It's safe to say that University of North Carolina basketball head coach Roy Williams never saw this coming. Last year his Tar Heels marauded their way to a 34-4 record and an NCAA championship behind guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Elington and power forward Tyler Hansbrough. After the season, all three of those stars went to the NBA.
Williams was well aware that this year's version of the Tar Heels was relatively young and inexperienced and that he had his work cut out for him. But Williams is both a stellar recruiter and coach. UNC would be rebuilding, but everyone, maybe especially Williams, thought they'd do it the Tar Heel way: struggle a bit here and there, but ultimately make the NCAA Tournament and defend their title. It hasn't happened that way at all.
After a solid 12-4 start to the season, the Tar Heels are 16-14 and, barring a miracle run in the ACC Tournament, will be sitting out the NCAA's Big Dance this year. The season seems to have Williams at the end of his rope. He's teared up at a press conference after a loss and called the season "the most frustrating time I've ever had in coaching."
It's a good bet that Carolina fans – accustomed to at least making the NCAA Tournament – are frustrated, too. But they're in good company. While it's unusual for a team in a major American sport to not even make the playoffs the year after a championship, it's not unique. It happens.
Greatest chumps of all
We identified the 10 biggest year-after-championship flops in the major U.S. sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, college football and basketball). Our criteria: teams that missed the playoffs the season after they won a championship. In all but one case on our list, every team coupled that ignominy with a losing season.
This list has a bit of a "good news, bad news" feel to it. Good news: Your team has very recently won a championship. Bad news? This year they stink. There's just something about a flailing defense of a championship that takes a bit of the shine off said championship. While it's unreasonable for fans of most teams to expect their squad to repeat, it's perfectly reasonable to expect them to put up a valiant fight and at least make the playoffs.
Yet these 10 teams didn't even come close.
Generally speaking, there are three main reasons for a champion's sudden demise. The first is that the team loses a star who also just happens to be one of the best ever to play in his given sport. The most glaring example of this is the Chicago Bulls, who in 1998 accomplished their second "three-peat" of the NBA Championship.
Shortly after that feat, the Bulls were dismantled. Head coach Phil Jackson left; so did players Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. But the most devastating loss of all came with the retirement of Michael Jordan, perhaps the best player ever to lace up high tops. The 1999 Bulls, predictably, were terrible, going 13-37 in a lockout-shortened year.
The 1999 Denver Broncos also fall into this category. After the 1998 Super Bowl win, quarterback John Elway called it a career. The team promptly went 6-10. (It didn't help that running back Terrell Davis tore up his knee in the fourth game of the season).
In 1979 Earvin "Magic" Johnson, then a sophomore, led the Michigan State Spartans to the NCAA basketball championship, defeating the Indiana State Sycamores led by Larry Bird. Then Magic left for the NBA and the Spartans sputtered to a 12-15 record and missed the NCAA Tournament in 1980.
Sometimes a bad season is beyond a team's control, especially if some star players sustain injuries. The 2003 Anaheim Angels, coming off their 2002 World Series triumph, lost four members of their starting lineup to injury, including stalwarts like Troy Glaus and Darin Erstad. The Angels finished with a losing record and missed the playoffs by a wide mark.
In the NFL, the 2006 Steelers, who finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs in defense of their Super Bowl win, had an injury issue, too. In the summer after their victory quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was nearly killed in a motorcycle wreck. Then, just as he was ready to return, he underwent an emergency appendectomy. The Steelers started 2-6 and never recovered.
The third way in which a team can have a bad title defense is by losing an entire group of players all at once. In college, players graduate or players go pro early. This is a big part of the problem in Chapel Hill right now. It's also what happened to the 2008 Florida Gators basketball team, which, coming off back-to-back national championships, lost all five of its starters. The team lost seven of its last 10 games and missed the NCAA Tournament (but did make the NIT, a tough-to-swallow consolation prize).
But sometimes in the pros player loss is a conscious decision. The 1998 Florida Marlins are the most egregious example (and the very reason that the team has had trouble establishing itself with fans in South Florida).
In 1997, with several high-profile players, the Marlins won the World Series in a thrilling seven-game series with the Cleveland Indians. Just weeks after the championship owner Wayne Huizenga, pleading financial woes, started the now infamous fire sale of the team's best players. Huizenga dumped Jeff Conine, Al Leiter, Moises Alou and Kevin Brown. He traded Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson and Gary Sheffield for Mike Piazza, whom they promptly shipped to the New York Mets for a bag of peanuts. The 1998 Marlins went 54-108. After the season Huizenga sold off his last item: the team itself.
The Marlins' few remaining fans were ecstatic – almost as if they were victorious all over again.
• Denver Broncos (1999): Slideshow
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2003): Slideshow
• Pittsburgh Steelers (2006): Slideshow
• Florida Marlins (1998): Slideshow
• Anaheim Angels (2003): Slideshow
• See more teams