Got Your Back: Tigers mean it when they talk about team

Head coach Les Miles of the LSU Tigers celebrates with his team after defeating the Oregon Ducks to open the 2011 season. The show of unity is a microcosm of the culture of LSU football. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)

It’s an old cliche in the world of team sports, that togetherness and unity should trump any individual accomplishment. That there is no “I” in TEAM. Any sports fan has heard it before.

But listening to LSU coaches and players talk about it seems different.

Whether it is defensive coordinator John Chavis giving credit to the offense or running back Alfred Blue hailing Kenny Hilliard’s play ahead of him, it is clear that LSU players are of high character in that they are always looking to the next guy to compliment.

“In the Tennessee game, our defense took the field for only two meaningful drives,” said Chavis in response to the greatness of his defense. “I’d never seen anything like it. Our offense took control of the game and kept us off the field, and that was the game.”

In that 38-7 Tiger victory in Knoxville, LSU outscored the Vols 21-0 in the second half, possessing the ball for 22 of the 30 minutes of play. They ran 38 plays in three series spanning 230 yards, including a 99-yard drive that chewed up 8:44 off the clock.

In other words Chavis is saying it’s a bit easier to be a top-ranked defense when that defense isn’t even on the field.

This may not seem like an earth-shattering observation to the casual fan. When it is highlighted by a coach of Chavis’s stature, it makes all the sense in the world. But with ESPN and other media putting high octane offenses on a pedastal nowadays, the concept of an offense chewing up clock to protect its defense is rarely, if ever, discussed. Talking heads on the television throw the idea of “team” out there because they know people will understand it. But in their effort to have something exciting to talk about and reach money-rich markets for ratings, they ignore what that idea really means and highlight topics that actually diminish the true meaning of team. They lionize video game-type offenses, especially those in the Pac 12. They ignore the fact that if you score too quickly too often, your defense will be on the field that much more, making them more tired and less effective.

They ignore the simple beauty of the way LSU plays football. LSU not only talks “team.” It walks it as well.

Proof of ESPN’s disdain for true team football is its most recent cover on the 2012 College Football Preview issue. On it, three SEC schools’ macots are stuck with pins in a voodoo type image, and below the picture reads “Curse the SEC!” along with a sub-headline challenging the USC Trojans–of the Pac 12–to take down the SEC in the national title game.

This is the same USC team who is limited on scholarships stemming from its recent probation and because of subsequent depth issues is one or two injuries away from being a very average team.

This is simply not the case at the top of the SEC, especially with LSU this year. The Tigers are loaded at every position, largely because of great recruiting and quality player development, but this is not celebrated by the World Wide Leader. Instead they capitalize on an excuse to make its focus on the cover media darling USC, which of course is located in the money-rich South Los Angeles market.

Team unity doesn’t speak in ESPN’s world. Money does.

But rest assured, while ESPN and other networks are pleading with other lesser teams to break the SEC’s unprecedented run of six national titles, teams like LSU, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina will continue to build their teams around balance. And it’s a balance of offense, defense, and special teams that creates a champion.

“Once you join this room you will contribute fully, and we’ll use their skills to mesh with the other people in this room,” said Coach Les Miles of his running back unit, which is a smaller illustration of the team’s focus on unity. “And when we win, we all win. And victory is the first goal. I think our running backs understand that. I think they’re a group that has really come together around that philosophy and want to contribute.”

LSU boasts six stellar running backs in Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard, Michael Ford, Terrance Magee, and Jeremy Hill. Despite the log jam and lack of playing time for those at the bottom of the pecking order, not one of them has hinted at transferring.

“I was on the sidelines watching Kenny (Hilliard) wear them down,” said running back Alfred Blue on the third quarter of the SEC Championship against No. 12 Georgia last December. “When I got in the game it was like they didn’t even want to tackle me.”

Blue was the fourth tailback inserted into the game and ended up leading the team with 94 yards on eight carries and a touchdown.

In a sports world saturated with the “me” mentality that too often only gives lip service to the concept of team, it is refreshing to hear insight like this from a young man who would be the featured running back on most other teams across the country, including several in the SEC. Blue isn’t as concerned about talking about his great second half in the SEC Championship Game as he is about giving credit to a teammate–one that played ahead of him at the same position–for helping him get there.

“We’re a family,” said fullback JC Copeland, the man largely responsible for paving the way for LSU’s talented group of tailbacks. “I love them and they love me. I’d do anything for those guys.”

You hear it all over the sports air waves. These quotes above are nothing earth-shattering or new. Even ESPN and other networks talk about it. The only difference is that the LSU Tigers actually mean it.

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