Sports columnist Rick Reilly once wrote that weekend golfers invariably claim, “I’m a good golfer. I’m just not consistent.”
Well, he said, if you’re not consistent, you’re not a good golfer.
Americans are great at building things, and rotten at maintaining them. We admire winners and celebrities, but we overlook the loyal spouse and the honest accountant and the people who maintain our bridges – and that’s why they’re falling apart.
So, let this be a salute to consistency – that most unheralded virtue.
In 1984, Red Berenson took over Michigan’s moribund hockey program, which had not been to the NCAA tournament in seven years. Berenson thought it would be easy, but it took seven more years to get Michigan hockey back to the big dance in 1991.
Once they got into the tournament, they made it a point to stay there. Year after year, they suffered heart-breaking tournament losses, but year after year, they kept coming back. Finally, in 1996, they won Michigan’s first national title in 32 years – and they did it again in 1998. They’ve come close a few times since, but they have yet to win another.
This bothers Berenson, one of the most competitive men I’ve ever met. When he visited my class, I introduced him by listing his many accomplishments on the board. When he stood up, the first thing he did was point to the two national titles on the board and say, “That’s not enough. We should have more.”
But they always made the tournament – for 22 straight years. It’s the longest streak in the history of college hockey – by far. The next closest, Minnesota, barely made it past Michigan’s halfway mark.
But this year, the team wasn’t getting the goaltending, the leadership, or the luck it needed to win. Snapping the 22-year tournament streak was the least of their worries. The bigger question: Had Michigan hockey lost its way?
Stuck with an anemic 10-18-3 record, Berenson – now 73 – told his team to go out and have some fun. They did – and in the process, they rediscovered who they were. Their goalie got hot. Their leaders found their voice. The team got its mojo back.
They won four straight games to end the regular season. But they had dug themselves such a deep hole, the only way to get out of it was to win an automatic NCAA tournament bid. And the only way to win that was to win the league playoffs. And the only way to win that was to win every game, six straight, against the league’s best teams. When you’re seeded 7th, nobody outside your locker room believes you can win it. But for the first time this season, everybody in that locker room finally believed. And they played like it.
They swept the first series at home. They went to play third-seeded Western Michigan – and swept the Broncos. In the semi-finals, they faced Miami of Ohio, the nation’s third-ranked team, and simply steamrolled them, 6-2 – giving the Wolverines a .500 record for the first time since November. By then just about everybody believed Michigan would pull off a miracle.
But last Sunday, with just Notre Dame left to beat, the Wolverines finally ran out of gas, and lost, 3-1. When the clock ticked down, there was no suspense. They knew their fate. Their season was over, and so was their streak. They knew what it meant.
When a streak ends, people too often focus on how it ended, not how it started, or why it lasted so long. When Joe DiMaggio’s famous 56-game hitting streak – considered the most unbreakable record in American sports – finally ended, nobody said, “Wow, DiMaggio wasn’t very good today.”
No, all DiMaggio did was perform at the highest level, every day, for two straight months. No one has come close to his mark in the last 71 years.
And that’s what several hundred Michigan hockey players did, for more than two decades: They worked so hard and so well for so long, they created a streak that might not ever be broken. Perhaps the greatest testament to their stunning achievement is this: When the streak started in 1991, 22 of the 26 players on the current team had not yet been born.
Titles are impressive. They represent a performer at his peak.
But consistency – that cannot be achieved without character. And in this case, the character of an entire program, for a full generation.
That’s something that lasts – and deserves our respect.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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