LOS ANGELES — There is no feeling in this world quite like reaching the pinnacle of your profession, whether that means hoisting a 35-pound College Football Playoff championship trophy on the floor of a Los Angeles stadium or being handed an 8½-pound Oscar in a nearby Hollywood auditorium.
But no sooner has the last piece of confetti been swept from the stage than the same question always sweeps in to step on the celebration.
“Hey! You think you can do this again next year?!”
“Can we repeat? Is that what you’re asking me? Funny, I haven’t had that question at all today,” said Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, the on-field leader of the reigning national champs, at Saturday morning’s CFP title game media day ahead of their clash with TCU on Monday (7:30 ET, ESPN).
He shook his head and laughed, looking down at his wrist as if he were checking a watch.
“No, wait, sorry. What I meant to say is that I haven’t had that question in almost three minutes.”
Then the 25-year-old Bulldogs folk hero looked up, no longer smiling.
“Hell yeah, we can. I don’t care what the stats or history or anyone else has to say about why we won’t.”
Actually, they say a lot. Because it almost never happens. Call it a repeat, going back-to-back, two titles in a row, whatever your chosen description, but backing up one championship with another is an accomplishment that specializes in scarcity, across all sports, particularly in college football. Since 1990, only three teams have managed to win consecutive national titles, including none during the current nine-year CFP era, when so many have complained that the participants have been too repetitive. Alabama was the last of those three back-to-back title teams, but that was a decade ago, in 2011 and 2012, way back during the latter stages of the BCS era.
“Well, I’m aware because I was a part of that while at Alabama, and I know how hard that is to do,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who was a Crimson Tide assistant from 2007 to 2015. “I know how hard it is to do because there’s a lot of times we didn’t do it. We did it once, but while we were there, we won four and we were only able to repeat once.”
There is a reason it happens so infrequently. OK, reasons. Plural. An unforeseen obstacle course of impossible expectations and endless distractions that no one can truly understand until they have stood in those cleats.
Resolving the riddle of the repeat performance is a challenge that has confounded even the greatest coaches and athletes ever seen. Even Alabama’s Nick Saban. The owner of seven rings has managed to defend that jewelry only the one time. His quest to overcome that obstacle has led him to call on his fellow titans from other sports. It has been a frequent topic of conversation with his former boss and longtime pal Bill Belichick, who has won six Super Bowls at the helm of the New England Patriots but even with Tom Brady behind center pulled off the double dip only once.
Not surprisingly, any time Belichick has been asked about the difficulties of repeating, he has responded with his typical, yes, repetitive answers, immediately pivoting to the likes of “I am only focused on today’s practice.” But privately, he and Saban have delved into the psychology of it all. And they have studied how fellow GOATs have done it.
‘The disease of me’
“What you worry about is a quote from another coach who has won a lot of championships, Pat Riley,” Saban has said of the owner of five NBA titles with a record of three non-successful defenses and one pair of consecutive titles — after which the Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals and, famously, after Riley had just filed a trademark on the term “three-peat.”
Saban gives Riley credit for another phrase: “He talks about ‘the disease of me.’ How much credit do I want relative to how much I’m willing to invest in the team being successful?”
As Alabama prepared to defend its 2020 CFP championship, Saban used that quote often. Then he brought in Alex Rodriguez, who talked to the Tide about the disappointment he experienced when his New York Yankees failed to back up their 2009 World Series title the following season, even though Rodriguez has always considered the 2010 team to be the more talented of the two.
“Alex said it wasn’t the distractions, it was the attractions,” Saban explained after the visit. “Everybody got more attention. Everybody had more people pulling at them, whether it was to speak at banquets or whatever, so it made it much more difficult to focus on the things that you needed to focus on to be the best player that you can be and to be the best teammate that you can be.”
Bennett offered his take.
“It’s everything man, all of that stuff,” Bennett confessed. “So, what you have to do as a group is look around and make sure everyone is accountable. We’re not going to keep someone from an amazing opportunity. But as a team, if you see that start to change someone, you owe it as a friend and teammate to check that.”
‘The fat belly’
In order to guard against those outside distractions, everyone interviewed who has been in that position was quick is say the key is not looking outward but inward. Instead of worrying about forces you can’t control, work on what you can. Yourself.
“That is really hard to do because human nature is to relax,” Smart warned. “When people pat you on the back, the human nature is to say, ‘I’m good. I’ve done a good job. And we won it last year. Let’s take a year off.'”
As one of Smart’s defensive anchors, Christopher Smith, added, “Let’s step outside of football to top CEOs. And what do people fear the most? It’s complacency. When you get to that highest point, and you feel like, we call it the fat belly: ‘Ah, I’m good, man. I’ve done enough. We good.’ You can’t be good. You can’t let the guy next to you be good.”
That’s a hard enough challenge in a professional locker room, with grown adults pulling large paychecks. It can feel downright impossible when you’re standing there addressing a room full of teenagers.
“For me, for my teammates, it was finding new ways to challenge yourself, to motivate, because your first motivation, what drove your entire life up to that point, was to win a championship, and that’s already done,” said Tim Tebow, who won a pair of national titles during his four years at Florida, but the Gators failed to defend either one. “Now, you have to find another goal. Another chip for your shoulder.”
Derek Jeter added his interpretation.
“Once you win, there’s nothing else to do but to win again. Anything less than that is a complete failure,” said Jeter, winner of five World Series titles, including the only three-peat (do we owe Pat Riley money now?) seen in Major League Baseball in the past half-century. “We had the mindset that we were proving to people that we can do it again. You’ve got to have something you have to reach for, and for us, it was to win back-to-back.”
This is the part where we as sports fans and so many athletes are likely thinking, “Well, true champions don’t need such billboard-posted goals! They should want to win naturally!”
That’s easy to say. But even the greatest — heck, even “The Great One” — knows it’s not that simple.
“I’ve won it one time. Now I want to win it again and again and again,” explained Wayne Gretzky, owner of four Stanley Cup titles, earned via a pair of back-to-back titles, in 1984 and 1985 and again in 1987 and 1988. “But it’s not always about that.”
‘This is a totally different team’
Seemingly hours after stepping off the ice with the Cup in his arms, Gretzky was traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. He never won another Cup. The Oilers won again the following year, but they haven’t won it since.
In college football, every single offseason is like that, thanks to the NFL draft, graduation and now the light speed roster makeovers triggered by the transfer portal.
“I had the great fortune of having a really good team last year. Our staff and our organization did such a good job with that team, but we lost all of them,” Smart said about a roster that lost a stunning 15 players to the NFL draft, five more than any other team. “So, it was like starting over.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma summed it up prior the current NCAA women’s basketball season, during which his Huskies are chasing their 12th national title, including a three-peat, a four-peat and five failed title defenses.
“The problem with winning one year and then winning the next is a lot of times having everybody back is not ideal,” he said. “That’s not the same guys coming back. Those guys that were content to be fourth, fifth, sixth in the pecking order. They went home during the summer and somebody told them, “Yo, you’re going to be No. 1 and No. 2 this year!’ So everything changes.”
How players react to that is up to them. Sometimes they cave in, but often they do not, certainly not when they are fully integrated into the machines of college football’s most powerful programs. You know, Nick Saban’s famous “Process” and all that.
“The motivation job [for us this year] was probably not as hard as most repeats are,” Smart said with a recognizable tone of hope. “And our staff changed. [Defensive coordinator Dan Lanning took the head-coaching job at Oregon.] So, you get a little hungrier staff sometimes when you get four new guys, and those guys have helped provide energy for a new group of players.”
Players like Sedrick Van Pran, who was a key member of Georgia’s offensive line one year ago but this season, as a redshirt sophomore, has been a visible lead Dawg, including securing co-captainship for a large chunk of the schedule.
“We don’t look at it as we’re defending a national championship,” he said. “That’s long gone. This is a totally different team. It’s all about leaving our legacy, especially for me, because I wasn’t the leader last year. I have a national championship as a supporter, but I don’t have one as one of the lead guys. That’s something that’s important to me.”
‘Championship game? That’s been every week, man’
Simultaneously, the best and worst aspects of spending a season as the champ are that you are no longer the team climbing the mountain but are now the one everyone else is trying to shove off the peak.
“It’s the worst because every game you play is now the biggest game on your opponent’s schedule. Every single one of them.”
It sounded exhausting just coming from the mouth of the man explaining it, former Alabama safety and now SEC Network analyst Roman Harper. He never defended a title in Tuscaloosa, having played just prior to Saban’s arrival. But he did win Super Bowl XLIV with the New Orleans Saints. The following year, the Saints were bounced from the playoffs in the wild-card round.
“There is zero chance to catch your breath,” Harper said. “And if it takes you a minute to get going because of all those offseason distractions, as happens to most teams, now you’re playing catch-up while you are also catching their best effort and the road crowd’s best effort. It can wear you down.”
Harper also pointed out that a championship run means more games and that Georgia has played more football over the past two seasons than anyone else. Monday night will be its 30th game, coming off the drama of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl semifinal win over Ohio State during which the Dawgs appeared visibly drained.
“But they have also been on that stage already,” Harper continued. “Nothing that happens Monday with schedule or preparation or routine, none of that will surprise them. They can focus on football. TCU is going to be experiencing all of this for the first time.”
“Championship game? That’s been every week, man,” Bennett said. “A championship game is your opponent giving their best while you give your best in an environment that is the best you can experience.”
The quarterback leaned back in his chair, tilted his head and made very direct eye contact.
“Everyone wants to come up with all the problems that come with being the defending national champion. All I know is that it’s a great problem to have.”