March Madness is winding down to the Final Four and, even though this hasn’t been the greatest NCAA Tournament ever, we’ve again seen why this is annually one of the best championship events in all of sports. The play-in round brought us the “Dayton Playing at Home” controversy, followed by stunning round of 64 upsets. Exciting games followed as the tournament went on, like Notre Dame’s overtime win against Butler and the Irish’s close call against undefeated Kentucky.
The tournament has revealed Michigan State’s Tom Izzo as perhaps the greatest post-season college basketball coach of all time not named “Wooden.” And, by the time it’s all over, Kentucky might prove to be the most accomplished team ever.
While the NCAA Tournament is nearing its conclusion, baseball is about to get underway as teams break camp full of anticipation for what could be an intriguing six months. What a great time of year to be a sports fan!
With that backdrop, here is one opinion of the greatest championship events in all of sports.
5. Wimbledon – If strawberries and cream at the All-England Club aren’t enough, there’s the pure joy of Andy Murray’s 2013 men’s singles title, Martina Navratilova’s eight women’s titles, Arthur Ashe, Steffi Graf and Boris Becker. John McEnroe immediately declared Rafael Nadal’s 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 conquest of Roger Federer in the 2008 men’s final to be the greatest match ever played. Others will point to McEnroe’s own 34-point tiebreaker with Bjorn Borg in the fourth set of the 1980 men’s final and 8-6 victory in the fifth. Either way, Wimbledon is the unquestioned pinnacle of the sport and even captures the attention of non-tennis fans for a fortnight.
4. The Masters – In a sport in which it seems like every third event includes the word “championship” in its title, players and fans have a common understanding about the ultimate goal — the green jacket. You could win a U.S. Open and PGA Championship, but if you haven’t survived “Amen Corner” to win at Augusta, your career isn’t complete. This is the place where legends are made. Jack Nicklaus winning in 1986 in his final appearance at a major, Tiger Woods winning by a dozen strokes, “Lefty” finally donning the coat after years of frustration. Truly a tradition unlike any other.
3. NFL Playoffs and Super Bowl – Through the 70s, 80s and 90s the Super Bowl was easily the dullest championship event in sports. Pittsburgh and Dallas played a pair of exciting games, as did San Francisco and Cincinnati. But by-and-large, the contests with Roman numerals were snoozefests. The NFL’s saving grace during that time period was the playoffs, where some games were classic, including the Immaculate Reception, detailed in A COACH AT HEART, and the original Hail Mary game. Then came the new millennium, and everything changed with Super Bowl XXXIV. St. Louis clung to a 23-16 lead, but Tennessee was driving with time running out. On a last-ditch pass and catch, Titans receiver Kevin Dyson was brought down just before the goal line, saving the victory for the Rams. Of the 15 games since, very few have been clunkers. This year’s edition, in which New England held off Seattle thanks to some mysterious play-calling by the Seahawks, was one of the all-time best championship games of any sport.
2. NCAA Tournament – College basketball’s playoffs always had their moments, from UCLA coach John Wooden’s final game to North Carolina State’s miracle put-back, Michael Jordan’s steal and Villanova’s brazen upset of Georgetown. But it was a little gray-haired guy who in 1989 inserted the madness into March for good. Princeton coach Pete Carril, the king of the backdoor cut, had his Tigers on the verge of an upset of Georgetown, but fell short when Alonzo Mourning swatted away a shot with seven seconds left. From that moment on, the Round of 64 has been must-see TV. It’s arguable that the first Thursday of the tournament might be the most fun single day in all of sports as the little guys aim for glory against the big shots. That Princeton-Georgetown game kept fans and even non-fans glued to their televisions and, to this day, is the closest a regional No. 16 seed has come to knocking out a top seed. Some 15s have turned the trick against 2s, including Richmond over Syracuse, Santa Clara over Arizona, Norfolk State over Missouri, Lehigh over Duke, Coppin State over South Carolina and Hampton over Illinois. The next day’s games, while enjoyable, never quite deliver the same hysteria, as the higher-seeded teams are generally more on alert. The tournament now generates billions for the NCAA, CBS/Turner and bookies, and American businesses lose an entire week’s worth of productivity as employees — many of whom never watch a regular-season game — fill out their brackets and later witness the destruction of their handiwork. For that, you can thank Carril and his inspiring players.
1. Baseball Playoffs/World Series – For all the talk about football overtaking baseball as America’s game, you’d never know it in October. The World Series, and the playoffs that lead up to it, are still king. Last year’s postseason performance by San Francisco pitcher Madison Bumgarner was arguably one of the two or three greatest of all time in any sport. In baseball, it’s akin to what Reggie Jackson did for the New York Yankees in 1977 and better than Jack Morris’ performance for the Twins in 1991. The World Series has featured the Red Sox coming out of nowhere the year before to salve the wounds of the Boston Marathon bombing several months earlier, only a few years after they ended their epic championship drought, Arizona’s ninth inning win over the Yankees and the Angels tense seven-game struggle with the Giants. That’s just since the turn of the century. Before that, Joe Carter’s walk-off series winner for Toronto, Cincinnati’s incredible sweep of highly favored Oakland, the Twins winning a pair of seven-game thrillers before manic crowds in Minneapolis, Bill Buckner’s error that prevented a Boston series win 18 years earlier, a bad umpire’s call the prevented a St. Louis series win over cross-state rival Kansas City, and the Big Red Machine’s seven-game slugfest, again over Boston, whose fans were treated with Carlton Fisk’s iconic Game Six winning home run. That’s not even to mention the playoffs, with the Steve Bartman game and Dave Roberts’ dramatic steal of second base. Don’t listen to what they say, no matter what, baseball still has that “it factor” when “it” counts.