Handling the Hype

It's only June, and already preseason picks are coming out placing West Virginia's football team firmly among the Top Ten in the country. It's a placement that many current Mountaineers have seen before, so will there be less likelihood of distraction the year?

Of course, the first decision to be made when considering the effect of preseason attention is whether or not it is a distraction at all. Certainly most coaches consider it so, simply because they can't control it. When a regimented process, which football certainly is both on and off the field, is subjected to outside forces, it falls squarely into that "distractions" category.

On the other hand, the point of view exists that publicity such as this is mostly good. It keeps West Virginia in the minds of fans and media (including some poll voters), and it can have an impact on recruiting as well.

Like any debate where opposite opinions are held, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Certainly there are benefits to be had from seeing "West Virginia University" repeated and highlighted in the national media. And just as certainly, there can be negative effects that grow out of it.

The thinking here, however, is that this Mountaineer team is experienced and savvy enough to handle the buzz. Several factors go into that, as detailed below.

First, the leaders on this team have been through the hype before. Patrick White, Steve Slaton, Keilen Dykes, Marc Magro and the like have been interviewed hundreds of times over the course of their careers. All show very good maturity in handling the potentially ego-inflating potential of such attention, and while each is confident in his own ability and carries a high degree of self-confidence, they haven't shown any signs of letting it fracture them from the team. That was a problem on a couple of Mountaineer squads in the past, but the telltales don't appear to be showing up here.

There also seems to be less "coverage of the coverage", which leads to a lessening of public perception, which we'll talk about in a minute. Over the past couple of seasons, every preseason magazine or website rating spawned a number of articles and reports that simply regurgitated those rankings. 'Mountaineers #5!' these items would bellow. After a while, the deluge likely had at least a bit of an effect.

This year, however, that roar seems muted. Certainly, there have been a few articles on the preseason rankings, but it doesn't seem like they are as frequent as past seasons. Of course, it's only June, so that might increase, but for right now the more low-key approach seems to be taking hold. High rankings for WVU in the preseason aren't the rarity they once were. And once something becomes routine, it doesn't generate excitement. Think of the scenes in Apollo 13, when the TV networks decline to provide live coverage of the mission -- at least until something goes wrong.

That leads into the next item -- piling on. Once something has been built up, the natural progression is for it to be torn down. Just as many hopped on the preseason rankings bandwagon a year ago, so too did many of those same outlets pile on when problems arose in the defensive secondary. Most of those covering that issue simply looked at the stats and identified that as the source of all Mountaineer ills. Others, again in mirror mode, simply wrote what others were writing. When it became clear that West Virginia wasn't going to claim a BCS berth, much of that hype turned to finger-pointing (at least in the media) which certainly didn't help the situation.

[Aside: That's not to say that pss defense wasn't a problem in 2006. However, it was made to be the scapegoat for WVU's failure to earn a BCS bid -- an occurrence that was far from fair.]

So, not only will the 2007 team have to handle preseason acclaim, it will also have to handle the reverse, especially if a game is lost or performance expectations aren't met. The fact that many of the stalwarts on this team have already been through that experience once should help them handle it if the same situation arises this year.

Finally, we get to fan expectations and actions. Fifteen years ago, this wasn't an issue, but with many more avenues available for fans to express themselves, teams now have instant feedback on what the fans are thinking. That's sometimes a bad thing, as every outlet has its share of unthinking knee-jerk reactors who spew invective at the slightest mistake or lack of excellence. Unfortunately, that's a part of our culture now, and one that has to be dealt with.

Some players simply ignore that wailing as mere noise. Others use it as fuel to spur even greater effort. But there is a small percentage that can be affected by the cacophony of opinion, and it is that group that is the concern. Most fans forget they are talking about young men whose emotions and charageter are still developing, and that their statements, while seemingly simple, can add up to an enormous weight. We know that's not going to stop, however, so its vital that players learn how to deal with that attention -- even when its negative.

All that said, I don't think it's going to be a big issue in 2007. Having gone through those trials in 2006, and coming up just short of their highest goals, the vast majority of players on the 2007 team should be well-prepared to deal with anything that's thrown at them off the field.

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