Trevis Gipson was talking the other day about getting Tulsa back to its 10-win ways of 2016, when he said something very interesting about 2017 and ’18:
“Now that we’ve had two seasons of losing, I feel like we’ve come together and understood that if this happens again, this is going to be the norm for our team. And that’s the last thing that we want.”
The Golden Hurricane won twice in ’17. You hoped to chalk that up as an anomaly given the program’s terrific success the year before, but then the Hurricane went 3-9 last season.
Then you started to wonder if the ’16 season was the anomaly, if coach Philip Montgomery caught proverbial lightning in a bottle with Dane Evans, Keevan Lucas and James Flanders.
There won’t be much wondering if TU languishes again this fall. The old “you are who you are” narrative crashes down on Chapman Stadium in that case. Gipson understands.
The burgeoning defensive end would like to see TU build on its 3-year-old promise instead and win 11 this season. That’s welcome optimism.
The reality is the Hurricane must at least show some life signs. If it wins six, gains bowl eligibility and competes in the American Athletic Conference, we can at least stop worrying that a losing culture pervades around the program.
That is the pressure TU deals with currently.
Last year, I built the stress into something bigger than football. The university was under a budget crunch then. There was news of coaches pay cuts. The closing line to my column: “The Hurricane literally might not be able to afford losing like it did a year ago.”
Well, the 2018 Hurricane nearly lost like it did in 2017, improving its record by one win.
But then the American struck a 12-year, $1 billion deal with ESPN last spring. Hurricane athletic director Derrick Gragg called it “the most significant day in TU sports history as it relates to economics.” That being the case, we could start analyzing the importance of a TU football recovery solely for football’s sake.
That takes some of the load off. It just doesn’t erase the results of the past two years.
It doesn’t change the heightened sense of urgency within the program due to the past two years.
“Oh, yeah, most definitely. It’s very obvious,” TU receiver Keylon Stokes said. “The years go by fast. I’m already a junior. Looking at the seniors, this is it. This is their last time. My time is coming up, too. I want to get a taste of victory.”
“Honestly, we just need to win right now,” running back Shamari Brooks said.
That’s as point blank as it gets. Whether to avoid a losing stigma or to reward upperclassmen for their work or to renew some energy in the football complex, within the athletic department or across campus, TU really needs to win right now.
“Every year there is going to be pressure to go win,” Montgomery said. “Is there more pressure this year than any other year? I don’t think so. For me and for our players, every week of every year you’ve got to go get it done.”
That goes particularly for coaches. They work for the instant gratification of their fans, donors and administrators. Montgomery is absolutely right in that sense.
But, of course, there is more pressure on a team coming off a three-win season than a 10-win season. No coach is going to admit that because then he is drawing attention to the fact he is coming up short.
It’s there just the same. TU’s players recognize it. We all recognize it.
This season, then, becomes a matter of the Hurricane responding to that pressure, to the two-year comedown.
“We keep it in the back of our minds,” Gipson admitted. “When we first start our workouts, we break down with ‘Huntin’!’ I feel like that carrying into the season is going to make us desire wins more. That’s pushed our team. We have shirts with ‘Earn it’ across them.
“I feel like every day we are reminded that it’s time to get back on the right track.”