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The Vain Pursuit of Perfection

A "perfect season" is really just a record, but championships are what really count.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 20, 2011

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The Vain Pursuit of Perfection

In 1978, the horse Affirmed won the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.

No horse has done it since. A few have missed it by just a nose in the Belmont.

As the years go by, however, the pursuit of the Triple Crown has become an albatross. Trainers and jockeys feel it. Even the horse probably senses increased tension.

It's frustrating for the casual sports fan. We don't know the horses; we just want to see greatness. On many occasions over the past 33 years, there were horses who won the Derby and Preakness, and so we tuned in to see the Belmont to witness history.

History never comes.

We have seen other great achievements from the 1970's or 60's that have yet to be duplicated. No male tennis player has won the Grand Slam since Rod Laver did it twice in the 1960's. No team has won the NFL championship three years in a row since the Packers in the 1960's. No NFL team has had a perfect record before or since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Tiger Woods may be in decline, and still needs five Majors to eclipse Jack Nicklaus. A few of John Wooden's UCLA basketball teams went undefeated, and Bobby Knight's Indiana team duplicated the feat in 1976, but no one has done it since.

These long-ago achievements loom large. It's almost too much to ask for anyone to reach them.

Before the 2009 NCAA Tournament, I heard North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams interviewed. His team was loaded. They were the pre-season #1 team, and ultimately, they did win the NCAA Tournament. But, they lost a couple of games along the way. Coach Williams suggested that it was probably good for the team. I don't recall his exact words, but they were probably along the lines that the losses helped the team "re-focus."

But I instantly interpreted it as, "The prospect of an undefeated season would have created too much stress on our players. We would probably have been mentally, spiritually, and physically exhausted by the start of the tournament. We might have gone undefeated in the regular season but would have lost in the Tournament. Our goal, however, was to go undefeated in the TOURNAMENT, not the regular season."

By losing a couple of games, the pressure was taken off the team. The unreasonable hope of going undefeated would have deflected from the main goal, which was to win the championship.

I'm thinking of this as my favorite team, the Green Bay Packers, lost their first game of the season two days ago after starting 13-0. Talk started to mount that they might go a perfect 19-0. Four years ago, the Patriots came very close to that achievement.

Yes, it would have been nice for the Packers to go 19-0. Perhaps if they'd been winning every game 49-3 until this past week, I might have sincerely hoped for and expected that outcome. They are NOT, however, that much better than the rest of the NFL. The grind of the regular season makes winning every single game a once-in-forty-year event.

19-0 is merely a record. Competition is about championships. No team should be focused on records when there are championships to be won.

Perhaps losing this past week was the best thing for the Packers.

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