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Tailgates as valued as touchdowns

By Jim Caltagirone

For the Mirror

Soon after a fourth loss and freefall from the national rankings, it seemed only natural that 2021 would be declared by some as a “lost season” for Penn State football.

The deflation of lofty expectations tends to elicit blunt critiques of the apocalyptic variety.

When a national championship, or even a College Football Playoff appearance, is the primary goal, the balm of secondary achievements has minimal effect.

Our society has become one of absolutes. Political discourse and societal norms, especially, separate individuals into camps at one end of a spectrum or the other.

Even social media demands that the performance of sports teams be judged by an all-or-nothing standard. For starters, let’s dismiss Alabama from this conversation.

Nick Saban has manufactured sustained success at a level that precious few programs have attained throughout the history of the game.

The “lost-season” contention de-values the game-day experience on all but a handful of college campuses, which is unfortunate.

As a writer for Bleacher Report once noted, “No other sport anywhere in the world can match the pomp and pageantry that takes place on a weekly basis on autumn Saturdays here in America.”

In this context, tailgates are as important as touchdowns, memories as meaningful as milestones. Sport as pure entertainment should then be paramount to all other considerations.

Joe Paterno, the head coach at Penn State for nearly 46 years, became the Football Bowl Subdivision leader in career victories with 409. Yet, in nearly half a century at the helm, his teams won only two national championships.

Considering all the winning (and undefeated) seasons and bowl games that distinguished his tenure, were the 44 non-championship seasons without any merit?

At the professional level, Don Shula led Miami to two Super Bowl triumphs and retired as the winningest coach in NFL history.

But between 1974 and Shula’s final season as head coach in 1995, the Dolphins failed to win a league championship.

Surely, the nine division titles and four AFC championship game appearances that highlighted the final 22 seasons of Shula’s coaching career counted for something. At least Miami has a Super Bowl history.

The Detroit Lions have advanced to only one NFC championship game and that was 30 years ago.

As one Detroit fan confessed in a 2020 online column, “Honestly, it is embarrassing to be a Lions fan. We are a laughing stock. There’s no other way to put it. Along with being a laughing stock, we are unexciting and irrelevant. Who cares about the Lions, and why should they care?”

Obviously, this fan cares deeply about his team’s prospects because, after venting his frustration, he wrote that he remains optimistic that personnel moves will make the team a contender in the near future.

Optimism nurtures fan bases. Sometimes it delivers a Miracle of the Meadowlands, as Philadelphia Eagles fans will attest.

Other times, optimism disappoints, as New York Giants fans will lament, citing that same game.

A “lost season” is defined differently in the Ivy League, which canceled all competition from March 2020 through the 2021 spring season because of ongoing public health concerns related to COVID-19.

With so much lost during the pandemic, perhaps it’s time to temper lofty aspirations and find joy in the drama each game offers, even if a favorite team ultimately fails to measure up to expectations.

After all, no team wins all the time. Not even Alabama.

Jim Caltagirone is a monthly contributor to Voice of the Fan. He resides in Altoona.

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