I am wondering what Chris Petersen will tell the Washington Huskies before they face Alabama in the Peach Bowl. Oratorical flair is not his style, and it’s possible his remarks will be limited to a recitation of mundane game-plan keys.
If the Huskies are to pull off a monumental upset, about 25 things need to go right, none involving the pregame address of a coach who sees addresses as numbers attached to street names.
And yet there’s no doubt about the influence that Herb Brooks’ impassioned lecture had on the U.S. Olympic hockey team before it shocked the Soviet Union in 1980. Like Petersen, Brooks was not known for eloquence — he tended to make eyes roll with such “Brooksims” as “you’re playing worse and worse each day, and right now you’re playing like it’s next month” — and his team had to be surprised when its taciturn coach turned into Knute Rockne.
“Great moments are born from great opportunity,” Brooks began. “That’s what you have here tonight, boys. That’s what you have earned here. One game. If we play them 10 times, they might beat us in nine. But not this game. Not tonight.”
Hockey is different from football, to be sure, and 1980 was a long time ago. But the task the American college players faced at Lake Placid — beating the Soviet Union’s collection of veterans acclaimed as the world’s most dominant hockey team, pro or otherwise — is similar to the Huskies’ task of beating a college football team that will send every defensive starter into the NFL as either a first- or second-round draft choice.
Brooks could have delivered the standard line about how the opponents put their pants on one leg at a time, but he knew that was nonsense, and he knew his players knew that was nonsense. A few days before the Winter Olympic Games, in an exhibition at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Team USA was embarrassed by the Russians, 10-3.
“We showed what we can do, and they didn’t,” Russian coach Victor Tikhonov told reporters afterward. “To know the real strength of a team, you must play against strong opposition.”
Tikhonov’s self-assured assessment was both obnoxious and accurate. So outclassed were the Americans, the coach couldn’t glean any insight about his players’ readiness for Lake Placid.
Rather than ignore the obvious skill-level disparity, Brooks used it like lighter fluid on bed of charcoal: If we play them 10 times, we might lose nine. But not here, not now. This is the one we win.
He continued: “Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them and we shut them down, because we can. Tonight, we’re the greatest hockey team in the world.”
Brooks could have concluded his pep talk then and there — “tonight, we’re the greatest hockey team in the world” is a walk-off line worthy of an exclamation point — but he was just getting warmed up.
“You were born to be hockey players, every one of you, and you were meant to be here tonight,” he said. “This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m so sick and tired about hearing what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”
If you substitute “hockey” with “football,” and “skate” with “tackle,” and “Soviets” with “Alabama,” every word Brooks spoke in the locker room at Lake Placid applies to the adventure awaiting the Huskies on Saturday.
They didn’t qualify for a berth in the national semifinals because the ball happened to bounce their way, or because a call was overturned after a half-hour of replay review. They won 12 of 13. They won the conference championship game by 31 points.
The Huskies were meant to compete in one of college football’s two consequential bowl games. This is their time.
As for the 13-0, defending national-champion Crimson Tide? Let’s imagine a pregame address that finds Petersen channeling the spirit of Brooks, who died in a 2003 car crash.
“Their time is done,” Petersen says. “It’s over. I’m so sick and tired of hearing about what a great football team they have.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban is nothing if not smug, but he’s too smart to reveal a yearning for a real challenge. The provocative bulletin-board material Russia’s hockey coach gave Brooks in 1980 — and let’s face it, the stuff was gift-wrapped — hasn’t been available to any Crimson Tide opponent.
Still, I suspect Petersen, deep down, has become sick and tired of hearing about the supreme, indomitable superpower that is Alabama.
What Petersen says to his team before the Peach Bowl kickoff, presuming he says anything, will remain behind closed doors.
But I hope he has a few words, and I hope the words are steeped in the conviction that great moments are born from great opportunities.
It’s your time, Huskies.
Their time is done.