It is one of the most fulfilling redemption stories in sports history, from a historic low one year to the highest of highs the very next. But is it the greatest year-to-year turnaround ever?
We set out to answer that question as Kyle Guy and Tony Bennett snipped nets in Minneapolis.
First, we established the criteria. We limited the list to team sports; to mainstream sports; and, for the most part, to modern eras – though we cheated on that last stipulation a bit.
And as for how we defined “turnaround”? In two ways. There are the literal worst-to-first turnarounds, from last place one season to champions the very next. But there are also the emotional turnarounds – the titles made all the more memorable by past heartbreak.
The one consistent qualification was a championship. And not of the conference or division variety. The culmination of the turnaround had to conclude with a team on top of its league, with the grandest of prizes in hand.
With all that in mind, here’s what we came up with as the top 17 turnaround stories in sports history. And please do tell us what we missed.
T-17. 2014-15 Duke and 1986-87 Indiana men’s basketball
We’ll start with the closest things we have to a Virginia equivalent, mostly to show just how unparalleled this Cavs story really is. Indiana won the 1987 national title a year after being upset in the NCAA tournament’s first round by 14th-seeded Cleveland State. Duke triumphed in 2015 a year after falling to 14th-seeded Mercer. (We could even add 2002-03 Syracuse to this list; the Orange didn’t even make the tourney the previous season.)
But whereas this Virginia team was led by the same kids who’d lived for 12 months in a UMBC-shaped shadow, the faces of those Duke teams were two different casts of one-and-dones. And a 14-over-3 just isn’t all that uncommon. So while the Dukies and Hoosiers experienced both ends of the emotional spectrum, there wasn’t anything mind-bending about the turnarounds.
16. 1991 Minnesota Twins
The Twins finished the 1990 season at 74-88. Twelve months later, they had the best record in baseball. A month after that, on the back of Jack Morris’ 10-inning gem and Gene Larkin’s walk-off winner, they were World Series champs.
15. 2008 Team USA men’s basketball
The U.S. lost more men’s basketball games at the 2004 Olympics than it had in the competition’s entire history. It was shockingly demolished by Puerto Rico in its opener. It suffered a second round-robin loss to Lithuania, then fell to Argentina in the semifinals. Head coach Larry Brown was “humiliated.” American fans were equal parts baffled and furious.
The failure in Athens gave rise to the “Redeem Team,” which won gold in 2008. Of course, that was the expectation and is every four years. But 2004 made it a more valuable and memorable accomplishment.
14. 2012 Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens had the Patriots on the ropes in the 2011 season’s AFC championship game. In the final 30 seconds, Lee Evans had a game-winning touchdown catch in his hands. A few plays after he failed to corral it, Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime.
But the following year – with Cundiff cut over the offseason – Joe Flacco and a dominant defense led Baltimore to a Super Bowl title.
13. 1969 New York Mets
In 1968, the Mets, in their seventh year of existence, lost 89 games – the second-worst mark in the National League. The following season, they won 100 and stunned all of baseball by capturing their first World Series crown.
12. 2001 New England Patriots
Bill Belichick’s first season in New England, with Tom Brady running the scout team, had been a forgettable 5-11 slog. The following year, after starting the season 0-2, the Patriots sat dead last in some NFL power rankings. But that’s when Brady took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe. He went 11-3 the rest of the way and won his first of six (and counting?) Super Bowls.
11. 2013 Boston Red Sox
The 2012 Boston Red Sox were an expensive, Bobby Valentine-led train wreck. The 2011 team had staged an epic collapse as starting pitchers reportedly drank, ate fried chicken and played video games in the clubhouse. The 2012 team was just flat-out bad. And the 2013 team? World champs, after a glorious 97-win regular season, for the third time in 10 years.
10. 2018 Team USA men’s curling
Remember John Shuster? And the American curling heroes that stole the show at the 2018 Olympics? Four years earlier, they were flops. they finished second-to-last at the Olympic tournament in Sochi. Following their 2-7 performance, Shuster and multiple teammates were axed from the squad. But the cuts birthed “The Rejects.” Shuster and his buds won the 2015 U.S. national championships, finished third at worlds in 2016, and completed the turnaround with gold medals in PyeongChang.
9. 2003 Detroit Shock
The most remarkable aspect of the Shock’s literal worst-to-first climb – from 9-23, 16th out of 16, to 25-9 and WNBA champions – was that they made it with a core similar to the one that was so pitiful in 2002. Basketball turnarounds almost always require overhauls. This one didn’t.
8. 1981 San Francisco 49ers
Before the Niners were one of the Super Bowl era’s most successful franchises, they were on a three-year run of 10 total wins. They’d trudged through two consecutive 2-14 seasons, then went 6-10 in 1980. In ‘81, Joe Montana led San Francisco to a 13-3 record and the team’s first Lombardi trophy.
7. 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers
This is where we cheat. Dip back in time a bit further than we said we would. And extend the “year-to-year” part of our criteria out over an entire decade. Because the Dodgers deserve a mention here.
Over the 10 seasons culminating in 1955, Brooklyn, in chronological order, A) lost the first-ever playoff series to break a regular-season tie and decide a National League pennant; B) lost back-to-back World Series to the detested Yankees; C) lost the NL pennant on the last day of a season to the Phillies; D) blew a 13-game August lead, then lost another heartbreaker to a city rival, this time the New York Giants, on Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”; E) lost a third World Series to the Yankees, this time in seven games; F) lost a fourth to the Yankees; and G) lost another NL pennant to the Giants.
So imagine the feeling when the Dodgers finally won their first championship, in another seven-game thriller, at Yankee Stadium, on Johnny Podres’ nine-inning shutout. Now that’s a (decade-long) redemption story.
6. 2007-08 Boston Celtics
The Celtics’ 58-win year-over-year improvement – from 24-58 in 2006-07, to 66-16 plus 16 playoff wins in 07-08 – was astounding. Of course, it was largely a product of blockbuster offseason trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. But nonetheless, the reversal of fortunes for the fan base, for then-Celtics lifer Paul Pierce, and for head coach Doc Rivers was stark.
5. 1999 St. Louis Rams
The biggest single-season win-loss turnaround in NFL history. With Kurt Warner at the helm, Dick Vermeil in his ear, and Marshall Faulk acquired over the offseason, the Rams took 4-12 and made it 13-3. They capped the worst-to-first run with a Super Bowl championship.
4. 2011-12 Montpellier
How subpar was French soccer club Montpellier in 2010-11? About as subpar as the price of its starting 11 – less than $10 million – would suggest. So subpar that the club’s owner, prior to the start of the 2011-12 campaign, said he’d dye his hair blue and orange if the team won France’s Ligue 1.
At the time, it seemed like a pretty safe bet. Montpellier had finished only three points above the league’s bottom three in 2010-11. It had spent only $2.25 million on players over the offseason while PSG, one of the league’s favorites, had spent $113 million. Nonetheless, behind 21 goals from a previously unknown Olivier Giroud ...
Louis Nicollin (Owner) of Montpellier HSC lives up to his word and dyes his hair in club colors after winning Ligue 1 pic.twitter.com/90BiGnnv
— moha' 🚮 (@_m0ha) May 22, 2012
3. 2018-19 Virginia men’s basketball
On one hand, this is far from a worst-to-first tale. Virginia has been college basketball’s most consistent program over the past six years. Last year’s loss to UMBC was so monumental because it was so unexpected – the Cavs were the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
But this turnaround is unparalleled, the range of emotions so vast and overwhelming that its scope is almost imperceptible. Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde put it as succinctly and eloquently as can be on Monday night:
From worst (loss) to first, the Virginia redemption story is one for the ages. From laughingstock to last team standing is the stuff of legend. From the historic nadir of March Madness to its zenith — in the most dramatic manner imaginable — is a profound example of what makes sports so irresistible.
2. 2004 Boston Red Sox
The curse-breakers epitomized redemption. The Sox had been slapped around by the Yankees for years. The 2003 postseason brought more heartache than ever before. In an infamous ALCS Game 7 between the two AL East rivals, Grady Little left a bereft Pedro Martinez in to give up three game-tying runs in an ill-fated eighth inning. Aaron Boone’s walk-off moonshot in the 11th off Tim Wakefield was, for 12 months, the stuff of excruciating New England nightmares.
And when that opportunity for redemption arose a year later? The Sox lost 2004 ALCS Game 1. And Game 2. And Game 3. They dug a hole nobody had ever dug out of. But Boston did, with two extra-inning David Ortiz walk-offs, a bloody sock, and a Game 7 blowout. It went on to sweep the Cardinals for its first World Series title since 1918.
This was the stuff of legends. And although it was far from a worst-to-first turnaround, it was probably the biggest year-to-year emotional swing in the history of sports.
1. 2015-16 Leicester City
There is no such thing as a true worst-to-first tale in European soccer. Because in the majority of leagues around the world, relegation-promotion systems mean that the worst teams in a given division one season get booted to a lower tier for the next.
That’s the fate 2014-15 Leicester City faced when it spent 19 consecutive weeks, spanning autumn to spring, at the bottom of the English Premier League table. It had to rise from 20th to at least 17th to avoid “the drop.” It did just that with a remarkable seven wins in its last nine ... then went on to upset English soccer’s seemingly set-in-stone hierarchy by claiming the 2015-16 Premier League title against 5,000-to-1 odds.
While Virginia’s and Boston’s turnarounds were historic, this one was impossible. Until it wasn’t.
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