Lessons from a Super Loss

The seeds of the Colts’ defeat were written several weeks earlier -- with implications for higher education, Karen Gross writes.


February 11, 2010

Yes, the Saints won the Super Bowl. They played really well; they limited their mistakes and capitalized on the mistakes of their opponent. But what was also evident was their enthusiasm and their willingness to take risks -- which gets me to my point.

The seeds of a Colts Super Bowl defeat were planted in Game 15 of the regular season.

Let me explain.

There was no shortage of loud chatter on sports radio and in newspaper columns about the decision of the Indianapolis Colts’ management to pull many of their starting players against the New York Jets. My husband’s view was that the decision was grounded in economics: Ownership and coaches made the move that maximized the team’s potential to reach and win the Super Bowl (by limiting risk of injury to the best personnel) and reap the greatest fiscal rewards. It was all about money.

Horse owners do this all the time, pulling horses from races to protect their health (long-term prospects) -- and there is plentiful debate when that decision removes a Triple Crown threat. Economics speak.

I wonder, though.

If a professional baseball pitcher were on the brink of a perfect game -- even if the playoffs or the World Series were days away -- would his manager pull him to preserve his arm for a future game?

When the Colts pulled their starters in Week 15, the ESPN commentator and former Patriots player Teddy Bruschi lambasted the Colts for failing to exercise courage, on the theory that it is better to try for perfection and lose than not to have tried at all. Bruschi’s knows of what he speaks -- his team almost accomplished perfection, finishing the 2007 regular season and playoffs undefeated but losing in the Super Bowl to the NY Giants. The key word is “almost.”

What Bruschi and other commentators did not mention was that the second and third string Colts players were not trying to lose Game 15. What was true is that they appeared ill-prepared, and the first stringers and the Colts fans were doing nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to cheer on the substitutes. In fact, they were booing the third string substitute quarterback, Curtis Painter.

In the arts, understudies are prepared – they study for the real thing in case they are called into service. Curtis Painter, in contrast, did not look like a well-prepared understudy. He looked like a deer caught in headlights, and it’s not as if his entry in the game was unexpected.

Many a career -- with plentiful audience support -- has been launched through successful last minute entries, the most famous of which may be the incomparable Leonard Bernstein, who made his New York Philharmonic debut as a conductor by substituting for the well-known but ailing Bruno Walter.

Top that off with the fact that neither Peyton Manning nor his first string compatriots did anything to help the substitutes as they struggled. Instead, they were just resting on the sidelines, chatting with each other or gazing at the field. They didn’t act as cheerleaders and advisers to their teammates. They did nothing to make the substitute players better.

The fans weren’t exactly helpful, either. I appreciate their disappointment at forgoing a perfect season, but booing the substitutes doesn’t help. Give them your support and who knows: If they are motivated and well-prepared -- and inspired, even -- perhaps they just might surprise you with a win.

All of this came back to haunt the Colts on Super Bowl Sunday.

Playing it safe is pretty easy, but risk taking is hard. People need practice dealing with failure or it throws them for a loop. And helping others around you is not easy, either; you need to put your ego in check and move outside yourself.

Those working in higher ed know all about both.

Ask vulnerable students how they feel as they head out of their comfort zone and into a college. Feels risky. And real learning -- in and out of the classroom – is all about risk taking. Trying and failing and trying again is at the base of educational success.

And, in higher education, we strive to support all our students, not just those with a 4.0 GPA. With help, many initially less successful students start to thrive. They complete their college education and move into the workplace or on to graduate or professional schools. In this process, our 4.00 students often serve as their tutors and mentors, providing their peers with a greater chance to succeed. It’s a model that recognizes that we owe it to each other to help lift those who need more support.

So the Colts coaches, players and fans lost more than the game in Week 15. They lost a commitment to risk taking and they failed to support their fellow players. The results of both were evidenced in the Super Bowl. No unusual plays to challenge the status quo, and no real strategy to deal with the injury to first stringer Dwight Freeney, whom most thought would not play all 60 minutes. And where exactly was the cheering squad and support for Freeney’s replacement?

Pause for a moment and consider how different things would have been if the Saints had been playing an undefeated Colts team, for whom a perfect season was on the line. Would the Colts team have played any differently in that situation? Might their quest for perfection have pushed them just a wee bit harder, engaging them and their fans in an effort to make history?

I think the answer to both of those questions is yes.

It might even have been different in feel if the Colts had actually tried for a perfect season and then lost in Game 15 or 16.

Those of us in higher ed can use what happened to the Colts as a reminder that outcomes are affected both by helping students learn to take risks, however hard that is, and by supporting our weaker students and encouraging their success. These very acts open the door for meaningful payoffs down the road. Playing it safe in higher ed leads to failure, not success.

These lessons from higher ed would have helped the Colts.


Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.


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