By: William Qualkinbush
Memory is a tricky thing.
It’s amazing how it works, really. We hold onto some things for our entire lives and discard other things as useless, seemingly at random. Birthdays, anniversaries, dates, passwords, good or bad experiences, grocery lists, names and faces...sometimes we’ve got them, sometimes we don’t, and sometimes that recall fluctuates from day to day.
Some people are better at remembering than others. I envy folks who remember names as well as I remember faces. I need lots of reminders of key dates and errands, but there are random stats and games and plays and events that not even time could wipe from my memory.
This isn’t meant to be a scientific exercise, but I have a couple of theories about how our memories work as sports fans. First, we tend to remember good things about ourselves and bad things about others. Second, our memories tend to be attached to the emotions we feel at a given moment.
Basically, our memories are selfish. Take a second to reflect and see if I might be onto something here.
Our forefathers knew this. They understood human behavior. In ancient cultures, before people knew how to write on a large scale, oral tradition was paramount in order to protect history from the fallible, gullible whims of memory. People told stories to remind themselves where they were, how they’d gotten there, and why they did what they did. Were these stories always 100 percent accurate? Of course not. It isn’t a good story without a bit of embellishment.
Still, the purpose of storytelling was to reinstill pride in the things accomplished over time and to reteach virtues that had been previously learned in the past. It was important because, let’s face it, we’re bad at remembering. The truth is that we need reminders. We bend our memories to reflect the glory or anguish of our present circumstances. Ancient texts in faith traditions are rife with examples of people mischaracterizing their experiences from ages past in order to pretend that their current predicament was so much worse than whatever hell they had just exited.
Why would I go on and on like this about memory, especially as whatever the furthest thing from a licensed psychiatrist or social scientist is? Frankly, it’s all I can think about this week.
On Tuesday, I watched Dabo Swinney channel the energy of these ancient storytellers to remind his audience about the foundations of his football program and the heights it has reached under his watch. He did this as more questions persist about that program’s trajectory and longevity than at any point in the previous decade.
Many of the sentiments he’s no doubt heard or seen are true and valid. Others are revisionist in nature, suggesting things about the past that weren’t necessarily true and mischaracterizing events and context and conversation. It has led to a confounding month-long conversation in which the dark cloud of the moment has muddled the vision forward that seemed so clear as the calendar turned to September.
Swinney responded by harkening back to other dark and cloudy moments. He referenced 2009, when a team without an identity found one in time to win its first division title. There was 2010, a particularly listless season where he says kicking woes led to the worst season of his dozen at the helm of Tiger football, and then 2011, when an unbeaten division champion was eviscerated twice down the stretch of the season before rolling to an ACC title...and then gave up 70 in its first BCS bowl game.
The message from Swinney was simple. In spite of the idea that Clemson is in some sort of uncharted waters, the truth is that it has been in similar spots before, albeit a decade ago under very different circumstances. As rumors of dysfunction swirled, he took the chance to remind the masses (and quite possibly himself) of the track records of the people under his watch and the results of their labors in seasons past. He may as well have led a guided tour down a timeline of the Swinney Era complete with bloody battle scenes, bleak outlooks, and euphoric stops at trophy cases filled to the brim along the way.
There is no question that, through four games, this is the worst offense Swinney has overseen. The issues are many and the remedies are few. An already-taxed defense is missing some hefty pieces already. Opponents have gone from shaking in their boots to licking their chops in a matter of days.
Still, his homage to the past was designed to communicate this clear message: Trust me. And if one thing is true, it’s this: When Dabo Swinney’s program has had issues, they don’t hang around long, because he fixes them.
Eight games remain to show improvement. Undoubtedly, Swinney feels they’ll get corrected to some degree, and he does have enough of a track record to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, track records don’t matter if we can’t remember. Maybe that’s why Dabo Swinney felt the need to remind us.