College sports, football and basketball, had historic years to lead the way in 1983 sports. Both produced stunning upsets in championship games and each had a lasting historical legacy.
We can start with the January 1984 Orange Bowl, where Nebraska came in heavily favored and ready to solidify its place as not just national champion, but one of the all-time great teams. Miami was still an up-and-coming program at this point in their history, and the Hurricanes pulled a stunning 31-30 upset.
The Final Four had been no less dramatic. Jim Valvano’s N.C. State team had pulled out multiple miracle finishes to get to the national championship game, and Valvano pulled one more rabbit out of his hat in upsetting heavily favored Houston 54-52 to steal a title of his own.
Miami’s victory became an obvious historical benchmark in the sea change of college football toward the state of Florida. The sleeping giant, that had traditionally watched other schools raid them for recruits, had started keeping players at home. Miami, along with Florida State and Florida would transform the landscape of the sport.
N.C. State’s upset was the fulfillment of nine years of the NCAA Tournament being a time for favorites to win, to being “March Madness.” Recent seasons had produced surprise Final Four teams and even entire regionals torn apart by upsets. But the ultimate national champion had always been a highly seeded team—until 1983.
Read more about the 1984 Orange Bowl
Read more about 1983 N.C. State basketball
College football and college basketball weren’t done—each had compelling subplots to their dramatic main narratives. On the football side, the Texas Longhorns produced a defense that was at least as good as Nebraska’s offense and if this had happened in 1994 or later, the two teams would have met in a national championship battle.
They didn’t, and Texas went to the Cotton Bowl to play Georgia. Something often forgotten about Miami’s rise is that if Texas doesn’t fumble a punt late in the fourth quarter, and turn a 9-3 lead into a crushing 10-9 loss, the Hurricane upset becomes noteworthy in that it gives unbeaten UT a national title.
Also forgotten in the 1983 narrative is that Auburn got robbed. The Tigers went 10-1, as did Miami, and won their bowl game as did Miami. While the Hurricanes’ victory was considerably more dramatic and against a much better opponent (Auburn beat Big Ten runner-up Michigan in the Sugar Bowl), Auburn had played eight bowl teams to Miami’s one during the regular season. There was no comparison in the body of work and the Tigers should have been voted national champions.
The NCAA Tournament’s Mideast Regional didn’t produce the national champ or even a finalist, but when you combine the quality of the games, the fierceness of the rivals and the locale, it made it arguably the best regional ever, at least the Sweet 16 and regional final rounds.
Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana and Arkansas all converged on Knoxville. That’s a lot of tradition, a lot of passion and a lot of fans in reasonable travel distance of the site. All three games were good, and Louisville-Kentucky in the final was a great overtime battle that had even more juice, given that UK refused to play Louisville at this time.
Read more about the 1983 Mideast Regional (and other top regionals in NCAA Tournament lore)
The Stanley Cup Finals and the Super Bowl each offered compelling matchups between teams that had been circling each other.
In hockey, the New York Islanders had won three straight Stanley Cups, while the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky were steadily rising, but a playoff upset the prior year kept them from their showdown with the Isles.
In the NFL, the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Raiders were each the #1 seeds in their respective conferences in 1982, but it was the Raiders who were upset in the playoffs. In 1983, both teams again got the 1-seeds, and this time they both cashed it in.
Neither championship event lived up to the drama—the Islanders won in a sweep, while the Raiders won 38-9.
The NFL’s 1983 rookie quarterback class–notably John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly–is correctly remembered as the greatest QB class in history. What’s less remembered is that one team, with an undrafted quarterback and built around the running game upended two of these quarterbacks in the postseason. The Seattle Seahaws beat Elway and Marino in succession before losing to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game.
Read more about the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals
Read more about the Redskins-Raiders Super Bowl
Read more about the 1983 Seattle Seahawks
And finally, two veteran teams that had been knocking on the championship door finally kicked the door down in 1983.
The Philadelphia 76ers had lost the NBA Finals in 1977, 1980 and 1982, and dropped a crushing Eastern Conference Finals in 1981. The Baltimore Orioles lost a heartbreaking World Series in 1979, and tough pennant races in both 1980 and 1982. Both the 76ers and Orioles got their due in 1983.
1983 Philadelphia 76ers
1983 Baltimore Orioles