November has become a schizophrenic month for Tiger Nation. For the fourth straight year, we could reach Thanksgiving with the U of M basketball team having won as many games as the Tiger football team. (Though it looks less likely after the football team’s win over Tulane last Saturday.) One season winds down with slumped shoulders, frustration, and concerns about how far a team can fall. Another season comes to life with collective swagger, anticipation, and curiosity about how high a team can rise.
John F. Kennedy famously said, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
I’ll spare the jokes about how many fathers could be seen at the Liberty Bowl for recent November games. (There were 18,796 tickets sold for the Tulane game.) But you don’t have to count empty seats to be concerned about the future of a program that has won seven of its last 46 games. Following a losing football team is especially cruel, as a fan base has a week to stew over what went wrong, who’s responsible, and how (and when) the struggles might end. “It’s not easy,” said Tiger coach Justin Fuente at his November 5th press luncheon. “But nothing worth having ever is. In order to build a program, you have to take very small steps and do a lot of hard work.” I’ll spare the jokes about very small steps, especially after the big one that seemed to be taken last Saturday night.
Just as a U of M football season is nearing a merciful end, Josh Pastner’s rim-rattlers tighten their sneakers, flex for the cameras, and hit the hardwood for what remains this community’s most unifying endeavor. Relative to the football suffering, it’s as though school has been let out and the kids are instantly delivered to the swankiest summer camp in the land. A top-20 team. Three McDonald’s All-Americans. And a roster filled with local players fans have known since they were dominating middle-school games.
The overlap of the two seasons can be uncomfortable. My friend and former colleague, the late Dennis Freeland, argued that college basketball season shouldn’t start until December, in part because a football program — good or bad — deserves at least three full months on center stage. Dennis knew, though, the power of money in college hoops. And November tournaments are the cash cow that kick-start winter revenue for athletic departments far and wide. (Hello, Battle 4 Atlantis!)
As recently as 1999, the Tigers opened their basketball season on November 22nd, two days after the football team played its last game. (And that hoops opener was part of a preseason tournament, the Maui Invitational.) Rip Scherer was spared the discomfort Fuente may experience over the next two weeks: trying to keep fans’ attention (two games to play, one at home) while a talented basketball team starts trending on Twitter.
The hope, of course, is for a future November when the Tiger football team is battling for the top spot in the Big East just as a top-10 basketball team is breaking a sweat for defense of the league (or national!) championship. One can imagine local gathering places all but bursting with energy, longtime fans hoarse from cheering overload as the U of M’s flagship teams share positive headlines like a pair of celebrity twins.
For now, let’s keep the faith, football lovers. Just as all good things must come to an end . . . so must undermanned football teams find shelter for winter. As for that top-20 basketball team, it will play as many homes games in December (6) as the football team played all season. Which makes December a month truly worth loving for one Tiger Nation.