Populist rage is in vogue this political season, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders making headways in both party primaries. And if you like a good little populist rebellion, you’d have loved the year that was 1981 sports, especially in football.
College football saw the peasants storm the castle and burn the place to the ground. Clemson rose up and won the national championship. Iowa broke the Michigan-Ohio State lock on the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl bid. SMU, even though on probation, won the old Southwest Conference that was long dominated by Texas and Arkansas. Traditional powers like Notre Dame began to slip. In many ways, a new era of college football began in 1981.
The NFL saw a similar insurgency. The San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals each went from 6-10 the previous year to making the Super Bowl. For the 49ers, the turnaround was even more profound. They beat the Dallas Cowboys in an epic NFC Championship Game battle that marked a changing of the guard. Dallas had been the NFC’s power of the 1970s. With this win, San Francisco started on a path to becoming the Team of the 80s.
In our day, an opening NCAA Tournament weekend of upsets is exciting, but hardly unprecedented. That wasn’t the case in 1981. We had seen a surprise Final Four team (Penn in 1979) and an even a Final Four stacked with middling seeds (1980). But nothing prepared us for what came about in the second round of the 1981 NCAA Tournament.
Eight favorites fell in the Round of 32. The most dramatic displays were 1-seeds DePaul and Oregon State losing, along with defending national champion Louisville. These losses all take place at the buzzer and within seconds of each other. In an unforgettable succession, DePaul lost by one on a layup by St. Joe’s John Smith. Oregon State fell when Rolando Blackman of Kansas State hit a jumper on the baseline.
And most stunning of all, was Louisville, up by a point, watching the halfcourt heave of Arkansas’ U.S. Reed go in. Best of all, NBC, in its final year of televising the tournament, was able to rapidly switch viewers from site to site, so we saw them all live.
Even the NBA playoffs, long a haven for favorites, wasn’t immune. The Houston Rockets snuck into the postseason at 40-42. Behind the great center Moses Malone, the Rockets upended Magic Johnson and the Lakers and ended up winning the Western Conference.
Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders might be raising hell today. But it was nothing compared to what Joe Montana, Bill Walsh, Danny Ford, Hayden Fry, Moses Malone, U.S. Reed and a lot of others did to the American sports landscape in 1981.