The year in 1979 sports carries a special place in basketball lore, as Michigan State’s Magic Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird met in the NCAA final that drew the highest TV ratings in the history of that event and set the stage for a new era in the NBA. That’s fair enough as the prime story of the year. There are a few things that we shouldn’t lose sight of though.
The first is that the 1979 Final Four provided some other good storylines, with DePaul’s longtime head coach Ray Meyer making his first and only trip to college basketball’s showcase and Penn became the most recent team to reach the Final Four, winning the NCAA Tournament’s first-ever “gutted bracket.”
We also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Michigan State was far and away the best team. The Magic-Bird storyline works when we take the broader historical view, but the Spartans were decisively college basketball’s best.
And finally, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there was another great champion in college sports, and one that deserves a place in sports history. Bear Bryant’s 1979 Alabama football team dominated its schedule, won the Sugar Bowl going away and won their second straight national title.
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Two great dynasties of the 1970s had their final ride in 1979. The Montreal Canadiens won their fourth straight Stanley Cup, and the Pittsburgh Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl title in six years. Each team got stiffer tests than normal this season, and each benefitted from significant upsets that eliminated their most potent threat.
Montreal was not the NHL’s best in the regular season for the first time in their dynastic run, but the New York Islanders proved to be not-quite-ready for prime time. The Islanders were on the doorstep of a dynasty of their own and it would have been great to watch them battle Montreal in 1979. But the New York Rangers got in the way, and upset their crosstown rival in the semifinals, opening the path for another Canadien championship.
Pittsburgh saw the Houston Oilers close the gap on them in the AFC, and if we looked ahead to the Super Bowl, there was the potential for a Steelers-Cowboys battle.
It would have been a rematch and the third time in five years the two franchises had met in the NFL’s biggest game. The fact this was the last year for legendary Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach would have only added to the drama. But the Cowboys were stunned by the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs and it eased Pittsburgh’s path.
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The Steelers weren’t the only team the city of Pittsburgh had to cheer. The Steel City enjoyed a rare Super Bowl-World Series Parlay, as the Pittsburgh Pirates were baseball’s best, making an exciting run to win the NL East title, and then winning three straight elimination games to take the World Series.
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In the NBA, a standard reading of sports history tells us that the league desperately needed the impending arrival of Magic and Bird. From a marquee standpoint, there’s no disputing that, but from a standpoint of competitive balance, the979 NBA postseason was exciting. The semifinals and finals of the Eastern Conference went the full seven games, as did the finals in the Western Conference. The 1979 NBA Finals were anticlimactic, with the Seattle Supersonics winning the championship in five games, but the playoff ride was an interesting one.
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