that one game, that sample size is tiny. Maybe Notre Dame catches Baylor a day later and doesn’t have to dig out of a double digit deficit.

This was a point that SB Nation’s college football podcast Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, hosted by Steven Godfrey and Bill Connelly, brought up during bowl season. Somewhere between Episode 234 and 237 (forgive me, I cannot go back and sift through potentially five hours worth of podcasts for one soundbite), I remember Godfrey talking about how the Group of Five (the mid-majors if you will) and even some less successful Power 5 programs, shouldn’t base their success on making and winning the College Football Playoff. A team like, Kentucky, who has been woefully bad for years nearly won the SEC East and probably would have been pasted in the SEC Championship game against Alabama. But that wouldn’t be a failure, because the bar for success had been so low. Those bowl games, division titles and conference titles still matter to the teams that realistically, have no chance at the CFP. And we should celebrate that.

Again, Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team is no mid-major but I still believe that merely getting to the title game again is a major success to be celebrated, even if they came up short. Which, brings me to my next example: I’m currently watching Virginia play Texas Tech in the men’s basketball National Championship. These are two teams who have never won to a national championship game. Texas Tech hasn’t even made it to a Final Four before.

Virginia has been consistently a number one seed and a top three team that has fallen short in March. Last year was particularly tough, becoming the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed when they were shelled by UMBC. I’m not sure I’d go so far to say UVA and Tony Bennett deserve a title, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for rooting them to finally pull through. But, this could also be the one opportunity that a program like Texas Tech will get to win a title. It truly pains me to see someone lose in this scenario. I’m not a millennial begging for participation trophies, or maybe I am? I just think the standard for “Success” needs to be relative to expectations. Texas Tech just being here, is incredible and shouldn’t be forgotten regardless of how the next 12 minutes and 30 seconds of the second half go.

The application in my own life probably was my high school football team. Historically, we were terrible because… well I don’t know why, really? We were just bad because that’s how it was and how it was going to be. Success for us was my Junior and Senior year when we made the playoffs in consecutive years. We lost in the first round my junior year and made the semi-final in my senior year where we faced a perennial powerhouse who won the year before in a larger division. Our head coach played us clips of Buster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson to inspire us, because even he knew a miracle was necessary. We lost 62–13 and there was a running clock in the second half to limit the damage.

For so long, I held onto it as a failure. But now? I’m not so sure. We were never supposed to be there in the first place, so how can you fail when you exceeded expectations to begin? I guess that’s where I’m at now with college sports and even some instances within professional sports. I’m gonna stick with my original hypothesis and what Gavin Belson was trying to say, which is that sometimes Failure = Success.

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