It’s a logical sequence: Losing habits lead to losing games, losing games leads to losing seasons, losing seasons can lead to a losing culture.
There are still two games left in Boston College’s second straight losing season. Injuries set the Eagles back before the season started, and continued to blow holes into their depth chart throughout the year. They found ways to throw away close games, whether it was fumbling near the end zone or allowing teams to convert on third down from seemingly any distance.
Key players were suspended and benched. Inexperienced players were thrown into crucial roles. Eventually the line between poor luck and poor play began to blur — their loss at Army on the final drive serving as a microcosm of their season — and the question stopped being whether BC would figure out how to win and turned into how the Eagles would falter.
For the first time since the mid-’90s the Eagles will finish with a losing record in consecutive seasons, and the feeling among the seniors who will play their final game at Alumni Stadium Saturtday against Virginia Tech is that losing can’t become the culture.
“I think the biggest thing to establish to the younger guys is developing a winning mentality and making sure that you’re not accustomed to losing,” tight end Chris Pantale said. “Sometimes when you lose one or two games, two games in a row, you start to get accustomed to the certain little things that losing provides. Like, ‘Oh, it’s just one bad play.’ Then, guys start to fall into a funk and you start to take that mentality into a game. Then guys start to lose that hope, that focus where you believe that you’re going to make the play.
“When you’re in that losing slump, guys are just accepting that something’s going to happen, something bad’s going to happen. So it’s putting an emphasis on guys that this losing is not acceptable, it’s not OK. There’s certain things you’ve got to do to make sure you get the wins, and I think that’s important to preach upon guys.”
BC hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2010, and for seniors like captain Emmett Cleary, it’s hard not to look at that game with a distant nostalgia after the struggles of the past two years.
“I love our young guys, we’ve got a lot of talent in the program right now, and they work,” Cleary said. “But the main thing is just to make sure that people don’t get used to this. It can become a mentality where people think losing is all right and I don’t think that’s the case here, but it’s critical to maintain that — that this is an aberration from what this program does.
“You don’t stand for it, you don’t treat this stuff as business as usual because it’s not and it can’t be if we want to be the program that we think we are even after our class is gone. That’s the main thing.”
In his junior season, Chase Rettig has matured into one of the most effective quarterbacks in the ACC, but his numbers have been muted by the team’s futility.
“When you lose a couple games in a row, or four or five games, you can’t get used to that,” Rettig said. “It can’t be OK. It’s something I’ve been struggling with this season. We’ve been close, and everyone’s a competitor on the team, so you want to win football games. So we’ve got to change that. It can’t be acceptable.
“We’re going to have to do everything we can in the offseason — obviously I can’t be talking about the offseason yet — but for so long our mentality was winning a lot of football games, so we have to get back to that time.”
It’s difficult for Rettig to remember the promise the Eagles showed at the start of the season, battling Miami and Northwestern, because it was buried under losses.
“There was a lot of close games that we could have won this year, so you could look at it that way and be optimistic about it, but I’m just going to have to take a bigger leadership role in the offseason and get people to understand that losing isn’t acceptable here,” the quarterback said.
Coach Frank Spaziani has gone back to the drawing board week after week. He’s said repeatedly that his players have been just as committed, dusting themselves off and returning to practice dedicated after every defeat.
“They won’t get used to it,” Spaziani said. “We won’t allow it to happen. I don’t think they’re used to losing right now. I think they have a bad taste. There’s problems that have impeded our progress and we always have to work through those problems, but there’s nothing here that gives any indication that they’re satisfied with their station.”
At the same time, he understands his circumstances with job security, and with Virginia Tech coming in, he drew a parallel between himself and Hokies coach Frank Beamer, who struggled through his first six seasons in Blacksburg before becoming an institution.
The Hokies went 2-8-1 in 1992, Beamer’s sixth season, and Spaziani said, “They wanted his head.”
Beamer got another season. The Hokies changed their defense, went 9-3, and haven’t missed a bowl game since. “Boom,” Spaziani said. “It was like the spark.”
Spaziani has said all along that with Rettig, receiver Alex Amidon, defensive end Kasim Edebali, and linebacker Steele Divitto as seniors, he sees next year as a breakthrough. But it’s hard to forecast next year in the middle of a cloudy season.
“We need more victories, that’s what we need,” Spaziani said. “But if you just look at the depth chart and look at the people that we have and the people that are going to be lined up playing that have played, you’ll see a lot of them are coming back and a lot of them are gaining a lot of experience.
“I feel good about the future, but right now we’re just having a little tough time looking at things through rose-colored glasses, if you will.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.