In thinking about the top/bottom five all time most devastating defeats in my history as a sports fan, I noticed a pattern - of course the worst losses, those which made you want to call in sick, or drink for two days, or which woke you up in the middle of the night four days later with the play in question going through your mind, were ones that my team was supposed to win, or was in a great position to win.
I looked at some history, and for most of my life the teams I supported were truly awful - the Pacers in the 80's were so bad that they literally gave away tickets to my high school honors society, student council and band (all seven of them). And when we took the bus down to Indy to watch that game, we were 25 of about 6,000 people in attendance. That was 1986, and our odds were slightly under half that we'd see the Pacers win. And we had a blast.
Pacers Year by Year history:
1991-92 40 42 0.488
1990-91 41 41 0.500
1989-90 42 40 0.512
1988-89 28 54 0.341
1987-88 38 44 0.463
1986-87 41 41 0.500
1985-86 26 56 0.317
1984-85 22 60 0.268
1983-84 26 56 0.317
1982-83 20 62 0.244
1981-82 35 47 0.427
TOTS: 359 543 0.398
In the years while I was developing loyalty to the Pacers, they had one winning season - and that by 2 games. They were brutal. The expectation was that they would lose, and if they snuck up on someone and actually won a game, well, that was a bonus, and if they actually made the Playoffs, are you kidding!, that was fantastic. We were usually an 8 seed and the 1 seed usually made quick work of us while looking ahead to a team that mattered.
What about my true football love, the Colts?
1984 4 12 0.250
1985 5 11 0.313
1986 3 13 0.188
1987 9 6 0.563
1988 9 7 0.563
1989 8 8 0.500
1990 7 9 0.438
1991 1 15 0.063
1992 9 7 0.563
1993 4 12 0.250
1994 8 8 0.500
1995 9 7 0.563
1996 9 7 0.563
1997 3 13 0.188
1998 3 13 0.188
TOT: 91 148 0.381
The first 15 years of my love of the Colts they lost 2 out of 3 games. They made the playoffs twice, in 1987 when they won the AFC East with a regular season-ending win in the Hoosier Dome against woeful Tampa Bay (a game that I attended), and then promptly lost in the playoffs to Cleveland; and then again in 1995 when Trudeau lead the Cardiac Colts on their magical, underdog trek to the AFC title game.
Then the ship was righted, in the single biggest turnaround year-to-year in NFL history from 3-13 to 13-3:
1999 13 3
2000 10 6
2001 6 10
And then Dungy arrived, and it has been a staggering string of excellence and dizzying records:
2002 10 6
2003 12 4
2004 12 4
2005 14 2
2006 12 4
2007 13 3
2008 12 4
TOT: 85 27 .759
So for the last seven years, the Colts have won more than three of every four games, a benchmark for excellence that is just shocking to think about. In the regular season they have been the most successful professional franchise in North America over the last seven years.
To go from being just awful - fans would sit, unecumbered by many neighbors, in the top rows of the Hoosier Dome with bags over their heads, in shame; five would sit together and spell out on those bags "Count On Losing This Sunday" - for fifteen years to being one of the most successful franchises in the history of the NFL is unprecedented.
What about Marquette men's basketball? Well, again, when I started at MU we were pretty terrible:
1987-88 10 18
1988-89 13 15
1989-90 15 14
1990-91 11 18
1991-92 16 13
This was a program with a proud tradition that I honestly didn't know too much about when I got there, but those were some lean years. I went to every home game and some road games, we shouted ourselves hoarse while losing to Dayton and Butler and Bradley and Evansville and Iona and Valpo, and to Notre Dame and Wisconsin over, and over, and over. It was what I knew.
But then things got better:
1992-93 24 9 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
1993-94 21 12 (Advanced to Sweet 16 by beating SW La and Kentucky, lost to Duke by 10)
1994-95 17 11 (NIT Runner up)
1995-96 23 8 (Lost, 2nd round in NCAA)
1996-97 22 9 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
1997-98 18 10 (NIT)
For a little while.
1998-99 14 15
1999-00 15 13 (Tom Crean's 1st year)
2000-01 15 14
And then we were crazy good, winning regularly, and going to the post-season every year.
2001-02 26 7 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
2002-03 27 6 (Final Four, lost to Kansas)
2003-04 19 12 (NIT)
2004-05 19 12 (Lost, 1st round NIT)
2005-06 20 11 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
2006-07 24 10 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
2007-08 25 10 (Lost, 2nd round NCAA)
2008-09 25 10 (Lost, 2nd round NCAA)
There was that magic Final Four year, 2003, where we got shellacked by Kansas; and then a lot of loss and frustration. The ugly 2007 first round loss to Michigan State where we managed only 18 first half points. The heartbreaking losses in the second round in 2008 and then again this year, in games that we had - we HAD - and couldn't win.
As I've thought about all of this I've decided that I'm the opposite of a fair-weather fan; I'm doggedly loyal when my teams are terrible, finding fun in their foibles and reveling in those rare, radiant runs of success. I cut my teeth on bad teams, I learned early how to handle it. I had years of practice of taking pride in sitting down at a bar in Burbank, or Pittsburgh, or Denver, or Honolulu, and saying "Nah, I'm a Pacers fan," to raised eyebrows and comments like "You know they're 17 games back and in 4th, right?" And I would serenely smile and say, paraphrasing my dad paraphrasing a sportswriter from the 1890's talking about the 12th place Cleveland Spiders baseball team, "Yes, but on a clear day they can see 5th!"
I'm loyal. I can handle low expectations and regular losses, and take pleasure in the upsets and being one of a small, hardy band. But what about the successes?
When we were at the Marquette - Georgetown game this year, my friend Michele (also from Indiana and a long suffering fan like me - if you have a high tolerance for obscenities, see my email to her after the Colts lost to San Diego this year in the playoffs) turned to me after looking at the student section and said "I'm glad we sucked when we were here; we always had good seats."
It's true. And it's also true that, as a fan, I can't seem to handle success and the increased burden of expectations that success puts on a team. The brilliant team with talent that's supposed to win and doesn't? Far more painful, for me as a fan (if there were a way to quantify it), than the joy I get after one of my teams overperforms, like a scrappy Marquette men's team who over-achieved and beat #4 Cincinnati 62-58 despite having a losing record, on February 10th, 1999, for example.
Maybe I'm a foul-weather fan. I can't turn my back on Marquette - I went there. But the Pacers are pretty bad again, so I can get behind that. And maybe until the Colts begin their long, inexorable slide into mediocrity or pure awfulness, I should think about the Lions. Maybe I'll invite my friend Michele. I've heard you can get tickets.