Written by Joe Kleinsasser Wednesday, 19 March 2008 08:14
The odds are stacked against them, but some underdogs overcome the odds.
Perhaps they catch lightning in a bottle, or the more talented opponent has an off day, or a combination of both, but upsets happen.
Upsets are synonymous with March Madness, but the favorites usually win for a reason: They’re better. The beauty of sports is that any team can win on any given day. And while underdogs may win a game or two or even three, it’s nearly impossible for an underdog to win six consecutive games and a national championship.
What’s interesting is how many teams latch on to the underdog role, and why not? There’s no shame if you lose to a better and more talented team, while there is some embarrassment and more disappointment if you lose to a lesser team.
The underdog loves to play the “We don’t get any respect” card. It’s not always true, but it’s a card that gets played frequently.
It’s almost comical when teams playing in the Super Bowl play that card.
The talent differential among the top teams at the professional level is minimal at best.
In college basketball, it’s hard to call Gonzaga an underdog anymore, but credit the Zags for giving a boost to the so-called mid-majors.
A small college in Seattle, Gonzaga first made waves in 1999. As a 10th seed that year, Gonzaga made the Elite Eight. A year later the Zags were once again a 10th seed, but didn’t lose until the Sweet 16. In 2001, Gonzaga was a 12th seed, but again reached the Sweet 16 before losing.
Gonzaga has never reached the Final Four, and it has not duplicated its success of 1999-2001, but it showed that mid-majors could complete at the highest levels against the best teams.
Some would argue that George Mason is the first true Cinderella to make the Final Four, although Indiana State, with Larry Bird, made it all the way to the championship game.
And in 1966, Texas Western College, now called the University of Texas-El Paso, made history by becoming the first team in history to win the NCAA championship with five African American starters. Most people didn’t even know Texas Western existed at the beginning of the season.
Texas Western was the first southern state school to integrate its college athletic teams, and in 1966 the campus was only 1 percent African American. The basketball team dealt with racism not only on the road, but at home as well. Everyone, it seemed, wanted them to lose.
There’s a fine line between underdog and unknown. I think of an underdog as being outmanned, with no business winning. Texas Western may be more in the unknown category. Their talent was such that they were legitimate title contenders, but they came from nowhere and caught people by surprise.
So which underdog can claim the top upset in sports history? Was it the Miracle on Ice, when the U.S. beat the Soviet Union 4-3 in the medal round of the 1980 Winter Olympics?
Or how about Super Bowl III, when Joe Namath guaranteed a victory, and the Jets stunned the Colts 16-7.
In golf, Jack Fleck, a total unknown, beat Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff to win the 1955 U.S. Open.
Count KU football coach Mark Mangino among those who doesn’t mind being an underdog. He said, “We always play better when we are the underdog. People didn’t have many nice things to say about our players. It didn’t hurt their feelings. It motivated them. I want to thank those people for doubting us.”
Among the more unlikely underdogs are the New York Yankees. It’s hard to picture the Yankees as underdogs, but most experts believe the Boston Red Sox is the team to beat in that division.
Technically, anyone who is not favored is an underdog, but to warrant the genuine emotional appeal, a real underdog has to overcome a significant resource differential. That hardly describes the Yankees.
Historically, the upset for the ages was David knocking off Goliath. But then, the consequences of winning and losing in that situation were far greater than simply winning or losing a basketball game.