By Rick Sarro
You play to win the game.
Winning isn’t everything … It’s the only thing.
Winning is not a sometime thing … It’s an all the time thing.
You are what your record says you are.
Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.
I think you get the picture here. In sports everyone, every team, every player and every coach wants to win. The goal is to be No. 1. First place over any other place. Close only counts in farm games and maybe curling.
Over the last 10 years or so, there has been a change in sports that pretty much means no one gets a break or is cut any slack. We are a win-now sports society and the expectation is to chase the championship ring, not every three to five years but every year.
Rebuilding is not an option; retooling a roster, maybe, but you are expected to reboot quickly and contend.
There are a few exceptions though. Think Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Orioles, Phoenix Suns and Kansas Football Jayhawks (good luck Les Miles).
It is taboo, and maybe even career suicide, for a coach or general manager to step in front of a microphone and say, “We are in a rebuilding mode and urge fans to be patient for three or four years.”
Patience runs thin if a team loses three straight.
You have heard we are an instant gratification generation. Well, sports mirror life, and if you are not gratifying, you are not playing or coaching.
That’s harsh, maybe. But the rules of engagement changed with trades, free agency and liberal player movement on the professional front, collegiate level and, yes, even high school.
NFL, NBA, Major League and the ice men in the NHL have freedom to change teams or opt out of contracts thanks to new collective bargaining deals between players and owners. College football and basketball players can use new NCAA transfer rules.
In the prep ranks, out-of-district transfers, blurry rules on kids moving from one school to the next or the recruitment of players to top level private programs can be the difference between one state championship or many.
If an NFL or NBA team manages their salary cap numbers right, a few critical free agent signings and top draft picks can turn you from an also ran, cellar dweller to a contender looking down from the penthouse suite.
Think Los Angeles Rams with Aaron Donald, Jared Goff and Andrew Whitworth in 2018. Or the Houston Astros with Justin Verlander and the Houston Rockets’ acquisition of James Harden and Chris Paul. Can’t leave out “The Decision,” with LeBron James going to the Miami Heat and helping them win two NBA titles in 2012 and 2013.
The trades of star receivers Odell Beckham, Jr., and Antonio Brown may just turn the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders from losers to winners in one season. That remains to be seen, of course, but their impact will be felt immediately.
This summer, the possible moves of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis could alter the fortunes, both good and bad, of numerous NBA teams. The long-anticipated Davis trade to the L.A. Lakers was finally realized when the New Orleans Pelicans acquired three current Laker players, along with three first-round draft picks, including the No. 4 overall selection, in exchange for the highly coveted A.D.
The deal obviously impacts LeBron’s Lakers, who mortgaged their future for the present to get that All Star running mate for the 34-year-old James, who isn’t getting any younger or better. The Davis move out of New Orleans is also felt in Boston and New York, as the Celtics and Knicks had eyes on an A.D. trade.
My point is simple: it no longer takes years to change your fortunes in sports. If you have the money, smarts, management and market appeal, you can flip the switch in the amount of time it takes to sign a contract.
This fast track trend also puts more pressure on the coaches, general managers and players to meet the raised expectations from owners, fans and media. If the call to win, or at least contend, isn’t met, then jobs are lost and players are cut in a time line that won’t be confused with being very patient.
The poster child here might be Dwane Casey.
Seven years as head coach of the Toronto Raptors (yes, those same title-winning Raptors) who failed several times to get out of the first round of the playoffs. When Casey got Toronto into the second round, they were swept in four games by LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
The Raptors finished first in the Eastern Conference. Got to the second round of the playoffs. Casey was named NBA Coach of the Year and was then promptly fired.
He has to be the only man in the history of professional sports to win top coaching honors and then be fired soon thereafter.
One season later, under rookie head coach Nick Nurse, the Toronto Raptors dethroned Golden State for their first ever NBA championship. All of this was made possible, of course, by the free agent blockbuster signing of one Kawhi Leonard, considered by many as one of the top two players in the NBA.
In this case, impatience paid off handsomely.
In the win-now football-obsessed S.E.C., everyone is chasing Alabama. Nick Saban’s “process” involves many things, but primarily it means recruit the best players in the country and have them ready to replace the best players in the country when they no longer wear the crimson colors.
LSU, with two national championships in the 2000s, doesn’t subscribe to the notion of taking time to rebuild, remodel or re-anything.
When Ed Orgeron was hired to replace Les Miles, there was maybe a one-game honeymoon to get his feet under him for what Orgeron says is his dream job. Realistic or not, Tiger fans expect to compete for a national championship every year.
Orgeron didn’t have a wait and see attitude last summer when he entered the race to recruit then Ohio State transfer quarterback Joe Burrow. The Tigers got their new starting quarterback in the process and set themselves up to remain in the upper echelon of the powerful S.E.C.
Closer to home, I wonder how much patience McNeese will have with new head coach Sterlin Gilbert? In turn, how patient will Gilbert be?
McNeese basketball and baseball are not immune from the win-now mantra.
Cowboys baseball coach Justin Hill has answered the call with a regular season title (2017) and this season’s SLC tournament championship and the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2003.
McNeese basketball coach Heath Schroyer has nearly turned over his entire roster not once but twice. After graduating four seniors last season, Schroyer saw two more players leave the team in Kevin Hunt and Will Robinson. The Cowboys’ second-year coach is still expected to improve greatly this fall despite player turnover, or better yet, because of it.
Last year, Cowgirls basketball coach Kacie Cryer had a freshmen-heavy team that struggled mightily. Cryer is under pressure to win within a much tighter window of time.
Gilbert is an extremely driven, determined, no-nonsense football coach with high expectations of success and little tolerance for failure.
Coming out of his first spring practice, Gilbert had a roster, that was, dare I say, in need of upgrades at several positions. The Cowboys’ rookie head coach did not go quietly into summer. He recently signed seven new players — four Division 1 transfers, one from a Division II school and two junior college players.
Despite coming off a 6-5 finish last season, McNeese was ranked 22nd in one preseason FCS poll. Think what you will of summer football rankings, Gilbert is considered a high profile hire by a program that broke tradition and sought a new head coach who was outside of the McNeese family, with no ties to the school or region.
It was a change of direction the university administration thought was necessary to improve the culture, structure, discipline and performance both on the field and in the classroom.
McNeese’s marketing message and push for season ticket sales is headlined with the phrase “the rise of a new era.” The page has turned on the Cowboys’ new chapter with a new head coach, a complete overhaul of the coaching staff and new starting quarterback, receivers, linebackers, running backs and kickers.
But don’t call this a rebuilding year.
The Cowboys have an SLC-leading 14 conference championships, with the last one in 2015. They are accustomed to winning and see no reason for that to change.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL. Check local listings.