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Football team comes up short in repeated bids to translate ‘winning culture’ into a winning game

October 12, 2018

From the Hubbard Grandstand, the wooden frame of what will become Bowdoin football’s new locker room and training facility is just visible over the visiting team stands. It has no roof, no walls, no siding. Just a wooden frame.

The structure is an eerie visual analogy to the team that will eventually inhabit it: skeletal, behind schedule, but promising more.

Halfway through the season, the Polar Bears have fallen to a familiar 0-4 record, having suffered losses at the hands of Williams, Middlebury, Amherst and Tufts. If there is a lesson to be learned from these games, it’s that, in football, one plus one does not always equal two.

Against Middlebury, the team’s offense showed unprecedented signs of life. Nate Richam ’20 was a man possessed, setting the Bowdoin all-time single-game rushing record with 288 yards. At quarterback, Austin McCrum ’21 seemed to be rediscovering his mojo, throwing for 206 yards. On the other side of the ball, however, the defense faltered, rendering Richam’s record-setting performance a noteworthy asterisk on an otherwise disappointing 37-24 loss.

As goes Richam, so goes the offense, and Amherst thoroughly stifled both, beating the Polar Bears 24-14. Against the Mammoths, Richam rushed for 30 yards on 16 carries, while the team collectively rushed for six (yes, six) net yards. The offense twice set up first-and-goals inside the five, but failed to score on either drive. On the plus side, the Bears’ defense kept the game close, at least for a while.

A ten point loss to one of the best teams in the NESCAC is nothing to sniff at. The offense had come alive one week, the defense the next. Entering the Homecoming game against Tufts, optimism was in the air.

But it was soon to be replaced by that familiar flavor of frustration. With Richam sitting out with a nagging case of turf toe, the Polar Bears stumbled their way through three quarters (excluding the first) of ugly, ugly football, getting shut out for the first time this season, 28-0, against the Jumbos. The Polar Bears generated only 230 yards of total offense, 61 of which came on the ground, and converted on only four of their 18 third downs. Tufts, on the other hand, generated 29 first downs, 15 of which came either on first or second down. In the words of one especially zealous Bowdoin father-fan, “This is bullshit!”

If you’ve ever wondered why any high school recruit would elect to play football at a perpetually struggling Division III football program at a small college in a small town in Maine, you’re not alone. In 2005, a master’s degree candidate at Endicott College published a thesis on—prepare yourself—college choice factors among Division III football players attending private institutions. The author, using surveys and existing literature, found that perception of a school’s academic reputation proved to be the most influential consideration. All else being equal, recruits will play at the most academically prestigious school that will accept them, regardless of its football program’s record.

I suspect, however, that there is another factor at play. Call it the heroism factor. Imagine that you’re a teenager choosing between two academically comparable NESCAC schools, one with a struggling football program in the midst of “rebuilding” and one with an established, historically successful team. At the one, you will win games, even titles, but you’ll be just another player in a long string of successes. At the other, you could be part the team, the heroic generation, the one that turns it all around.

You don’t have to be a developmental psychologist, or have ever been a teenage boy, to understand the logic behind this choice. Empirically my theory is supported: every single football player I’ve spoken with has cited some variation of this heroism factor as a reason he chose to play at Bowdoin.

By the way, the author of that 2005 master’s thesis is J.B. Wells, head football coach, Bowdoin College.

Although the football game takes place between the endzones and sidelines, football the competition is not contained by painted white lines. The area beyond them, where players and coaches watch the action, is not an auxiliary part of the game; it is its heart. Anyone who watches only the activity on the field has missed at least half of what’s worth attention.

This “sideline culture” is a constant talking point for Wells and his staff. The coaches are quick to remind their players that any sideline can go wild when a star running back is on a tear or the defense is lighting up the opponent. But it takes an exceptional team, they note, to stay fiery even when it’s getting pummeled.

In reality, there are few truly exceptional teams per this definition, and the atmosphere on the sideline ends up reflecting a team’s performance on the field—raucous when good, subdued when bad, and everything in between.

In the final quarter against Tufts, the Bowdoin sideline was bleak. Players wandered aimlessly up and down the field, muttering inaudibly to themselves or staring off into a distant, happier dimension. Some players slammed their helmets to the bench, some vented their anger at one another, but most just stood there—quiet, dazed, frustrated. It was the sound of veterans confronting the ghosts of seasons past, of fresh faced recruits realizing that their heroic turnaround was not so near at hand as they had dreamed it would be on commitment day.

On the Wednesday after the loss to Amherst, I sat with Wells in his office watching film of the game. On top of his head coaching duties, Wells coaches the offensive line, and on this morning he was especially miffed by one particular play. On the first drive of the game, the Polar Bear offense marched downfield with clinical efficiency, setting up a first-and-goal on the one yard line. Inches separated the team from a commanding first quarter advantage.

Four plays later, the Polar Bears had failed to progress the ball the distance of a long baguette.

The play that really haunted Wells came on first down. The play call was straightforward: the left guard would tackle low as the center and the left tackle blocked from the inside out, creating a hole through which the fullback could launch himself into the endzone.

But this hole never opened. The left tackle missed his block, and the fullback was greeted with the outstretched arms of the Amherst defensive end.

Why did he miss the tackle? He stepped with the wrong foot. To set the block he needed, the tackle should have take his first step with his inside foot, giving him leverage with his outside shoulder to push the opposing lineman out of the way. This move is day-one lineman know-how, the equivalent of learning to step with the opposite foot when throwing a baseball. Instead, the Bowdoin tackle stepped with his outside foot, allowing the defensive end to blow right by him to plug the gap.

To his credit, the lineman knew he had blown the play and immediately took responsibility for it to Wells as he came off the field. But the opportunity had passed. Repentance might get you into heaven, but it won’t get you on the scoreboard.

And herein lies one of the greatest dilemmas facing Bowdoin football. The official line on the team’s struggles, espoused by staff and players alike, is that Bowdoin football has had a culture problem, that past teams have suffered from a “losing mindset” or a “JV mentality.” There might be some truth to this—loss after loss exacts a psychological toll on players, and the transition to Wells’ coaching staff was certainly not smooth.

But bad “culture”—one of those words that everyone uses without really knowing its meaning—does not explain several decades or even a few consecutive seasons of losses.

Which isn’t to say that culture is superfluous to a college sports team’s overall mission. Culture makes playing the game, in victory and in defeat, meaningful. Culture is why, 30 years later, you pack your family into a minivan and drive to your alma mater on a clean October weekend to cheer on your former team. Culture is why students devote 60 hours a week to the activity of moving a piece of inflated leather up and down a stretch of grass. Culture is why parents, grandparents, children, wives, husbands and friends gather after games for hugs and high fives and pictures. Culture is what makes football a human activity.

But culture does not make you step with your inside foot. No number of offseason bonding schemes or sideline pep talks or postgame shakedowns will prepare a player for the moment of brute, instinctive kinesis that is the difference between a touchdown and a turnover. For that, all that is needed is some combination of inborn skill and the muscle memory borne of sheer repetition. It falls within the domain of biology, not culture.

Causality in sports, as in most domains of human life, is tricky to establish. But I don’t think that the Polar Bears are giving up unanswered touchdown after unanswered touchdown because the sideline is gloomy.

The season is nearly halfway gone, but don’t throw your hands up quite yet. Of the four teams Bowdoin has faced thus far, three—Amherst, Tufts and Williams—are undefeated. Four of the Polar Bears’ five remaining games are against teams currently in the bottom half of the standings. It’s out there, maybe only a step away.

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