Upsets aren’t what they used to be. They used to be rare, something special, something out of the ordinary. When you watch TV or read a newspaper today, they’re a dime a dozen.
Maybe it’s just a pet peeve of mine, maybe its semantics, but it seems that every time the favored team loses, sports reporters are quick to call it an upset. If I had a dollar for every time reporters used the word, I could retire early.
There are definitely times when players, coaches and fans get carried away with trying to attach more cosmic significance to a win than is warranted.
According to one dictionary, an upset is an unexpected victory or defeat. Does that mean when a No. 9 seed beats a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, it is unexpected? Is a win by one team over another evenly-matched team really an upset?
Before March Madness started, KU basketball coach Bill Self said he wouldn’t be surprised if any of the elite teams in the field were knocked off before the Final Four.
“It looks like there’s separation, but there isn’t in terms of talent,” Self said. “It wouldn’t be a major upset if a top-30 team beats Syracuse, Kentucky or Kansas.”
Little did Self know how prophetic he would be, as KU, Syracuse and Kentucky lost as No. 1 seeds.
Maybe upsets are in the eyes of the beholder. While KU would likely beat Northern Iowa more often than not, those in the know realize that Northern Iowa was hardly a patsy. And the last I knew, good basketball teams can and do occasionally beat very good basketball teams in a one-game, winner-take-all scenario.
Maybe it’s a matter of semantics. But calling every victory by underdogs an upset seems to cheapen the meaning of an upset.
In reality, there are some events that qualify as upsets. ESPN.com cites some of the top upsets in sports history.
No. 1 is the Miracle on Ice. The Soviets, who had won eight of the previous nine Olympic gold medals, had blown away the American college kids, 10-3, in a pre-tournament exhibition just days before the Americans turned the tables and beat the Soviets, 4-3, in the medal round of the 1980 Winter Olympics.
No. 2 is Super Bowl III when Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed a victory at poolside. The Jets’ 16-7 win over the Colts struck a blow for AFL equality and laid the groundwork for the NFL merger.
Another upset was Rulon Gardner beating the unbeatable three-time Olympic champion Alexander Karelin of Russia in the 2000 Olympics. Karelin was unbeaten in international competition and had lost only once—as a 19-year-old in the 1987 Soviet championships.
Karelin was expected to wrestle his way through an unbeaten, unscored-upon tournament when the unknown American shocked him and the world to win Olympic gold in the Greco-Roman heavyweight division.
In athletics, too much is made of victories by small schools over larger schools. I’ve officiated the McPherson High School girls’ tournament for more than 10 years, and in the early years of the tournament, Little River and Moundridge were among the most dominant teams.
Granted, over time, McPherson has been the most dominant team in the tournament, but some years it would have been an upset if the larger schools had beaten Little River or Moundridge.
Just as school size isn’t always the best indicator concerning who should be favored in a particular game, so too, it isn’t automatically a major upset when a mid-major university beats a university from a major conference.
Then again, when KU coach Bill Self, who makes $3 million or so a year, loses to a Northern Iowa team whose coach Ben Jacobson makes $150,000 a year, maybe there’s a reason for calling the outcome an upset, or a reason for fans to be upset.
At least if KU plays Northern Iowa next year one thing will have changed Jacobson will be making $450,000 a year.