Ever wonder what coaches mean when they say that their teams need to learn how to win?
Wonder no more.
The East Carolina football team provided a classic example of it Saturday on a night that turned out to be both exhilarating and gut-wrenching.
For 51½ glorious minutes, the Pirates took their fans on a Military Appreciation Night joyride back in time to a day in which ranked opponents came to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at their own risk and victories in those games were upsets in name only.
With quarterback Holton Ahlers slinging the ball around at a rate no one in school history ever has before — not Shane Carden, not David Garrard, not Marcus Crandall or even the great Jeff Blake — ECU sprinted out to a 40-28 lead on No. 17 Cincinnati.
It was at that moment, as the clock all-to-slowly ticked away the minutes on a fourth quarter that seemingly wouldn’t end, that the Pirates and their fans must have ventured a glance up at the numbers on the scoreboard and thought in anticipation:
Oh my God, this is really going to happen.
That, of course, is the cardinal sin of upstart programs for whom losing has become a way of life. It’s an exercise that almost always leads to one of the most painful lessons in the process of learning how to win.
Because in that brief moment when ECU took its eye off the prize and began visualizing what might be, the team that already knows how to win snuck up from behind and snatched that prize right out of the Pirates’ hands.
We’ll never know exactly what Ahlers was thinking or what he might have seen when, with 4:38 remaining, he delivered one of the few throws he’d like to have back Saturday.
One thing we know he didn’t see was Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner, who jumped the route of receiver C.J. Johnson, picked off the pass and sprinted 62 yards into the end zone for the touchdown that sent Dowdy-Ficklen into a state of stunned silence.
“It was tough,” coach Mike Houston said of the game-changing pick six. “It was a back-and-forth game, but we had the lead. We were driving. It’s just a mistake. It’s one you hate to see. Holton will learn from that.”
Learning how to win.
The sophomore put his name in the ECU record book by completing 32 of 52 passes for 535 yards and four touchdowns. It was the first 500-yard game in school history, an accomplishment that will someday likely mean something to the budding young star.
But he didn’t feel much like celebrating Saturday.
To their credit, the Pirates in general and Ahlers in particular quickly put the stunning interception behind them. They bounced right back and immediately drove into position for the tying field goal with just over a minute remaining in regulation.
As it turned out, that was just enough time for Cincinnati to kick a field goal of its own and deny ECU a shot at winning the game in overtime.
“To go out there and play that way, you just hate not to get the win,” Houston said. “We had some incredible individual performances, but the thing you focus on is what a great effort by our kids. There’s no moral victories. This one hurts. You win this one you put yourself in great shape to achieve several of the goals we set out to (accomplish) and so it hurts.”
Now it’s the job of Houston and his staff to turn that pain into motivation and put their team back in a position to win games such as the one that slipped away Saturday. And this time have the confidence to know that it can finish the job instead of just hoping it can.
“You’ve got to find a way to win,” Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said. “Sometimes you’ve got to be not at your best. Sometimes one side’s got to pick up the other side and some way, somehow tonight we found a way to win.”
Someday, perhaps soon, the Pirates might learn how to do that, too.