In a bit of history many sports fans might have forgotten, or never known in the first place, the Miracle on Ice wasn’t complete when the United States upset the Soviet Union at Lake Placid in 1980. The U.S. team still had to beat Finland in round-robin play to win the gold medal and with a loss could have missed out on a medal entirely.
That was a very realistic possibility when the Americans fell behind 2-1 at the second intermission. Coach Herb Brooks, always a master motivator, had a simple but memorable message for his players: “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your graves. Your (expletive) graves!”
The point being, when you have a chance to do something truly special, and the hard work is already done, don’t mess up the simple, mundane part of it. Like losing to Finland.
Or losing to Temple.
All the pieces were in place for East Carolina to claim the spot in one of the College Football Playoff bowls that goes to the top-ranked team from one of the five minor conferences. It was the only so-called Group of Five team in the playoff committee’s initial top-25 rankings last week, which essentially put the Pirates in control of their own destiny.
There’s almost no chance now, after Saturday’s five-fumble, 12-penalty 20-10 loss at Temple. The Pirates outplayed the Owls statistically – 432 to 135 in total yards, 30 to 10 in first downs – but it was a loss nonetheless.
And now, instead of playing a team like Auburn or Georgia or Alabama in the Peach Bowl, the Pirates can look forward to … 7-5 Brigham Young in the Miami Beach Bowl at Marlins Park?
Hey, at least it’s Florida.
For the second straight season, the Pirates’ big aspirations will likely end with a second-tier bowl game in a baseball stadium. Nothing against the bowl in St. Petersburg last year, where the Pirates had a grand old time and rolled over Ohio, but East Carolina wanted to exit Conference USA with one last conference title.
The stakes were even higher this year, thanks to the CFP’s sop to the little guys, and the Pirates were in the driver’s seat until Saturday.
Opportunities like this don’t come along very often, especially for a school like East Carolina (look how long it took the Pirates to get into what used to be the Big East). It could be a long time before a chance like this comes along again.
The weekend was a perfect storm of bad news for the Pirates. Not only did they lose a game they should have won, North Carolina was stomped by Miami, Virginia Tech lost at home to Boston College and South Carolina lost at home to Tennessee. Increasingly, East Carolina’s three big nonconference opponents, so daunting at the time, look quite weak in retrospect – a combined 12-15.
Meanwhile, Colorado State (8-1) keeps winning and 8-0 Marshall figures to remain undefeated because it doesn’t have a single major-conference opponent on the schedule. It’s hard to see a two-loss East Carolina team getting back into that picture, even if the Pirates can win the American. (Central Florida helped in that regard with a baffling loss of its own, to Connecticut.)
So long, Peach Bowl. Hello, Miami Beach Bowl. Or maybe the Military Bowl, against a 6-6 ACC team? Or back to St. Petersburg, against a different 6-6 ACC team? It’s not exactly Auburn in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve.
The Pirates may might not take Saturday’s loss to their graves, but it might weigh heavy on their shoulders for a long, long time.