At the moment, Wisconsin sports may seem tumultuous. The starting point guard goes down with a season-ending injury, quickly followed by the starting quarterback.
The same thing happened to my high school in 2007, when an outstanding athlete – one who carried the torch of Sturgeon Bay High School sports for that year – tore his ACL. Coincidentally, that man played the position of not only Joel Stave (quarterback), but also Josh Gasser (point guard).
But this isn’t high school athletics; this is Division I Big Ten sports – a much grander scale. Rest assured while I cringe, but Sturgeon Bay was nowhere near as successful as Wisconsin.
We have grown accustomed to success here at Wisconsin, and frankly, it’s not fair. The format of college athletics – recruit the best, a brief thank you and wave goodbye to them after four years or fewer – doesn’t promote success.
The success mounted at Wisconsin, though, has been unparalleled. The football team has finished 10 consecutive seasons with a trip to a bowl game, tied for sixth-best in college football. The men’s basketball team has finished 14 consecutive years with a ticket to the most exciting dance there is, tied for fifth-best in college hoops. No other school has had both a bowl game and tournament appearance throughout each of the past 10 years. Wisconsin is the only one.
The greatness of Russell Wilson for one season and Jordan Taylor for two prompts the highest of expectations following their departures. Being the next guy in line and accepting the torch from exiting legends, promising to carry it on to the next crop, can be wonderful. It is a gig that never falls short of criticism, though.
And that’s why, at this point in the crossroads of two seasons, as each program decides between a pair of play-callers and ball controllers, I ask that we quit being so damn critical of student-athletes.
How easy it is to just sit back, reclined in a La-Z-Boy or not, and scream Montee Ball isn’t doing his job or that the O-line at “O-line University” just isn’t as dominant as it used to be.
Recently, it has even been easier to criticize Danny O’Brien for his shortcomings as a (backup) quarterback. As we’ve learned – and should have known all along – replacing Russell Wilson was impossible. O’Brien was a one-hit wonder attempting to follow up a rockin’ U2 concert. As much as we desperately hoped, it wasn’t going to happen.
But does that mean we treat O’Brien as a has-been who has no future at Wisconsin? Just eight weeks ago, he was the starting quarterback of the team tabbed for a third-consecutive Rose Bowl.
Saturday he was cast from the sidelines – where he had spent six games as signal-caller – into the leader of an offense that amounted just seven points in the first half. And he was facing the best defense in the Big Ten, to boot.
If you expect a 22-year-old student-athlete to rise to the occasion, without much backing from his offensive coordinator, then you’ve got some success-inflated expectations that no one can live up to.
It would be different if O’Brien didn’t respect the media, didn’t care for his classes, didn’t act like he loves being a part of the Wisconsin campus and Wisconsin football. In any of those cases, his criticism would likely be warranted.
But it’s not all about O’Brien. If Curt Phillips earns the nod as starting quarterback against Indiana Nov. 10, he will be under the same expectations Stave had as quarterback. That’s not fair. Philips hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since 2009. His one pass this season was called back after a penalty.
Fans should be less critical of the 20-something year-olds placed in such pressure-filled positions. If they want to gripe, look to the 40-something year-old coaches who are paid millions to help these students as they try to live up to the athletes that came before them.
Mike Gundy, head coach at Oklahoma State, said it best in 2007 when a local newspaper ran criticism of a player on his team.
“Come after me,” Gundy screamed. “I’m a man, I’m 40!”
While Gundy and many other coaches are not in the position to catch or throw passes, to make or break tackles, they are definitely in the position to take blame for basically anything that happens on the football field.
When the revolving door changes in college athletics and the numbers and names on jerseys switch from year to year, expectations too should change, and criticism should be cast with a watchful eye.
This will run true for the basketball team, and as the season begins, Badger fans should be most wary. Whoever claims the starting point guard position, be it George Marshall or Traevon Jackson, will undoubtedly have growing pains as they ease into the weight placed upon Gasser at the outset of the season.
Expectations were high, but excitement was higher for the guard who had started since his freshman year. He was a familiar face with a reliable game that Badger fans were confident about.
And now two relatively unfamiliar faces will take on the task of filling the point guard gap, in a way very similar to how O’Brien was asked to fill the gap left by Wilson.
I can guarantee one thing: It won’t be easy. It probably won’t be easy to watch, either. My directions: Order each game with a side of objectivity, and definitely hold the criticism. Save future upside as dessert.
For now, Wisconsin fans, lower your expectations for Marshall or Jackson, or Phillips or O’Brien. Then enjoy the excitement you experience when these student-athletes raise them for you.