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Rooting for the underdog

Readers of this column in New York City, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles can stop reading right now. If you generally root for the Yankees, for example, you won't be able to relate to the central thesis of this article, which is why small town folks always find themselves always rooting for the underdog.

What brought the underdog to mind is that the University of Minnesota, which has been losing football games by the dozen in the past few years, has just hired a new coach (after firing the last one before the season was even over) by the name of Jerry Kill. Kill, who grew up in a small town in Kansas, has been coaching at Northern Illinois University. He is short, stout, bald, wears glasses and has a mustache and almost nobody in Minnesota had ever heard of him before, so there was loud and serious grumbling that the Gophers hadn't hired somebody more famous. After all, everybody is looking for the next Vince Lombardi. (If you've never heard of Vince Lombardi, you can stop reading right now.) The grumblers at present are overlooking the fact that Kill has been a consistent winner wherever he has coached.

Minnesota officials had to admit that Kill wasn't even their first choice. Others had either been unavailable or had turned the Gophers down. Soon Kill learned he was second choice (at best) and that the alumni, fans and press were angry. So he and his wife, Rebecca, came to town to meet the press and the rest of the surly lynch mob. In his opening remarks, the coach asked his wife to stand up. It turns out she was a striking brunette. She stood and smiled sheepishly. Then Kill said, "I want y'all to know there's been a big search. I wasn't her first choice, I was her second or third and down that line, I had to work at it. So this isn't the first time I haven't been the first choice. I can work with that." Kill is an underdog and those of us who habitually pull for the short, round, bald types and not the Yankees will be hoping the new coach succeeds.

What is an underdog anyway, and why do some of us choose to root for the guy most likely to lose? Probably the most famous of all underdogs was in the David v. Goliath showdown. The teenage David, armed with only a slingshot and representing the Israelites, was facing Goliath the giant, wearing bronze armor and carrying a big sword, who was representing the Philistines. Goliath challenged the Israelites to choose one of their men to fight him and if an Israelite won and killed Goliath, the Philistines would be slaves of the Israelites. But if Goliath won and killed the Israelite, the Israelites would be slaves of the Philistines. You know how it turned out -- David shot Goliath in the head with a single smooth stone and knocked him out. Then he used the giant's sword to cut his head off. You can read all about it in the First Book of Samuel. From that day forward we had the expression, "the slingshot is mightier than the sword."

More recently, the underdog Royal Air Force of England defeated the German Luftwaffe in the air in the Battle of Britain in 1940, despite being seriously outnumbered. But the British had a new invention, radar, and the Germans didn't. Later, in the 1980s, the Afghans chased the invading Soviets out of Afghanistan. (A lesson for the U.S.A.?)

In American politics Harry S. Truman defeated a heavily favored Thomas Dewey for president in 1948, and unknown Jesse Ventura, a former wrestler and third-party candidate, defeated both the Republican and Democratic candidates to be elected governor of Minnesota in 1998. All were underdogs.

In 1980, the underdog U.S. Olympic hockey team, amateurs and college players, defeated the U.S.S.R. super-power professional team in what was called the "Miracle on Ice."

The appeal of the underdog plays out especially well in the movies when the underdogs are kids. That was the entire charm of "The Hoosiers," based on a true story in which a basketball team from a tiny town in Indiana, with only seven players and a coach on probation, beat the biggest school in the state for the state championship. It's a winning formula -- the Karate Kid was an underdog too, and so was Rocky, the boxer, and Rudy, the football player at Notre Dame.

The reason we root for the underdog is that most of us from small towns feel like we're underdogs ourselves. That's why we're not in favor of tax breaks for the wealthy and that's why when the big job comes down to either the guy from Harvard or the guy from Minot State, we're pulling for the guy from Minot State.

You've heard the moral of this story before -- it applies to Jerry Kill, David, the Hoosiers, the Karate Kid and the guy from Minot State: It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog. And if you always root for the big dog, you can stop reading right now.