The San Francisco 49ers looked destined to win a third straight Super Bowl, an unprecedented achievement. Or, rather than destined, the Niners looked too good to be stopped. The New York Giants got in the way.
Bill Parcells took his Giants’ team west for the 1990 NFC Championship Game and in a dramatic finish, got a 15-13 win without scoring a touchdown and winning on a last-second field goal. The three-peat bid was denied and still waits for the first team to pull off the feat.
Parcells’ team then matched up with the Buffalo Bills, who had an explosive offense and even the bad weather in their home city hadn’t stopped the Bills from dropping 95 points in two playoff wins. Buffalo was favored by more than a touchdown. Once again, New York pulled a rabbit out of their hat, this time watching an opponent miss a last-play field goal attempt to win or lose.
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College football didn’t have a heavy favorite the way the NFL did with the 49ers, but the collegiate year was even more chaotic. Teams got multiple chances at being #1 and a crazy New Year’s Night ended up with a disputed penalty call and a split national championship.
The ending might have been bizarre, but the ride was great, and the college football season was marked by the last installment of the great Notre Dame-Miami rivalry, with both schools involved in the national title discussion all year long. Their final game was a good one and the aftermath showed that the bad blood between the fan bases wasn’t going away just because the games were
That final Notre Dame-Miami game took place on the last night of the World Series. In a year where the NFL season was marked by consecutive big upsets and where the college landscape went into complete upheaval, can you blame baseball for wanting to get in on the upset fun? The Oakland A’s came into the 1990 World Series a heavy favorite to win a repeat title, and indeed the Fall Classic ended up in a sweep…only it was the Cincinnati Reds who won in four straight.
Read more about the 1990 college football season
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The Edmonton Oilers had traded Wayne Gretzky after a Stanley Cup run in 1988 and a coaching change followed the 1989 season. The Oilers still had a lot of the same cast from the team that won four Cups in six years, but the changes were significant. Edmonton’s remaining players, starting with team leader Mark Messier, showed what they were made of when they won Cup—the fifth for the dynasty, but the first without Wayne.
In the NBA, the Detroit Pistons were another team with something to prove, but for different reasons. The Pistons, like the Oilers were a recent champion—in this case, the defending NBA champ. But Detroit wasn’t seen in the same light as their predecessors, Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers or Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Nor are the “Bad Boy Pistons” seen in the same light as their successor, Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
But the Pistons did show they weren’t a flash in the pan, not when they eliminated Chicago for the second straight year and not when they won a second straight NBA title by winning three straight road games in Portland.
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The NCAA Tournament had some great moments along the way—notably the East Regional, where UConn first won a Sweet 16 game on a last-second shot and then lost the regional final when the same was done to them. It was a heady finish to UConn’s first year as a serious contender for a national title.
But there was no drama in the championship game, only the celebration of greatness. UNLV won the first national title for head coach Jerry Tarkanian and did it by destroying Duke, 103-73.
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A footnote to the year that was 1990 sports was that two Rustbelt cities saw their teams make a big impact, and that was the Buffalo Bills reaching the Super Bowl and the Pittsburgh Pirates reaching the National League Championship Series. It looked like both teams were here to stay for a while as contenders, and that’s exactly what happened.
But unfortunately, neither would get the past level reached in 1990, as the Bills would continue to win AFC Championships (a record four straight), yet continue to lose in the Super Bowl. And the Pirates reached three consecutive NLCS’, and lost all three, each one more painful than the one that became before it.