The Battle or the War

Commentary by Casey Barrett

Cal tops Stanford for Pac-12 title, ending longest conference streak in college sports history… Cal yawns, coaches eye war ahead…

Dave Durden was not impressed. And why should he be? His team had just snapped the Streak. Three cruel decades of Stanford's smug dominance at the top of the Pac-10 / 12 men's conference swimming championships. 31 years. Since the early 80s, no Pac school was able to chop down the Cardinal. It's about time. So, shouldn't the Bears (and the Trojans and the Wildcats and the rest) be rejoicing?

Not really. See, Stanford all but conceded the title. And for that, they must be praised.

You won't find much Stanford love in the pages of this blog. It's the product of being a former USC Trojan. It's not personal. Well, actually, it is. It's completely personal. I've always hated them. Some of the reasons are even slightly valid. But in this case, Stanford must be honored in defeat. Not because they lost with humble grace (that would be very un-Cardinal), but because, for once, they kept their eyes on the real prize.

In year one of the Ted Knapp era, this is a new and prioritized Stanford. They are plotting to win the war, the NCAA team title two weeks from now. They might. In victory, the two-time defending Cal Bears looked beatable. More than that, they looked entitled. A quality that has always been more Palo Alto than Berkeley. Maybe that's what repeated winning does to you.

So, no, Coach Durden was not impressed with his Bears. They're loaded again, with a squad packed with underclassmen studs, and leading the way, the best swimmer in the NCAA, Tom Shields. At Pac 12's, Shields won five races: the 100 and 200 fly and the 100 back, plus two relays. He was the swimmer of the meet. He'll probably be the swimmer of the Meet two weeks from now. But the rest of them?

The New York Times ran a story about Cal's victory / Stanford's defeat today. The focus of the article was about the general buzz kill surrounding the end of the Streak. Neither winner nor loser seemed to care. The winners were pissed at their performance; the losers shrugged it off and said (rightly) that they had more important things to think about.

One has to wonder how Coach Knapp felt about the Streak. Over the last decade, it seemed to take on a life of its own. For most of those 31 years, Stanford was simply the class of the Pac 10 / 12. They were better than everyone else, plain and simple, as much as it pains me to write. Say, for two of those three decades, they won the conference meet without breaking much of a sweat. Hell, in seven of those 31 years, they went on to win the whole damn thing. But the last time they did it was 1998. For the next 14 years, it started to feel like the Streak, the battle, mattered more than the war.

It became a defining piece of Skip Kenney's legacy. His Cardinal couldn't lose the conference meet. That's just not who he was. And if Ted Knapp wanted that top job when Skippy moved on, well then, as the loyal Number Two, he had to suck up some dubious tapering decisions come conference time. No longer. This year, Knapp saw the writing on the wall. It wasn't so hard to see. After Cal won back-to-back NCAA titles, after losing two weeks prior at conference, it may as well have been spray-painted in neon on Stanford's Clock Tower.

To win the big one, you don't want to be at your best fourteen days too soon. Tapering isn't rocket science, after all.

But then, you also don't want to cruise through the conference meet like you're a Golden (Bear) god, believing you're predestined for yet another team title at NCAAs.

When Dave Durden took a look at his crew, that's what he saw. Not impressed. Durden is too smart and too classy to come out and say it plain and mean in the New York Times. Instead, he referenced a “distorted self-awareness” among his talented crew of underclassmen.

Distorted self-awareness — that's good. Allow me to translate: That heralded crew of Cal freshman last year, the ones who helped lead the Bears to another title? As sophomores, Durden is saying they've gotten cocky. They're acting entitled, thinking winning is just that easy, something that they deserve every year. Maybe this year's crop of equally talented Cal freshman have followed their example and started swaggering around before they've won anything. Whatever it is, Durden has called it out. And he's done it in a brilliant and not-so-subtle way in the pages of the New York Times.

Across the Bay, Ted Knapp is guiding his crew with his own bit of inspired psychology. The man has clearly read his Sun Tzu:

If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate them. If equally matched, fight, and if not, split and reevaluate. — The Art of War

(Or maybe he's just a big fan of that scene from Wall Street…)

In defeat, Knapp seems to have followed master Sun Tzu's wisdom. He evaded a superior opponent in a battle that was acceptable to lose. He likely irritated the victors by shrugged it off and claiming his team never even talked about the Streak. And now they'll regroup and take aim at the war ahead…

Both Durden and Knapp replaced legends at their respective schools. It's clear neither is shy about stepping from any shadows.

About The Author:
Casey Barrett is a Canadian Olympian and is the co-founder of Imagine Swimming, New York City's largest learn-to-swim school. He is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning writer for his work with NBC Olympics. His columns can also be found on his blog, Cap & Goggles: www.capandgoggles.com.

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