The fire rises. - USA TODAY Sports
Ohio State can ride talent and coaching to the promised land next year. But while the rest of the Big Ten refuses to pull it's weight, the Buckeyes will be at constant risk of falling victim to the perception of weakness.
Everything you believe is wrong.
Not egregiously so, I'm sure, and no more so than anyone else's. Still, prevailing narratives are powerful narratives, and the most prevailing narrative is always the one we write for ourselves. This is doubly true for sports; where sources are sparse and access closely guarded. Yet the way we perceive, and misperceive, the world has real power to shape outcomes. And as recent defections by major Midwestern recruits shows, those perceptions are starting to cause serious, and very real damage.
As for myself, I'll never forget the 2003 Fiesta Bowl against Miami; sitting in a friends' basement and watching Maurice Clarrett strip the ball back after fumbling it away. I can still feel the emotional throttling from devastation to euphoria even now, although I haven't talked to that friend in years and I've no fondness for Maurice Clarrett. That play is still seared itself so deeply into my brain that it's practically become a part of who I am. I very much became a Buckeye in that moment, even though I wouldn't attend the school until a year later.
In a very, very good longform article in this week’s New York Magazine, writer Jennifer Senior details the ways in which the images we develop of ourselves and others in high school continue to resonate with outsize importance throughout our entire lives. Our experiences in those four short years shape our identities for decades. Similarly, our views of different conferences, teams, players, and coaches are strongly influenced by our formative experiences. We root for *our* teams, no matter how much our lives diverge from the original source of that fandom. We cheer for players who haven't played for our team in years. We even root for coaches who assisted under *our* coach; all out of a deep connection to those formative memories.
On a larger scale this is true for all of us, and it's an ongoing process. The zeigeist informs mass perceptions, and those perceptions become reality. In practical terms, this means that recruits and pollsters form their opinions of schools based on an astonishingly small sample sizes, and it's often very difficult to change those opinions.
There is an old analogy by the Plato called "The Allegory of the Cave" which describes the illusions which ensnare our worldview. In it, he describes a group of people chained inside a cave, facing the wall, with a fire glowing behind them. While they cannot see the fire directly, they can see their own shadows flickering on the wall. For these people, those shadows are reality. Were they to be unchained, they would see that in truth, those shadows are mere phantasms of their bodies projected on the wall by the fire. However, their peculiar circumstances prevent that incite, and even if an outsider tried to explain the truth of their situation, their own experiences, limited as they are, would prevent their understanding or agreeing.
This is the trap of perception. We simply don't know what don't know. Our experiences are limited; by time, by expertise, by access, or even by choice. Therefore, certain "truths" achieve widespread acceptance despite being inaccurate reflections of reality. Absent a major shock, such as being unchained and forced to stare at the fire, the public moves forward believing the shadows are reality.
The B1G is caught in this perception trap. Several consecutive years of bad bowl records (even though this year's results were heavily influenced by the two best teams in the conference being ineligible), coupled with high profile flops on the big stage overshadow significant wins has led the broad perception of creeping mediocrity. The ACC suffers even more acutely from this issue. Despite routinely competing with the top conferences in terms of talent sent to the NFL, there is a frankly broad consensus that the ACC just can't compete. This cycle leads to lackluster bowl matchups, mediocre non-conference coverage, and a slow decay in the media position of the conference as a whole, no matter the actual talent put on the field.
Tim Tebow provides a more personal example, whatever your opinion of him, as a victim of the power of perception. It didn't matter whether he had anything to contribute to the team. Both his biggest fans and greatest detractors considered anything less than he being a starting quarterback a failure. While both groups came from opposite sides of the determination, the idea that Tebow could be a success simply as a low-key but positive contributor outside of quarterbacking simply could not exist. As several sources attest, Tim Tebow was doomed as much by the perceptions of rapacious fans and media as much as by his own actions. Similarly, the myth of the All-American golden boy led to the shitshow that is the Catfish Domer story currently engulfing the nation.
The only way to change perception is to smash contradicting evidence right in the zeitgeist's face. Since people, and I include myself, have a remarkable tendency to ensure the consistency of reality with previously held belief, we have to shove people's faces toward the fire. Until reality smacks us in the face, proverbially stepping on a rake in the lawn, we will continue making little rationalizations to carry on our day. As long as the B1G continues to focus on expanding its media markets rather than getting the best coaching staffs and top Midwestern recruits to stay put, the B1G will idle in place.
There is plenty of talent in the Big Ten. But perception is reality, and until the conference finds the balls to use it, the B1G will stay exactly as mediocre as everyone perceives it to be.