List: Top Five Crushing Disappointments For St. Louis Sports Fans

This is going to hurt a while.

It was supposed to be Mizzou’s year: a team full of seniors who played above expectations all season, ranked No. 3 nationally going into the NCAA Basketball Tournament. They were poised to become the first Missouri team to make it to the Final Four.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, an ignominious loss in the first round to a No. 15 seed, only the fifth time in history that has ever happened. No, this will not be soon forgotten.

Is it the worst disappointment ever for a St. Louis or Missouri sports team? I can’t say that right now—way too fresh. It will definitely be in the top five. The others? Here are a few I can pull from my memory right now.

5) Steve Swisher. It was the end of the 1974 baseball regular season, and the Cardinals had a shot to make the playoffs. But in order for them to make it, they needed the Pirates to lose their last game, and the Cardinals would have to win an earlier-postponed game, and then beat the Pirates in a playoff. It was a longshot, but they had a shot.

Unfortunately, though, the Pirates were playing the Cubs in that last game. And even then, the Cubs were about to win it. I forget the exact circumstances, but it was either the ninth or 10th inning (here’s the box score); there was some kind of dispute or misplay that so enraged Cubs catcher Steve Swisher that he took his glove off and slammed it on the ground. Problem was, the ball was in the glove, the play was still live, and Pittsburgh had runners on base. One of the runners scored, Pittsburgh won the game, and like that, the Cardinals’ season was over. (Steve Swisher later became a Cardinal, but I never forgave him.)

4) The St. Louis Stallions. We were all hyped up; we’d lost the football Cardinals a few years earlier, but that was OK because they were an embarrassment. By the mid-90s, St. Louis was poised to land an expansion NFL team. We had a new stadium all planned out, and even a name for the team: the St. Louis Stallions. But when the NFL made the announcement of its expansion team, it was Jacksonville, Fla., that got the nod instead of St. Louis. Jacksonville! We ultimately had to resort to stealing a team from Los Angeles.

3) Tyus Edney. Mizzou was looking surprisingly good in the 1995 NCAA tournament; they’d beaten Indiana in the first round, and were beating up on No. 1 seed UCLA in the second round, dominating for basically the whole game. Their bracket had had several early upsets, and if Mizzou could pull off the upset over UCLA, they had a clear path to the Final Four.

But with 4.8 seconds to go, UCLA was within one point. They inbounded the ball to guard Tyus Edney, who raced untouched the length of the court for a layup. Wikipedia called it “one of the most famous plays in NCAA Tournament history.” Game over, season over, and yet another early exit from the tournament for the Tigers.  UCLA, of course, waltzed down that path that had stretched in front of Missouri, and the Bruins ended up winning the national championship that year.

2) Super Bowl XXXVI. You also read about it here. The Rams were an even better team that season than the team that had won it all two years earlier, and they were playing a Patriots team that had come out of nowhere, a team that, except for one Super Bowl appearance more than 15 years earlier, had spent its whole existence in NFL obscurity. It should have been a cakewalk for the Rams. But somehow the Patriots made a game of it, and as the clock wound down toward the final gun, there was Adam Vinateri, kicking the field goal that Rams fans will never forget.

1) 1985 World Series. Like those 2001 Rams, the 1985 Cardinals had probably their best lineup in years, and were playing a team they should have dominated. They took a 3-2 lead into the sixth game of the series, needing only one more win to clinch the championship. But we all know what happened. An umpire’s bad call near the end of Game 6, and then a complete physical and emotional collapse in Game 7, and they had lost the World Series to the Kansas City Royals.

Personally, I was devastated. After that World Series, I vowed to never again take sports so seriously. I never wanted to feel that kind of depression again, over something that’s, arguably, so unimportant.

Of course, if I could tamp down the importance of a sports loss, that would mean the significance of a sports victory would also necessarily be diminished. Therefore, when the Cardinals do return to the World Series and emerge with rings—which didn’t happen for a full 21 years after that ’85 debacle—I’ll celebrate, but I won’t go crazy about it.

I’ll—WE’LL—get over this Mizzou loss. We’ll move past the disappointment we’re feeling now. The next few weeks will be tough, as we watch lesser teams advance through the tournament to the Final Four. But in the end, we’ll put it behind us. Maybe Mizzou will have a strong recruiting class, and have a great season next year and get back into the tournament with a legitimate shot. Or maybe it will take a few years. One day, though, they’ll make it to the Final Four and perhaps win it all. “Every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.” We just have to be optimistic.

Do I really believe this? No, not today.

College Football Champs

Yesterday was January 1, and we now have a new NCAA Division I football champion. Congratulations to the ________ of ________ University, who persevered through a grueling playoff run against top teams in each round, and then dominated _________ in the final game to win the well-deserved championship trophy.

Oh wait, that’s not the way it works.

Although every other sports league in the world — including every other NCAA sport (even the other divisions in football) — has a structured playoff system in which the leading contenders play each other in a series of games to determine a champion, the NCAA has polls of coaches and sportswriters, and then a trumped-up “championship game.” to decide who will be the No. 1 team in Division I football.

It’s a ridiculous scheme, and it’s only allowed to continue because people actually continue to watch the exhibitions that are put up as “bowl games.”

Let’s take the National Football League by comparison. The NFL will begin its playoff schedule next weekend. Four of the 12 teams in the post-season tournament will have byes the first week. The rest will play win-or-go-home games, and after the weekend, the tournament will be down to eight teams. The next weekend will feature four games, and then two games the following weekend, leading up to the Super Bowl on February 6. Each of the games will feature the league’s elite teams facing each other in high-stakes games; you win, or your season is over. At the end of it all, the winner will have had to run a gauntlet of three or four tough games against top competition over a period of five weeks. The Vince Lombardi trophy actually means something.

In the NCAA Division I, on the other hand, we’ve had a gaggle of exhibition games featuring second-tier teams to fill the time between the real season and the “championship game.” On New Year’s Day alone, there were two games in which both teams had 7-5 records. The two teams who have been anointed to play in the so-called championship game — Oregon and Auburn — played their last games on December 4. That means it will be more than five weeks before they play the game that will supposedly determine the championship of college football.

Five weeks. Where else in sports is there a five-week gap between games?

I won’t be watching. And frankly, I don’t know why anyone would.

Bracket For The NCAA Football Championship

(Note: This is the Who, What, Where and When. The Why can be found here)

Honestly, this is so easy those NCAA guys could do it in their sleep. Take the top 12 teams, rank ’em, and pit ’em against each other, giving the top four a first-week bye. The second week, No. 1 plays the winner of 5 vs. 12, No. 2 plays the winner of 6 vs. 11, etc.

Hey, if you want to, you can expand it to 16 teams. Or 24 teams, giving eight teams a first-round bye. But by then your post-season is getting pretty long — this isn’t the NBA, after all — so I would keep it at four rounds.

But what about poor Virginia Tech, you ask? They finished 13 in the rankings, with only two losses on the season. Haven’t we arbitrarily eliminated a team that had a legitimate right to consider itself one of the top 12 teams in the country? Aren’t they cheated by this system?

Yes, that case could be made. I will concede that there will always be arguments about teams in the ‘teens under this system. For this bracket, I’ve used the final BCS rankings. The NCAA can use whatever ranking system it wants; it doesn’t matter a whole lot, because if a team ends the regular season ranked 13th and gets eliminated from the championship playoffs, it’s not like anyone could say they were a legitimate contender to be No. 1. They were a legitimate contender to be No. 5, perhaps, but who really cares about No. 5?

The teams who are legit contenders, though, will have the chance to prove themselves, on the field, where it matters. Every year there are a handful of them, and only two get to actually play for the “championship.” Under this easy-to-implement system, 12 teams will.

For this exercise, I’ve tried to locate the games in warm-weather cities, preferably in cities that already have bowl games, and avoiding domes as much as possible. The top-ranked teams get the location that’s the closest to their campus. For some of the early games, we can even call them “bowls” if the NCAA thinks it will generate more revenue, but I think the fact that they’re mileposts along the road to a true college championship will make them important enough. The championship game is on January 1, the traditional final day of the college football season.

So here’s the prospective lineup:

WEEK 1 (December 11)
Game 1, Memphis, Tenn. (We’ll call it the Liberty Bowl): Wisconsin (5) vs. Missouri (12)
Game 2, Tampa, Fla.  (Tampa Bowl): Ohio State (6) vs. LSU (11)
Game 3, San Antonio, Texas (Alamo Bowl): Oklahoma (7) vs. Boise State (10)
Game 4, San Francisco, Calif. (California Bowl): Arkansas (8) vs. Michigan State (9)
First round Bye: Auburn (1), Oregon (2), TCU (3) and Stanford (4)

Week 2 (December 18)
Game 5, Jacksonville, Fla. (Gator Bowl): Auburn (1) vs. Game 4 winner
Game 6, San Diego, Calif. (Holiday Bowl) Oregon (2) vs. Game 3 winner
Game 7,  Dallas, Texas. (Cotton Bowl): TCU vs. Game 2 winner
Game 8, New Orleans, La. (Sugar Bowl): Stanford vs. Game 1 winner

Week 3 (December 24)
Game 9, Miami, Fla: Game 5 winner vs. Game 8 winner
Game 10, Pasadena, Calif.: Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner

Week 4 (January 1)
National Championship, Glendale Ariz.

Get your office pools ready!

Boycott The Bowls!

NCAA Division 1 Football is only sports league that holds its meaningless exhibition games at the end of the season, rather than the beginning of the season.

Check ’em out: there are 34 college bowl games, beginning with the “New Mexico Bowl” on December 18, right on through the “Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl” on January 9 … and that’s not counting the so-called “BCS National Championship Game” on January 10.

The latter, of course, is a national championship in name only. It will not feature two teams who have had to fight through a playoff process to reach the title game; instead, they will be teams who have been selected through an arbitrary process involving computer rankings and votes from so-called experts, for whom one criterion will no doubt be teams that will produce a large television audience.

More importantly, these two teams will have been IDLE for five or six weeks before the game, rather than playing a series of elimination games building up to a final matchup, the way it’s done in every other league on the planet. Think about it: this is supposedly the most important game of the year, but the teams will have seen no competitive action for more than a month beforehand. During this five or six weeks, the rest of us are supposedly being distracted by farces such as the “Pinstripe Bowl” or the (I kid you not) “Beef O’Brady’s Bowl.” I can’t wait to see the pride on the faces of the players who win that one, walking off the field with their gleaming Beef O’Brady’s trophy to take back to their school’s awards cabinet.

Thirty-five games means 70 teams will be playing “post-season” football this year. Are there 70 post-season-worthy teams in Division 1? A few years ago the NCAA instituted a laughable rule that teams can’t be invited to bowl games unless they win six games during their regular season. Honestly, it would be hard to set that bar any lower. So we now have the spectacle of truly mediocre teams hoping to get their sixth win so they can be “bowl-eligible” and maybe, with a 6-5 record, get an invitation to the “Humanitarian Bowl.”

Forgive us, NCAA, if we don’t watch this dreck.

Actually, the only way this system ever gets changed is if we DON’T watch it. And I don’t mean turning off the “Hawaii Bowl” so we can spend some time with our families on Christmas Eve. That’s an easy call, just as skipping 95 percent of these crappy matchups will be. But we as a sports-fan nation need to go all the way and turn our backs on January 10 when the Anointed Two face off in the so-called championship game. This game is no more meaningful than the other 34 games; it will not produce a true national champion.

I say ignore ’em all. Let that January 10 game have a ratings share of zero. Then maybe the NCAA will wise up and hold a real national championship.