The locker rooms at Miami University under Fred C. Yager Stadium, in the bowels of Goggin Ice Center and in the tunnels of John D. Millett Hall have housed rosters of defeated players during the 2016-17 sports season. They’ve become familiar with tired bodies, raised voices and bruised confidence. They welcome dreams of championships while they retain the sting of consecutive losing seasons.
But they’ve also hosted hundreds of football players who have been playing the game since kindergarten, hockey players who have been skating since they could stand and basketball players who don’t know a childhood without travel teams and rec leagues.
It has been at least two full seasons since the three “major” varsity sports at Miami have seen some kind of post-season success. It has been longer since the programs have won any kind of title.
On November 4, 2016, the seriousness of Miami Football’s situation outweighed the masses of broad linebackers and lean quarterbacks. The locker room’s doubt was masked with hope from two decisive victories, though Miami was not supposed to beat Central Michigan University. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Gus Ragland and his team were not expected to win, just like they weren’t expected to win a conference championship because they hadn’t since 2010.
Expectations don’t drive a student-athlete – passion for the game does. Gus started playing football in kindergarten and had to play with the second and third graders because it was the only organized football league in his hometown. He’s played every year since and won two state championships with Moeller High School in Cincinnati. He didn’t know a lot about Miami before committing, but head coach Chuck Martin sold Gus on the school and its football history.
However, in the past four years, Miami football has not had a season over .500, going 0 wins-12 losses, 2-10, 3-9 and 6-7. The 2016-17 season culminated in a trip to St. Petersburg, Florida for the St. Petersburg Bowl Game — the program’s first trip to a Bowl Game in six years.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re not appreciated as much as you want to be, but at the same time you can’t be too focused on what other people are worried about,” Gus says. “If that’s what you’re in it for — the sympathy of other students — then you’re not in it for the right reasons. Having a passion for what you do plays a big role in it.”
The 6-foot-1, 211-pound Gus has quarterbacked the progression of the program from the three-win season to its now promising future. Gus and Chuck attribute the recent success to several talented recruiting classes of athletes who love to play football.
“The sacrifices that we’re hoping to teach them are based on what their goals and aspirations are,” Chuck says. “Don’t tell me you want to get a degree from Miami and play in the NFL, but you’re not willing to make sacrifices along the way.”
Gus’s week starts like any other student’s, except Monday is rest day and his only football commitment is watching film. Tuesday brings the first practice of the week but that comes at 3 p.m., after morning classes and film and meetings that started at 1 p.m. He’s officially done practice at 5 p.m. and finishes doing homework until bed.
Football commitments are interspersed throughout the rest of the week, in addition to class commitments. A 6 a.m. lift on Wednesday, regular practice on Thursday from 1-5 p.m. and then a walk-through without pads on Friday ends Gus’s week. Saturday’s game day starts at 7:30 a.m. with a team meal and ends with time for the players to do what they will, post-game.
Treatment starts on Sunday at 11 a.m. and goes until 5:30 p.m. Then the players do homework and prepare to start the cycle all over again.
“It kind of never ends during the season,” Gus says. “But people in the locker room love what they do.”
Gus sees how coaches are now able to coach these athletes differently – there’s an entirely different dynamic at practice and in the locker room.
“When you’re not winning games, you can’t focus on the little things as much,” Gus says. “In the last six months to a year, we’ve really been able to harp on the small things and progress as a program.”
Chuck tries to get his athletes to think like professionals and treat their game like professionals.
But these are not professional athletes and this is not professional sports.
An NFL season is 16 games long. An NHL and NBA season is 82 games long. The NFL averages 70,000 fans who attend each game, the NHL and the NBA — 17,000.
Miami University football averaged 17,110 fans at home during the 2016-17 season. Hockey averaged 2,570 and basketball brought in 1,490 fans regularly. The teams played 13, 37 and 32 games, respectively.
In the world of sports, college athletics could be considered child’s play. For the student-athletes on all of Miami’s varsity teams, this play is their entire lives.
Sophomore center Josh Melnick was three or four years old when he started playing hockey. No one in his family had played before and he tottered around like any other red-haired four-year-old, except his feet were laced into skates during “learn to skate” programs. He played youth hockey through middle school and went to Delbarton High School, an all-boys college-preparatory school in New Jersey. He won three state championships before playing in the United States Hockey League.
The Youngstown Phantoms was the worst team in the league during Josh’s USHL rookie campaign, but the second year saw the team set a league-record 17-game winning streak. Josh wanted to play college hockey for Princeton but a coaching change led him to Miami. He had heard of Miami before, but the school showed interest and lured him with the camaraderie of The Brotherhood and a reputable hockey record.
Miami Hockey has gone 15 wins-20 losses-3 ties, 25-14-1, 15-18-3 and 9-20-7 in its past four years.
On December 10, 2016, the team filled their locker room with a desperation that could only come from a 10-game winless streak. It mixed with the traditional desire to win and the stale smell of sweat.
Colorado College and 2,501 fans awaited 5-foot-10, 171-pound Josh and the 20 other dressed hockey players. National and division banners hung in the rafters of the Steve ‘Coach’ Cady arena commemorating a history of success. A success that hasn’t been realized on the national scale since 2015.
“It was about stepping up and saying the hard things,” Josh says. “When you don’t want to talk about them, but you have to.”
The Brotherhood refuses to think about what could have been done, and players will hold each other accountable for mistakes during games and in practice. Practices change to accommodate whatever happens during a weekend series and certain days are classified as “battle days.” The intensity generated by the captain and four assistant captains has attempted to counteract the recent history of under .500 seasons.
“It’s similar to how other teams might be, it’s a little bit of discouragement and you find yourself in a hole and it’s sometimes hard to get yourself out of that hole,” Josh says. “Some guys are gonna internally beat down on themselves and confidence is going to be low. That can be hard to get back sometimes, especially in the middle of a season or the middle of a game.”
In the middle of the season, his Mondays start with 8:30 and 10 a.m. classes. He has practice from 1-4 p.m. and then has the rest of the evening to do homework. Tuesday’s classes are at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. and after practice at 4 p.m. Depending on the workload from the weekend, players will either have an additional workout on Monday or Tuesday.
Wednesday won’t have a workout, but still comes with a morning class at 8:30 a.m. Practice from 1-4 p.m., then team yoga before personal attempts are made at relaxation in the evening. If the team plays their weekend series at home, Thursdays have a morning activation lift before class at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and practice.
NHL hockey players will play in several back-to-back situations during their season, but for NCAA athletes Fridays and Saturdays are game days. For Miami, Friday will consist of a morning skate at home and practice when away. On Saturday, the coaches can call a morning practice or skate, or call for lighter exercise in the gym. Team meals are interspersed throughout the weekend and much of the weekend’s free time is spent resting for the games.
Spoken like any other college student, Josh explains, “we’re usually pretty dead, so some Sundays are more productive than others. There’s some where you wake up and get all your work done, and go around and do stuff. And there’s others where you just kind of lay in bed all day.”
Personally, Josh is a morning person but takes advantage of the rare occasions when he can sleep in.
Those days of sleeping in came mid-March after Miami lost the first and second games of a three-game series to Minnesota-Duluth in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoffs. Both the hockey and basketball programs lost in the first round of post-season play this year.
To be sure, on January 3, 2017, Miami basketball had a 7-6 record on the season. They sat as only basketball players could — with their knees to their ears. Redshirt junior Dion Wade sat shoulder to shoulder with veterans who had seen seasons of conference play and players who had only seen 13 games of college hoops. Northern Illinois would be the team’s first conference opponent and their first step in attempting to make the NCAA post-season tournament – something the basketball team hadn’t done since 2007.
Dion heard of Miami after being recruited by ex-head basketball coach John Cooper and he had started playing when he was four-years-old. For him, though, basketball was in his blood, as his dad was a basketball player and Dion played throughout his childhood in Belgium. He played for the Belgian National Team when he was 18 before being recruited to play for Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada. During Dion’s time at the school, Findlay was ranked No. 1 in the nation.
This success wasn’t replicated at Auburn University, and the 6-foot-6, 185-pound Dion couldn’t find personal success after tearing his ACL towards the beginning of his freshman year season. He transferred to Miami after liking the campus, its academics and its basketball program.
Miami basketball has gone 13 wins-18 loses, 13-19, 13-20 in its past three seasons and, most recently, 11-21.
“You have to come back,” Dion says. “You can’t let your head hang.”
Dion recognizes that there is a gap between high school basketball and college basketball; there’s an adjustment period. The learning curve is greater when young players are forced to deal with consecutive loses, and then consecutive losing seasons.
Practices have stayed relatively consistent during Dion’s time at Miami and he acknowledges that coaches will yell at you whether you’re a team that consistently wins championships, or a team that doesn’t.
Practice is from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, after morning classes and tutoring. On Tuesdays, Dion hustles from practice to a 4 p.m. class that he has to miss on game days. Like Josh and Miami Hockey, Dion doesn’t have chances to sleep in during the competitive season.
“It’s the extra load that you carry,” he says. “But you know that as a student athlete when you step into it.”
And he doesn’t mind stepping in those shoes – less free time and all – if that means the sport he plays pays for his education and he gets to travel with his teammates turned family.
Josh also doesn’t wish away his ability to play hockey in college; he wouldn’t want to be a ‘normal’ college student, even if it meant sleeping in and more free time.
Gus, Josh and Dion shy away from wanting to tell the Miami community any specifics about what they do – they love the sport they play and think it comes across to the students on their respective playing fields.
“[The students] know that we train hard, we practice every day, workout every day,” Josh says. “I wouldn’t say that I necessarily care that they know that much, because that doesn’t really have an effect on me. I don’t need them to know that I’m here every day working hard — I feel like that’s something they know.”
But, a lot of the time, it’s hard for the students to sympathize with athletes whose work doesn’t culminate in wins.
Football has arguably made its mark in Miamians’ minds after being the first team in NCAA history to go 0-6 and then 6-0.
“Honestly, it felt better being here when things weren’t going well and to be that group that was a part of the turnaround,” Gus says. “Just being part of the turnaround, it’s something I can’t really explain. It exceeded winning games, it meant more than winning games.”
But football, on average, left 7,176 seats empty during home games during the 2016-17 season. Hockey didn’t fill 630 and basketball was under capacity by 4,910 bodies.
The student-athletes of the sports notice the lack of fan attendance, but when the week starts they’re likely not thinking about filling stadiums and arenas. Instead, they’re thinking about winning games.
“People will always talk, but it’s mainly for myself to see that I perform well and that the team performs well,” Dion says. “As an outsider, you don’t know what’s going on on the inside with the team and what we’re working on”
But people are looking for answers – the fans, alumni and the student-athletes themselves.
“I think part of our problem was after a losing weekend we’d come in and maybe we weren’t intense enough and sometimes that was on the players and we’d need the coaches to step in during practice and maybe yell to get guys going,” Josh attempts to explain. “I think it could have been vice versa; sometimes, the coaches got discouraged after a weekend and it was on us to work hard in practice and get things going for them to pick their attitude back up and realize we’re still playing. We’re still fighting.”
The hockey team is fighting to solidify a part of Miami’s history, as is the basketball program. Dion can’t give any definite answer as to what causes the basketball team’s losing seasons. He is silent for 20 seconds before giving up on trying to explain it. He does recognize that losing becomes more of a mind game than a physical battle.
“When you were winning and the coaches are yelling and cussing and practice is hard, you had something to back you up,” Dion says. “Which was winning.”
Though Miami has championship expectations, it is marred with recent memories of defeat.
“Obviously, there’s a little bit of pressure for how successful the program has been, so I guess we try not to think about it too much,” Josh acknowledges. “But we want to win — we want to do good for the school.”
And though filled with desires to win for themselves, the school and their program, players find it hard to pinpoint what causes losing seasons and what needs to change.
Regardless of the world of sporting spectators, the athletic facilities on Miami’s campus will be populated by several hundred student-athletes on any given weekend. They’ll be filled with athletes like Gus, Josh and Dion – those who are now at the heart of Miami athletics. Those who are expected to win conference and national titles and, recently, those who have not.
“I think a lot of the time, and this year, guys are so focused on doing the right thing and representing the program so well that sometimes we just got away from just going out on the ice and having fun,” Josh says.
But, the locker rooms will be filled with student-athletes who love their sport and love playing – no matter if they’re winning or losing.
On January 3, 2017, the locker room in the hallways of Millett welcomed a 69-67 victory to start basketball’s conference play.
On December 10, 2016, the locker room in the underground of Goggin calmly absorbed Miami Hockey’s much-needed 3-2 overtime victory that broke the 10-game winless streak.
On November 4, 2016, the locker room beneath Yager no longer felt the weighted pressure of numerous undefeated seasons.
“We weren’t supposed to win that game.”
“We were supposed to get killed in that game.”
But Miami football beat Central Michigan 37-17.
The locker rooms at Miami are often empty on Sundays. The lights in the stadium, in the arena and on the court are often left off. In the darkness, there was no hint of how the Miami teams would finish their seasons: whether the benches would seat winners or losers, whether the floor would support victory dances or defeated feet, whether the walls would hold the shout of victory or the hush of loss. The locker rooms only knew the players who only know of the love for their school and their sport.