Was Clemson-Alabama the best national championship college football game we’ve ever seen? It’s a question that’s already being asked in the aftermath of DeShaun Watson’s improbable fourth-quarter heroics against that great Crimson Tide defense. It seems like it’s a familiar question. Was Villanova-North Carolina back in April the best NCAA basketball final ever? What about Game 7 of the Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals? Or that incredible seventh game of the World Series when the Cubs survived the Indians?
Let’s give this question a broader perspective. Are we too absorbed in the moment of today? Or is 2016 truly the greatest year most of us have ever seen in all of sports?
I’ve been watching sports since the mid-to-late 1970s and have gone back through the archives to find another year where we could find four championship events that could make the same claim to greatness that the quartet of Villanova-North Carolina, Cavs-Warriors, Cubs-Indians and Clemson-Alabama can make. And the conclusion is indisputable—this is the best sports year we have ever seen.
I could only find two years where you could put together a list of four compelling championship finshes and even those required a certain level of generosity to get that far…
1993: We had two indisputably fantastic finishes in the college sports world. Michigan basketball’s Fab Five lost the NCAA Final on the infamous Chris Webber timeout he didn’t have that gave the title to North Carolina.
College football came down to Florida State-Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Seminoles kicked a field goal in the closing moments, then let the Cornhuskers get into field goal range. Then FSU thought the clock had expired and doused head coach Bobby Bowden in Gatorade. Then officials put a second back on the clock and the Cornhuskers attempted a win-or-lose 45-yard field goal while the opposing coach was drenched in celebratory fluids. The kick missed.
We had two more very memorable finishes in the NBA Finals and World Series, in what was effectively “The Year of the Walkoff.” The Chicago Bulls won Michael Jordan’s third NBA title on John Paxson’s three-pointer to win it in the closing seconds. The Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series on a walkoff blast by Joe Carter. The Bulls and Blue Jays both trailed at the moment of the heroics, so it wasn’t as though either had overtime/extra innings assured.
But in both cases it was Game 6 that the clinching moment occurred. They’re both still very special moments—Chicago would have had to play a road Game 7 against Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns and Carter’s Blue Jays might have had to see Philadelphia’s Curt Schilling coming out of the bullpen on two days’ rest for Game 7, a la Madison Bumgarner in 2014. But in both cases the ultimate winner would have still been favored in the seventh game.
2011: The World Series was great, with the Cardinals rallying to break the Rangers’ hearts. The Boston Bruins upset heavily favored Vancouver in a seven-game Stanley Cup Finals. The second edition of Patriots-Giants in the Super Bowl again resulted in a late Eli Manning drive to win a trophy, waking up the memories of 2007. And in the NBA Finals, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks stunned LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the first year of The Big Three in South Beach.
Not bad. But again, it required some caveats. The heroics of Cardinal third baseman David Freese in the World Series came in the sixth game. St. Louis won a rather boring Game 7 easily. The seventh game of Bruins-Canucks was another easy win, with only those of us who pull for Boston really sweating it out. And the NBA Finals still ended in six games and Game 6 wasn’t all that close. If the NBA weren’t normally so favorite-friendly, this wouldn’t even be worth a mention.
There are still two more caveats that have to be added that further benefit the case for 2016. How about we start with the fact that the sports calendar isn’t even done yet. The Super Bowl winner will still be recognized as a 2016 champion. We might have more thrills on deck.
Furthermore, 1993 and 2011 each had some real clunkers in the mix as well. The 1993 Stanley Cup Finals were a walkover for the Montreal Canadiens and the Super Bowl was the second straight year the Dallas Cowboys thumped the Buffalo Bills.
In 2011, the college championship games—UConn-Butler in hoops and LSU-Alabama in football were two of the ugliest title games you’ll ever want to see. The only event of 2016 that didn’t make the list was the Pittsburgh-San Jose matchup in the Stanley Cup Finals and even that one wasn’t all that bad, going six games before the Penguins hoisted the Cup and saved the legacy of their stars.
So if you’ve been repeatedly proclaiming games as “the best ever” and wondering if you’ve turned into a shortsighted media talking head, relax. You’re not. If you define a sports year by the caliber of its championship events then you are watching the best one ever.