WHEN A TEAM has been as up and down as the Blast -- marvelous one night, mediocre the next -- never taking the big step when it is theirs for the taking, people start asking questions.
What's the matter? Where's the problem? Who's at fault?
No one escapes the evaluation, not even the coach, as those who watch wonder if this team has heard coach Kenny Cooper's motivational speeches for so long that their impact has lessened.
After his team performed impressively in a 6-4 victory over Kansas City last night, Cooper admitted if his team had lost, dropped three games behind the Comets and below .500 21 games into the season, it would have been very bad for everyone.
He also said he believed owner Ed Hale's presence in the locker room before last night's game had a major impact.
"Ed told the team that it had had three opportunities with good crowds and on television and that they had lost all three," related Cooper, the only coach the Blast has had in its 11 years of existence. "He told them, that from what he has seen and from how hard they've worked, they should be better."
They hear the same words from Cooper every day. Last night they came "from the horse's mouth."
"Sometimes, when I say it, the players think, 'Oh, Kenny just says that to motivate us,' " Cooper said. "Coming from Ed it did have a different impact. It was from a whole different level. I think it did motivate them. Some of it might have been fear. I'm sure it was. Fear is not a terrible thing. It can be a great motivator and turn a negative into a positive."
But the questions remain.
Is this victory a steppingstone to better things?
Is Dale Mitchell, who scored the winning goal last night, going to find his comfort zone and become the impact player everyone expects?
Is this team going to consistently show some guts in pressure games?
Has Cooper gotten his message of concentrated single-mindedness through his team's collective head?
Or is this just another Big Tease on Baltimore Street?
Cooper, of course, has been through it all before, and when talking to the Blast coach it is understood it is a conversation with a man whose life's work is motivation. He calls it "human engineering," the bringing together of diverse players and their strengths and weaknesses.
"Over the years, you could ask the same questions of Don Shula, Mike Ditka, or Earl Weaver," Cooper said. "How did they keep their teams motivated through all the years? I think the answer really is that the motivation comes from within the player. My job is to keep them in touch with reality, and to get the best out of them. But it is up to them, too."
He frankly admits veteran players like goalkeeper Scott Manning, who scored his fourth career goal with 50 seconds left last night, Tim Wittman, Mike Stankovic and Bruce Savage have all heard his message hundreds of times before.
"But they are the proof that it works," Cooper said. "Before this game, Scott was smiling, Mike had a twinkle in his eye, Billy Ronson was fired up, Wittman was encouraging other players. They believe in the system. The hard part is convincing other people and that's where we are right now."
The other people are rookies, second- and third-year players and veteran All-Star Mitchell, who is having his first experience with a goal-oriented system.
"Two-thirds of this team believes and knows what it takes to win," Cooper said. "The other third, the young kids and Dale, are learning it comes with the territory."
The territory, of course, is the top rung in the East, not a game back like the Blast is now. The territory is pressurized. Cooper has no qualms about it. The players who have been with this team awhile have no qualms about it either.
"The guys who know where Coops is coming from know what he's talking about," said Ronson, who played last night despite a severe leg cramp that has tormented him the last two days. "A .500 record isn't good enough. Second place isn't good enough. In the past, when things haven't gone well, there have been trades. We had a stern talk before this game, maybe it fired some people up to know their jobs are on the line. Those of us who've been here know if you don't perform, you're gone."
Inspiration comes from a lot of different sources. The coach can only provide so much, said Domenic Mobilio.
"If anyone could bottle what makes a human being motivated one night and not the other, he'd be a millionaire," agreed Manning. "Kenny is a motivator. But I told him a long time ago, 'If I need you for that, fire me.' "
The Blast heads to Wichita today for tomorrow's last game of 1990. The coach, who will be second-guessed all season, as coaches always are, can only wish everyone on the Blast's roster would make a New Year's resolution to self-motivation -- and keep it.