I was up late last night, and I somehow ended up on ESPN Classic, watching the 1984 Orange Bowl game between the 12-0 Nebraska Cornhuskers and the 10-1 Miami Hurricanes. Miami eventually won the game, stealing the championship away thanks to a coaching blunder.
I got to thinking about other sports teams that had championships in sight, but blundered them away. I'll numerate seven games that had championship implications, tell what went wrong, and why they would have (and in most cases might not have won anyway. I saw all but one of these games live on television. In chronological order:
- 1972 Summer Olympics -- Men's Basketball gold medal game USA v USSR. September 10, 1972 -- Basketball Arena, Munich, West Germany.
The mighty United States, who had never lost a basketball game in its history, pitted up against their cold war foe. USA had been running and gunning its way through the tournament, but ran into a slow, methodical team. Rather than force the Soviets to try to catch them, the US decided to play along with the slow-tempo game. USSR led for the entire game, until Doug Collins hit two free throws with three seconds remaining to give the Americans a 50-49 lead. Due to some miscommunication, some language barriers, and at the very core, a timekeeping error, the Soviets were allowed THREE chances at a last-second desperation play. Third time was a charm, the Soviets won. The US requested an appeal, which was denied, and they ultimately refused to accept their silver medals.
Would USA have won?: absolutely.
- 1982 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game. Georgetown v University of North Carolina March 29, 1982 -- New Orleans Superdome, New Orleans LA.
In a very close game, UNC had taken a lead against the favored Hoyas on a 16-foot jump shot by Michael Jordan with 17 seconds left. With the score 63-62 in favor of the Tar Heels, Georgetown came down the court, holding for a last shot to win. Inexplicably, Georgetown's Fred Brown passed the ball directly to UNC's James Worthy with seven seconds remaining, giving him a chance to ice the game. Worthy was fouled with five seconds left, and missed his first free throw attempt. Knowing that Georgetown had no timeouts remaining and would be unable to stop the clock, he missed the second intentionally, forcing the clock to start and leaving G-town with no way to set a play. It was talked about for a long time, and still is talked about. There's no way of knowing what would have happened if Brown hadn't thrown the ball away. It was coming down to a last second shot.
Would Georgetown have won?: Who knows?
- 1984 Orange Bowl. Nebraska v Miami (Florida) January 2, 1984 -- Orange Bowl, Miami FL.
Nebraska was 12-0 and had been the #1 ranked team all season long. Miami was #5 at 10-1, and had the privilege of hosting the national championship game. The Hurricanes jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and the Cornhuskers rallied back, only to watch Miami stretch it out to a 31-17 fourth quarter lead. Behind the arm of Turner Gill (current head coach at the University of Buffalo), Nebraska stormed back and scored what seemed like the tying touchdown with something like 47 seconds left. In those days, there was no overtime in college football, so a tie would have been a tie. With the score 31-30, coach Tom Osborne elected to go for the two point conversion and the win rather than the tie. He knew that his team would probably be crowned the national champs even with a tie, but he didn't want to have it end like that. Gill's conversion pass attempt was broken up, and Miami recovered the ensuing on-side kick. They ran the clock out, won the game and the national championship. Perhaps this was karmic payback for the greediness displayed by Osborne's teams who often ran the score up when the game was well in hand. Perhaps it was an indicator that the man was more than greedy. He was an imbecile. Even with a tie his players would have won the national championship. Instead he had to be greedy, going for a coaching victory. Gill says he doesn't blame Osborne, but I'll bet that secretly, he does.
Error: coach Tom Osborne
Would Nebraska have won?: Yes. Not the game, but the championship.
- 1986 World Series game 6 Boston Red Sox v New York Mets. October 25, 1986 -- Shea Stadium, New York NY.
The Red Sox had a 3-2 series lead and had taken a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the tenth inning in game 6. After the Sox' Calvin Schiraldi retired Wally Backman and Kieth Hernandez, the Mets were forced to the brink of elimination. Gary Carter and Kevin Mitchell hit back-to-back singles. Ray Knight, with two strikes against him, hit a single scoring Carter. Bob Stanley came in to pitch to Mookie Wilson. After Wilson fouled off a bunch of pitches, Stanley threw a 2-2 pitch in the dirt, and Mitchell scored on the wild pitch. At this point, Boston had already squandered several chances to put the Mets away. What happened next, though, is what everyone remembers. After Wilson fought off a few more pitches, he hit a soft grounder down the first base line that Bill Buckner misplayed. Knight scored, the Mets won, and the series was tied 3-3.
Game 7 was to be played the next day, but was rained out. On Monday October 27, game 7, and a chance for the Sox to redeem themselves. They couldn't do it, as the Mets seized control and won the game 8-5.
Nobody ever blames Calvin Schiraldi for failing to finish off Ray Knight. Why? Nobody ever blames Bob Stanley for the wild pitch. Why? By the time it got to Bill Buckner, enough damage had already been done, but he takes the fall. Never mind that that was GAME SIX and they still had another chance to win. Nobody ever blames Schiraldi for falling apart in the seventh inning of game 7. Why? Nobody ever blames the Sox coaching staff for pulling Roger Clemens from game 6 after he had pitched seven good innings. Why? This game, this series is defined by what Bill Buckner did.
In what is perhaps the second greatest thing that ever happened to Youtube, some guy re-created the entire bottom of 10th of game 6 on Nintendo baseball. The best ever is that completely ridiculous Bo Jackson touchdown run on TecmoBowl.
Here's the RBI Baseball (Nintendo) re-creation of the 10th inning of game 6, complete with Vin Scully's tv commentary.
Error: Bill Buckner.
Would the Sox have won?: No. By that point, it was too late. Too many other things had already gone wrong. They still had game 7 anyway.
- 1993 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game. Michigan v University of North Carolina April 5, 1993 -- New Orleans Superdome, New Orleans LA.
Michigan had the "fab five" -- Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. The highly touted group of freshmen that were supposed to lead coach Steve Fisher to consecutive national titles. Carolina was having spectacular play from "The Donald" Williams, who ended up being the tournament MVP. Carolina led most of the game, and with under 20 seconds to play, Carolina had just taken a 73-71 lead. The Heels missed a free throw, which Webber rebounded, then got away with a traveling violation before heading downcourt. The Wolverines were without a timeout, and needed a three to win or a two to tie. Carolina wasn't giving anything, and forced webber into a corner and double teamed him there. Not wanting to take a five second violation, Webber panicked, and with 11 seconds left, he called for a time out that Michigan didn't have. That infracion meant that Carolina was awarded two free throws and posession of the ball. That was all she wrote. With the kind of pressure Carolina was applying, they weren't going to get off a good shot, and it would have taken a miracle.
Error: Chris Webber
Would Michigan have won: Probably not.
- 1999 Stanley Cup Finals game 6. Buffalo Sabres v Dallas Stars June 19, 1999 -- Marine Midland (HSBC) Arena, Buffalo NY.
"No Goal." Dallas stormed into Buffalo up 3-2 and with a ton of momentum after shutting out the Sabres 2-0 in game 5. They had two chances to finish off the Sabres. If they couldn't do it on the road, they would go back home for game 7.
The game went to triple overtime, and nobody needs to be told what happened. The head of officiating said that the goal was legit because Hull had already taken two shots, which Hasek denied in bang-band fashion, and that the saves didn't constitute a change of possession. Since, according to this, Hull already had possession, he was able to enter the crease.
"A rebound off a goalie of any type, that doesn't cause a change of possession," Bryan Lewis, NHL director of officiating, told CBC TV. "That's still the puck of the attacking player to play.
"That's his puck to shoot and score. That's a perfectly legal goal."
At any rate, there's no way to know what would have happened if the goal had been wiped off. Maybe it goes to a fourth overtime. Maybe Dallas scores a clean goal Maybe Buffalo scores a goal and forces a game seven. Game seven would have been in Dallas. Dallas was 8-3 at home that post-season, and Buffalo was 6-5 on the road. Just as we have no way of knowing what would have happened in the rest of game 6 (if the goal had been waved off), we have no way of knowing what would have happened in a game 7. Statistically speaking, we have more reason to assume that Dallas would have won on their home ice. Only the 1945 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1971 Montréal Canadiens have won Stanley Cup Finals game 7 on the road. In fact, not including the Hurricanes, the home team is 11-2 in SCF game 7s.
Would the Sabres have won?: Maybe, but not likely. They would have had to win game 6 AND game 7.
- 2003 National League Championship Series, game 6. Chicago Cubs v Florida Marlins. October 14, 2003 -- Wrigley Field, Chicago IL.
"The Bartman Game"
After the Cubs took a 3-1 series lead, they forgot to show up to game 5 in Miami, getting shut out 4-0. they still had two chances to wrap up the series at home and go to their first World Series in 58 years.
With one out in the eighth, and the Cubs leading 3-0, a foul ball was hit to left field, heading towards the bleachers. Moises Alou might have had a play on the ball to record the second out. Cubs fan Steve Bartman, sitting in the first row of seats, reached to catch the foul ball, unintentionally preventing Alou from doing the same. Despite the protestations of the Cubs, no "fan interference" was called, and the Marlins batter, Louis Castilla was allowed to continue his at-bat. The Cubs completely unravelled after that. Following a walk to Castilla, there was a walk, RBI single, error (on which an inning-ending double play might have occurred), 2-RBI double, walk, RBI sac fly, 3-BRI double, RBI single. By then the score was 8-3 in favor of the Marlins. That was the final.
Oh sure Bartman might have given Castillo new life, but the point is that Prior walked him and then went on to blow his three-run lead. Then Kyle Farnsworth came on and gave up three earned runs. And that was just game 6. The Cubs couldn't pull it together for a win at home in game 7.
Error: Cubs fan Steve Bartman
Would the Cubs have won?: no. Bartman was only a tiny minuscule part of the problem. The inability to get anybody out was the big problem.
So there you have it. A gigantic post that has very little to do with hockey, and even less to do with an actual point.
I guess the point I was trying to make is that way too often, when our team "almost" wins, we try to blame the refs or some unfortunate turn of events, or the other team, or some fluky circumstances. More often than not, what it boils down to is that one team didn't execute, and they put themselves to be in a position to be destroyed by mistakes and to be searching for scapegoats.