Chemistry Lessons

While summer school is in full swing at West Virginia University, many of the student athletes on campus will have to earn passing grades in a different sort of class.

Summer school classes offer student athletes a number of different opportunities. For those that fell behind over the previous year, it's a chance to correct deficiencies and catch up. Wise upperclassmen will knock out a class or three to ease the workload during the upcoming school term. Incoming freshmen and transfers can likewise use the sessions to bank some early credit hours and learn what college level work is about. That could lessen the pressure in the fall, when the full time demands of five or six classes plus practices, treatment and other athletic demands fall on them like an onrushing linebacker.

However, for two of the marquee sports and their participants, it's a different sort of lesson -- specifically, one of chemistry -- that is on their agenda during the formative stages of the new season.

There's no denying that during the last school year, chemistry and team issues plagued both the football and men's basketball squads. They took different forms, and exhibited different symptoms, but in the end the lack of cohesive team play, support and leadership cost both squads on the field. As a result, the football team ended the year with one of the most uninspired bowl performances in school history, capping a stretch of six losses in its final eight games, while the basketball team flamed out with seven consecutive losses to end the season.

To their credit, both head coaches recognized those problems and took steps to address them during the offseason. Football boss Dana Holgorsen implemented a series of lessons and speakers designed to teach his team the meaning of playing for West Virginia. Including histories of the state, the significance of many of its symbols and icons, and a push to appreciate the primacy of Mountaineer football, Holgorsen hopes to lay the groundwork for more bonding, and more concerted effort, this season.

On the basketball side, Bob Huggins blew up his roster and unveiled more new faces than a plastic surgeon. He too, in addition to correcting physical deficiencies, hopes to see more "do the right thing" players on this year's roster.

So much for the initial moves, though. The next, more crucial steps, are taking place right now. In the crucible of summer, under the Bunsen Burners of summer heat and the reactions of old and new players combining, the foundation of creating "good chemistry" are being constructed.

The tough part of this, other than the actual process, is that there's no tried and true way to ensure that a team has good chemistry. It's hard enough to even define it, or to figure out what goes into it. If the formula of hard work and good character were a guarantee of success, then most squads would have it, but that's not the case. Certainly those items need to be present, but there are clearly more factors involved. Talent and ability, success, coaching, player friendships, leadership, luck...all can play a part.

It's easy, after the fact, to put a label on a team's failure in this area, and clearly that was the case with these two teams last year. But can they be prevented from occurring again? How much control do coaches have on formulating a team that plays together with purpose? Can a team do so without player leadership? These are all questions that have been struggled with over the years, and even the best of coaches don't always get the answers right.

Take, for example, the San Antonio Spurs, which is the most successful pro franchise in the U.S. over the past 15 years. They build their team, not with ESPN-generated superstars, but with players willing to perform their roles and put team first. Even that master organization, though, has made bad drafts and trades, and has been forced to jettison players that didn't fit in. That process is just the same with any sports organization, and it's what makes building chemistry so difficult. Just a couple of bad reactants, and the whole thing blows up in your face.

So, as the 2013-14 Mountaineers work through their first classes and begin to combine the amino acids that will become their signature this year, keep in mind that it's the lessons they learn with each other, with the value of persistence, dedication and subjugation of personal wants and needs, that will write a significant part of their stories on the fields and courts this year. While their grades in the classroom are obviously important, the ones they learn and embody in this most subtle of chemistry studies will be just as vital.

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