Forgotten champions from sports history

O.J. Simpson's infamous white bronco captivated the nation. (Getty Images)

MORE: 1994's Forgotten Finals: Rockets vs. Knicks | O.J. took center stage

The media furnace surrounding O.J. Simpson’s brief disappearance and subsequent highway chase captivated the nation's attention, along with that of the sporting world.

Media outlets had the uneasy task of juxtaposing a real-life murder investigation with the exciting, yet less consequential drama of various sports championships. Simpson news trumped the ’94 NBA Finals between Houston and New York, overshadowed the New York Rangers’ championship parade celebrating their first Stanley Cup in 54 years and undermined Arnold Palmer’s final run at the U.S. Open. It also managed to upstage the opening ceremony of the World Cup, held in Chicago on the same afternoon that “White Ford Bronco” became synonymous with Simpson.

Portions of those events have been forgotten almost as a direct result of the flooding Simpson coverage. In that same vein, we attempted to shine a light on other examples of “forgotten champions,” overlooked or ignored for various reasons. 

The not-so Fab Five: Quick, name the starters for UNC’s 1993 championship over Michigan? Two? How about one?

These Tar Heels won the school’s third championship, second under Dean Smith, and yet all anyone remembers is baggy shorts, black socks and one non-existent timeout.

Behind knee-length shorts (gasp!) and five confident underclassmen was a transcendent cultural force known as the Fab Five, which managed to undermine North Carolina’s 1993 National Championship. Chris Webber’s erroneous timeout grabbed headlines and offered up a quick scapegoat, but don’t dismiss the Tar Heels, whose tenacious defensive approach contrasted heavily with the style of Steve Fisher’s second-straight NCAA-final team.  

Carolina guard Donald Williams earned the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player honors, dropping 25 points including 5-of-7 from the 3-point line in the championship. Carolina’s frontcourt was buttressed with two eventual longtime NBA vets in George Lynch and Eric Montross, but neither ever earned the acclaim of Webber or Jalen Rose.

These Tar Heels were a relatively unheralded group, content to reside unceremoniously in college basketball lore despite the 77-71 win in New Orleans.

They lost just four games all year (including one to Michigan in December), yet don’t get nearly the credit they deserve for effectively ending the Fab Five era.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of the win, and until that time, Eric Montross hadn’t watched a replay of the game. “I had in my mind that terrific memory,” he said to the News Observer. “I never felt the need to watch it again. I had played in it.”

'89 earthquake shakes World Series: The A’s won the 1989 World Series, but hardly anyone recalls that Oakland swept the Giants, 4-0. That October Classic is remembered for the deadly Loma Prieta earthquake that shook San Francisco and Candlestick Park, tragically killing 63 people while leaving thousands injured and/or homeless. Buildings and bridges collapsed and the series wasn’t resumed until 10 days later in San Francisco.

The deadly earthquake overshadowed Oakland's achievement. (Getty Images)

The ’89 A’s happened to be a remarkably balanced squad, featuring Rickey Henderson atop the lineup and Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Dave Parker there to provide the power. But against the Giants, it was Game 1 starter Dave Stewart who set the tone, allowing five hits in a complete game shutout. Mike Moore gave up one run in seven innings in Game 2 before Dennis Eckersley closed out the Giants. Oakland had a decided advantage before tragedy struck ahead of Game 3 on October 17.

The earthquake ultimately gave Oakland an advantage, allowing Stewart, the eventual Series MVP, to take the bump for the third game. He was effective again, but Oakland’s offense erupted for 13 runs and four homers as they took Game 3. Henderson led off Game 4 with a homer, and again, Moore was solid against Matt Williams, Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark. The A’s won the Series with a 9-6 win, but the rivalry and the title were largely afterthoughts in the wake of the tragedy.

The Blunder Bowl: Super Bowl V, the first post-merger championship featuring the Baltimore Colts and Dallas Cowboys in 1971, was a comical exhibition of title-level football eventually deemed "The Blunder Bowl." The fact that the Colts won 16-13 on a last-second field goal from a rookie kicker is largely marred by the SB-record 11 turnovers (seven by Baltimore, including four lost fumbles) and the 133 yards in penalties Dallas incurred.

A 37-year-old Johnny Unitas completed one more pass to his team (3) than he did to the Cowboys before a second-quarter hit knocked him out of the game. Backup Earl Morrall stepped in and was 7-of-15 for 147 yards and an interception -- normally not quite championship level stuff, but on this day, it was enough. Dallas didn’t run away with the title because its QB, Craig Morton, who had beaten out Roger Staubach for the job, tossed three fourth-quarter interceptions. 

One Colts player was stripped as he was heading towards the goal line in the fourth quarter, and as Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated wrote: “The ball was squirting all over the goal line where a bevy of Cowboys and Colts took turns not recovering it until it had trickled beyond the endzone.”

Save for Jim O’Brien’s Super Bowl clinching field goal, this championship was a dud. It remains the only Super Bowl where an MVP was crowned from the losing team -- Dallas LB Chuck Howley, in this case. 

Colts kicker Jim O'Brien after nailing the Super-Bowl-winning kick. (Getty Images)

Williams' race overshadows title game: Super Bowl XXII is remembered not for the score of the game -- a 42-10 Redskins throttling of the Broncos -- but moreso because of the media’s obsession with Skins QB Doug Williams becoming the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl.

The race angle dominated headlines, specifically after one reporter asked Williams at media day, “Doug, obviously, you’ve been a black quarterback your whole life. When did race begin to matter to people?” In Williams’s words:

“I just remember, ‘How long have you been a black quarterback?’ That’s the only question I heard 25 years ago,” and it became the lingering legacy of the blowout.

The Redskins actually trailed 10-0 to Elway’s Broncos heading into the second quarter before Williams proffered an offensive onslaught against the Broncos defense. On the first play of the second quarter, Williams connected with Ricky Sanders on an 80-yard touchdown pass. Washington would hang 35 points on the Broncos’ defense before that quarter was over, etching a Super Bowl record for points in a half.

Williams, who had only played five regular season games behind QB Jay Schroeder, threw four touchdowns, won MVP, and effectively quashed any lingering misconception that a black QB couldn’t lead his team to a title. A black quarterback didn’t win the title again until Russell Wilson smoked the same Broncos last season, and Keith McMillan of the Washington Post astutely offered this note: “I decided that Wilson’s victory and the lack of mentioning him being the second ever since Williams to win it all was just as much as a victory as Williams had back in 1988.” Cheers to that. 

Brazil's blunder or Uruguay's triumph?: Could a sporting event ever match the magnitude and sadness of Hiroshima? That’s how one Brazilian journalist described Brazil’s 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final in front of 200,000 screaming fans.

Brazil’s victory on their home soil had been all but preordained in the minds of the media and the players, alike. Brazil was so confident that they agreed to paint the stadium the color of the winning team, and yes, Maracana was ultimately painted baby blue. Uruguay notched a late second-half goal -- attributed to a missed save by Brazil goalie Moacir Barbosa – and that kept the focus on the losers, overshadowing all that Uruguay had accomplished.

In fact, the 1950 World Cup “final” wasn’t actually a final at all. It was the last match in a final group stage that just so happened to pit Brazil against Uruguay. Brazil has cruised in its two matches while Uruguay had narrowly gotten by Sweden and earned a draw against Spain. Entering the game, Brazil was one point ahead, and had they managed just a tie, Brazil would have won the Cup. Instead, Alcides Ghiggia drove a low shot into the left side of the goal that was immediately deemed Barbosa’s error. His story -- the man who made Brazil cry -- became a tragic one, while Uruguay’s path to the Cup was largely forgotten.

Few remember that Oksana Baiul took home gold in the 1994 Winter Olympics. (Getty Images)

Despite comeback, Kerrigan didn't win: Perhaps the most comparable sports situation to Simpson’s, in terms of frenzied media coverage, would be the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan ahead of the Lillehammer Olympics. The media crush and speculation surrounding Tonya Harding’s involvement became national news, let alone sporting news. 

After intense physical therapy on her knee, Kerrigan recovered in time to participate in the Olympics, but wound up finishing second to Oksana Baiul of Ukraine, following a controversial judging decision. Her gold medal was largely an afterthought in the wake of the real-life drama between the two US rivals.  

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