What is a moral victory?
According to Google, it is “a defeat that can be interpreted as a victory on moral terms, for example, because the defeated party defended their principles.”
In other words, it’s finding the silver lining in a loss and juicing it up exponentially. The UCF Knights football program has had a long history with the moral victory.
It really got going back in 1997, when the then UCF Golden Knights were still an independent fledgling program in Division I-A (now FBS) and opened the season with three road games: at Ole Miss, at South Carolina, and at 6th-ranked Nebraska. UCF held their own each time.
Against Ole Miss, UCF came back to force overtime before attempting to win with a two-point conversion, which failed – 24-23 final. The next game was against South Carolina. UCF blew a 10-point second-half lead and couldn’t recover an onside kick near the end of the game – 33-31 final. The third game against Nebraska was well known in UCF history because the Cornhuskers eventually won a national championship that season. UCF was leading 17-14 at halftime before things got a little away from them – 38-24 final. After starting 0-3, UCF received one AP vote and was called the best 0-3 team in the nation.
This is a great example of a moral victory (four moral victories, actually). Each game is its own, plus that one AP vote. Since sprinkles are for winners, we won’t use those, but as a little icing on top, later in the season, there was a game at Mississippi State. UCF had a 28-21 lead in the fourth quarter before giving up a pair of touchdowns. UCF’s final two drives ended in interceptions to seal their fate – 35-28 final. UCF finished the season with a losing record of 5-6.
There were more moral victories scattered in UCF’s FBS history, not limited to Auburn in 1998, Georgia in 1999, Georgia Tech in 2000, Penn State and Syracuse in 2002, Texas in 2007, and more. The sheer number of near-misses created a lot of “what if” moments, which gave birth to the nickname “UCiF”. Thankfully, this has been one the Knights have been able to shake off. Those near-misses were also loaded with instances where UCF had the lead and blew it. A number of us old guys called this “UCFing the game” where defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. As someone who grew up watching Cleveland sports, I’m very well-versed in seeing teams I’m rooting for blow it when it matters.
This past weekend, the Knights traveled to Norman, Oklahoma to play the Sooners. Coming in with a three-score point spread, expectations were low, but fan support was high. It was the first, and potentially only time UCF was playing the Sooners. Shocking most of the civilized world, UCF carried a lead into the fourth quarter. In a throwback to the good old days, the Knights fail to hold on to the lead and lose 31-29 after a failed two-point conversion and onside kick.
The response from the fanbase varied, including on this very site. There were plenty who were mad that UCF lost. They lit the torches and sharpened the pitchforks calling for athletic director Terry Mohajir to fire Gus Malzahn despite a $15 million dollar buyout the school is nowhere close to being able to afford. Some took it further and demanded that Mohajir get fired too. Don’t ask. Many went the route of the moral victory, happy to not only have been there but the team took it to the wire. There are some that took things in a completely different direction. I do recall someone posting that they would have preferred a blowout loss versus a close one. In the end, UCF lost. No amount of spin one way or another will change that, but if it makes fans sleep better at night to view the glass half full, half empty, or just too damn big, then go for it.
No, having a differing view on this does not make one a “true fan” or not. Neither is it whether you could go to the game or not. That’s just dumb.
I don’t blame the fans for embracing the moral victory. We’ve been taught through movies to gravitate towards them. We love the underdog story where someone who is not expected to do anything rises up and accomplishes something great. It’s the “Rudy” effect. In “Rudy”, he gets his one moment to play, gets a sack, and the team wins, but things don’t always work out. In “Major League II”, the ending of the previous movie was retconned and created a moral victory moment by establishing that while the Cleveland Indians won the AL East in the first movie creating that feel-good ending, they lost in the ALCS.
I’ll probably catch some heat for this, but the ending of Rocky was a moral victory. No really, it’s a moral victory. The crowd went nuts after the right, but he didn’t win his fight against Apollo Creed. He lost but celebrated that he punched up and held his own, much like how UCF did against Oklahoma and countless others over the years.
Sure, it might feel good to justify and see the positives in a loss, but there is a truth we are ignoring. The higher levels of history don’t care about the near misses. There is only one thing remembered: Win or loss? You open Wikipedia and look at UCF’s list of seasons, you don’t see the details of that 1997 season and how close those four losses were. All you see a 5-6 record. You have to dig deeper and go down the rabbit hole to get the details.