I’ve been trying in my mind to sort out which is the worst type of loss, psychologically speaking. I see 4 candidates:
- The game you were supposed to win and get blown out
- The game you were supposed to win and lose in a nailbiter
- The game you were supposed to lose and get blown out
- The game you were supposed to lose and lose in a nailbiter
I think #3 is out of the running because you’re prepared for it. It hurts in a dull but growing in strength pain that says things are as bad as you feared.
As for the other 3, we’ve got meaningful candidates for all of them in the last handful of seasons:
- The 2007 OSU game is the most obvious example of #2. We were supposed to win, couldn’t quite get it together all day and were poised to take it back when disaster struck, stealing a #1 ranking from the Bears. It was quite painful.
- The 2009 Oregon game is the most obvious example of #1. Oregon was just barely recovering from the Boise debacle and we were poised to win the Pac-10 (sounds silly in retrospect, doesn’t it?). I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone of this, but it was also quite painful.
- Saturday nights game is the most relevant example of #4 and jeez criminey is it painful!
In the end, I think time is the final judge of what is worst. Frankly, the 2007 OSU loss has had staying power that I doubt the 2009 Oregon game will have. It’s already been somewhat mitigated in its painfulness. But how will Arizona stack up in a few years from now?
And is it even the game on its own merits that makes it painful? Had Cal rebounded from that 2007 OSU game and gone on to win the conference and play in the Rose Bowl, would it have been as painful? What about if we’d lost to USC but otherwise been strong and gone to the Holiday Bowl?
The more I think about that, the more I think that the 2007 OSU loss would have been bad no matter what and it makes #2 the most painful type in my mind.
But those others, not so much. If we rebound from here and go on to play in the Holiday Bowl or something, the pain of this loss will be much less. If we continue to lose, this game may stick out in our minds, but is it really this game, or is it really the losing as a whole that bothers? I’d say as a whole. Same story for 2009 Oregon. It’s less terrible at this point because the Bears did rebound well and beat a number of good teams for the rest of the season. It turns out the Bears weren’t as good as we thought and Oregon was much better.
Going in yet another direction, what about that 2006 Arizona game that sticks in our minds? It fits the #4 scenario and still sticks with us. But again, I think it’s because of what happened afterward. If we had beat USC, nobody would have cared. If USC hadn’t lost to UCLA, it wouldn’t have stung so much. So yet again, it’s contingent on what happened later.
So I guess this is a long way of saying that Saturday’s debacle is highly dependent on what happens from here on out. If Cal wins out and goes to the Rose Bowl, nobody will care. If Cal goes to the Holiday Bowl and this loss didn’t keep us out of the Rose Bowl, nobody will care. But if it’s somehow formative in the outcome of the rest of the season, this one will have staying power.
If there’s a way to communicate this to the team in a whole lot fewer words, it could make a significant difference in how they recover from the blow that this loss is. Depending on how they rebound, this could either be an odd footnote or it could sting for the rest of their/our lives.