The shine of the college football season has worn off. For many, the dream campaigns that were taking shape during offseason hours in the weight room and at practices were never realized.
Call it bad luck, call it poor coaching, call it a sheer lack of overall talent or perhaps an unfortunate combination of all three. Regardless of how—or when—it all unraveled, the final weeks of this season are just formalities for many teams.
Postseason play is out of the question for some, while others have set their sights on much-lesser bowl bids after entering the season with BCS or national title hopes. It always starts with these lofty goals—as unrealistic as it might be for many—and then it’s recalibrated throughout the season.
Three months into this season and the calibrations are about complete. The slow grind to the finish line has set in as the reality of it all has come into focus. For many teams, what was a promising season to start never came to fruition.
For coaches on staffs of teams inching closer toward their disappointing, definitive ends, this marks one of the tougher responsibilities that are never anticipated. With motivation bleeding out the program, it’s on them—and the players, of course—to see it through.
The outsider perspective is that they’ll give in, that the lack of intrigue will create a wave-the-white-flag situation for the parties involved. It’s easy to assume that while watching from the couch, but these assumptions don’t take into account all the intrinsic and extrinsic factors involved.
Bleacher Report’s own Michael Felder played defensive back in college at North Carolina before he became our X's and O's wizard. In his football past, Felder played on a handful of teams that fell short of early expectations.
For Felder, however, coasting to the finish was never an option that he understood.
“I can't remember a time where a season ever felt lost in the grand scheme of things,” Felder said. “Losing is bad enough, and packing it in just never crossed our minds. I think it’s a testament to our coaches and the leaders we had.”
Much of this will vary from person to person. While many coaches in these positions will be coaching for their jobs—with the spotlight evolving with each offensive series—the same can’t always be said about the players.
Some have moved on mentally to what’s ahead, whether that’s a job in the real world, next season or life in the NFL. Other are worried about the NFL draft and where they might factor in. These moving parts—and college life in general—force coaches to deal with matters that are often lost in our inability to see past wins and losses.
As much as the coaches can do to keep the focus on the tasks at hand, much of it still falls on the player wanting to be a part of the greater good. For many, that is natural.
“You still have to practice, lift weights and play, and there’s no point in going through the motions when you can get better individually and as a team,” Felder noted. “For me, as a guy who played on a lot of losing teams, that's something that I don't think gets mentioned enough. Good coaches and players focus on those little things and count the small victories.”
Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand has operated on the other side of this influence for the past 12 years. Unlike many, however, he hasn’t been involved with many losing teams or lost seasons. There has always been something tangible—perhaps a bowl game or a new program-best—to use as motivation.
Hand, though, has always gone above and beyond dangling these carrots in front of his players. To him, there’s always more.
“Being involved in team sports is not just about your win-loss record, it’s about being a part of something that is bigger than you,” Hand said. “When your season isn’t going the way you foresaw it, you need to rely on the relationships that you have developed in your locker room and in the staff room.”
Motivation and emotion is an integral part of Hand’s coaching style. Following the team’s enormous win over Florida in Week 11—the first time that the Commodores had won in Gainesville since 1945—Hand took to social media to celebrate some of the superb offensive line play on display in the game.
Using Twitter and Vine, Hand highlighted some of the moments that often go unseen. It’s a small gesture, but these are the kind of creative ways in which coaches motivate their players:
It’s easy to appreciate these moments when things are going well, and the neatly folded blueprint is being followed as planned. Of course, rarely is that the case.
There’s also much more than highlighting superb blocks in a winning effort. It’s about celebrating the effort and the people who made it possible, regardless of the bigger picture.
“As coaches, we always preach about ‘family’ and ‘relationships,’ and when tough times hit, that’s when you have to lean on those cornerstones,” Hand said. “You have built a brotherhood in your locker room, where guys truly love one another and are willing to play for the person sitting next to them.”
For the teams that have watched their seasons take an unexpected turn—the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia, Cal, Purdue or even a team like Florida, which is facing historically unprecedented adversity—giving in really isn’t an option.
They don’t know how to give in.
Coaches are tasked to motivate their players in creative ways, and they have no choice but to do so. Not only are jobs at stake, but this football mentality is real. The idea of “getting better” until the end isn’t just coach speak. It’s a lifestyle.
The players follow their coaches not just because they have to, but because they also share in the mantra. They train and work toward improvement because it is that mentality that has gotten them to this point. It’s up to the coaches to maximize talent, but the players' "want" comes from within.
“The nature of an athlete is to compete, regardless of the situation or circumstances,” Hand said.
It’s a system that rarely fails and it polices itself. Different personalities are driven for a range of reasons, but the bond shared between these groups is bigger than any bowl game or failed football accolade.
For players and coaches, a season is never lost until they are told to stop. Until then, it’s about playing for each other, which is more than enough motivation to wage on.
*Adam Kramer is the Lead Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand