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It's a time of year to celebrate miracles (be they of the Christmas or Festivus variety), and it's also the end of the decade. So on this date of celebration, I wanted to acknowledge the Five Most Lucrative Sports Miracles of the Decade. These are basically instances where through some sort of improbable on-field occurrence, or perhaps someone else's unfathomable stupidity, or just plain dumb luck, a certain someone else was able to set up their grandkids' grandkids for a life of burying their toes in the sand at some beach club in the Carribean.
So as Dr. Lou Holtz would say....LESH GO....
5. CHARLIE WEIS' CONTRACT EXTENSION AFTER 2005 ND-USC GAME
It seems like it was about twenty years ago, but there was a time where Notre Dame Nation really thought Charlie Weis was going to bring them national championships. On the heels of the dreadful Tyrone Willingham Era, Weis came in and was everything that Willingham wasn't -- organized, passionate, full of bravado and seemingly working toward something big. That all came to a head when Number One USC visited Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2005. To understand the enormity of that game, you almost had to be a Notre Dame fan, forced to sit through the three straight 31-point shellackings that were administered by the Trojans to Ty Willingham's teams.
Without rehashing an entire game summary, Notre Dame was valiant in defeat that day, falling to USC and the Bush Push 34-31.
After this game, rumors of Weis' jumping back to his NFL roots for head coaching jobs started to surface. No one really knew where they came from, but this was obviously disconcerting to the Notre Dame brass. In a move that ended up being rather symbolic of AD Kevin White's "proficiency" (really lack thereof) in hiring and retaining football coaches, he hastily cobbled together a ten-year contract extension at over $3 million per year and an astronomical eight-figure buyout for Weis. Who'd have thought four years and 25 more losses later Weis would cash in on the buyout?
4. GRUDEN PUSHES THE BUCS OVER THE GOAL LINE
Unlike Charlie Weis, Jon Gruden is actually a pretty good head coach. Ironically, when Weis was hired in 2004, most Notre Dame fans wanted Urban Meyer and then Gruden. He was a South Bend native whose father had spent time at Notre Dame as an assistant under Dan Devine in the 1970's. As the story goes, Gruden supposedly set his alarm clock to 3:17 AM each morning....yep, St. Patrick's Day!
Anyway, Gruden was one of the few coaches who proved he could deal with Al Davis, going 38-26 over a four-year period from 1998-2001, and who knows? If it weren't for the infamous "Tuck Rule" game in New England, perhaps a lot of lives and legacies are changed. I still think Belichick and Brady find a way to win a Super Bowl somewhere along the way, which is why neither of them are included in this blog post as a Festivus Miracle.
So why is Gruden on this list? Well, because he was fortunate enough to take over a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team in 2002 that, under Tony Dungy, was fairly successful but couldn't get over the top. To understand how miraculous Gruden winding up in Tampa Bay was at the time, you have to know the perfect storm of owner incompetence that took place, really on both sides (Oakland and Tampa Bay), but especially on the Bucs' side. The Bucs' brass had fired Tony Dungy, and thought they had Bill Parcells locked up and ready to go.
However, when Parcells got cold feet (the result of Parcells' hand-picked GM candidate Mike Tannenbaum telling him Tampa Bay was screwed cap-wise the next several years), Tampa Bay was desperate. It didn't help that the Indianapolis Colts swooped in and snapped up Dungy while his firing hadn't even cooled off yet.
The Bucs turned their attention to Gruden, who still had time left on his Oakland deal but wanted out. Completely desperate, the Bucs ended up sending two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and $8 million in cash to Oakland for Gruden, who then re-tooled the Bucs with an ultra short-term outlook (free-agent feeding frenzy!) and was able to hoist the Lombardi Trophy that January, ironically knocking off his former team, the Oakland Raiders, in blowout fashion.
The Bucs went on to hover between mediocre and fringe-playoff team for the rest of Gruden's time there, but the combination of Tampa Bay's bleak outlook after the Dungy firing and Parcells snub, Oakland's willingness to let Gruden go, and a defense for the ages left behind by Dungy all led to Gruden becoming a "made man/SuperBowl champ" to where now he can sit back in the Monday Night Football booth and collect millions or go back to the sideline someday and collect more millions. Not a bad deal!
3. DAVID TYREE'S HELMET CATCH LEGITIMIZES ELI
Let me caveat this one right now by saying, I'm not a huge fan of Eli Manning. I think he's at best an average NFL quarterback, and he would get a fraction of the love he now gets if his last name were something other than "Manning." (Not to mention the fact that he'd get exactly ZERO endorsement work if he weren't Peyton's brother; hard to believe they're from the same family when they're in commercials together. Peyton is charismatic and funny. Eli is dopey and hick-like.)
That said, Eli did have a classic run through the NFL playoffs in 2007, where he led a wild-card Giants team on the road three consecutive games to take them to the Super Bowl. In that Super Bowl, the Giants somehow managed to knock off the undefeated New England Patriots 17-14, largely due to a pass rush that knocked Tom Brady around in a way we hadn't seen all year. Oh yeah, and they got maybe the most improbable catch in Super Bowl history to keep the final drive alive....(Get ready for Joe Buck giving maybe the least emotional call of a transcendent play of all-time. You suck, Joe!)...
I still can't believe how terrible Joe Buck is. Uh, anyway....if this play doesn't go down the way it did, New England wins the game, and the validation for Eli Manning as an NFL quarterback is still very much in question. (Not to mention the fact that the '72 Dolphins are now out of our lives, but I digress.)
Many point to that game as the day Eli Manning arrived as an elite quarterback. I would contend that if you look at his playoff games before and since then (0-3 with paltry stats), Eli circa 2007 may have been the ultimate deal with the devil.
Whatever the case, the deal paid off. This past off season, Eli Manning became the hghest-paid player in the NFL with a new six-year deal worth nearly $100 million. And he's still dopey.
2. RAIN IN THE 2004 ALCS
We all remember the 2004 American League Championship Series...even though there are ten million New Yorkers who have tried to have it erased from their memory. I won't rehash the whole thing, we all know how it went -- Yankees go up 3-0 in the series, Red Sox are hanging on the brink of elimination, find a way to scrap back and win Game 4. Now, extra innings in Game 5, bloody sock in Game 6, and a knockout blow in Game 7 later, plus a sweep of the Cards in the World Series, and the Curse of the Bambino is exorcised.
There were numerous miraculous plays in that ALCS, but maybe the most underrated supernatural occurrence in that series was not a play on the field at all. With the Yankees having taken a 2-0 series lead and having beaten the Sox' two aces in the process (Curt Schilling, who left Game 1 with a mangled ankle, and Pedro Martinez, who called the Yankees his "daddy"), a strange thing happened the night of Game 3 in Boston. It rained. It rained enough to move Game 3 back one day.
The Yankees would go on to win Game 3 in a rout 19-8, so at the time, the rain from the previous day didn't seem to hold any potential as a subplot. But once the Sox won Game 4, then they started to go through the "one game at a time" machinations, which thanks to the wet weather included Pedro Martinez on regular rest and Curt Schilling (bloody ankle and all) on extra rest. If they could get it to 3-3, the thought was "ride momentum and a suddenly rejuvenated Derek Lowe as far as it'll take us in Game 7."
The rest is history, and the cursed Red Sox franchise was cursed no more.
Why should this improbable playoff run be categorized as "lucrative"? Well, ask the guys who got fat free-agent deals on the heels of that post season -- Derek Lowe (Dodgers), Pedro Martinez (Mets), eventually Johnny Damon would become Judas...I mean, a Yankee. Also, the millions that a Boston World Series title did in souvenir and memoribilia sales, plus the additional value of the franchise to owners John Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Tom Werner --- well, let's just say, everyone will remember 2004, especially the accountants.
1. ROCKETS WIN 2002 NBA LOTTERY...AND GLOBAL JERSEY SALES DOMINATION
Remember how awesome the 2001-2002 Rockets were? Uh yeah, me neither. Probably the nadir of the Rudy Tomjanovich Era, the 2001-2002 Rockets were a strange, lottery-bound collection of stiffs, bad contracts, and uninspiring no-namers.
Unfortunately, they were only shitty enough to get an 8.9 percent chance at the number-one pick in the 2002 draft, which everyone agreed was Chinese sensation Yao Ming.
For fans of a team whose strength has always worked inside-out (from Moses Malone to Hakeem Olajuwon), the chance to get the next great big man was fun to think about, even if it was highly improbable.
For ownership of a team in an increasingly global league, the chance to get Yao Ming meant big-time dollar signs. As Tiger would say, "Huge."
Well, the lottery gods smiled on Houston that day as the Rockets were able to come away with the number-one pick and the rights to Yao Ming.
Even though the Rockets have been stuck in the "highly competitive but can't get over the hump" category since Yao's arrival, that pick was a franchise maker on so many levels:
(1) It gave the team a light at the end of the tunnel that they wouldn't be reliant on Steve Francis and his "pound the ball into the court for twenty seconds and then try and make Sportscenter going to the rim" style as the face of the franchise.
(2) Consider that the Rockets had the fifth-worst winning percentage in the league in 2001-2002 and that the next seven picks after Yao were Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Drew Gooden, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Dujaun Wagner, Nene, and Chris Wilcox. I mean....wow. Chances are they wind up with one of those stiffs, which sets the franchise on a course of mediocrity for God knows how much longer.
(3) There were over a billion people in China ready to buy anything with Yao Ming's name on it.
When you consider global popularity, merchandise sales, and Yao's getting the Rockets back to a no brainer "have" in a league with an ever growing number of "have nots," and when you consider that it happened right here in Houston, I give this one top billing as the number-one Festivus Miracle of the Decade.
I'm sure Tracy McGrady's billions of Chinese fans agree.
THIS WEEKEND'S BEST BETS
At this point, I'm just scared to even look....okay, how did I do last week?
Central Florida +2.5 vs Rutgers (RUTGERS 45-24, aagggh LOSER!!)
Cowboys/Saints over 53.5 (COWBOYS 24-17, eeeggghhh LOSER!!)
Lions +12.5 vs Cardinals (CARDS 31-24, HA HA WINNER!!)
Browns/Chiefs over 37 (BROWNS 41-34, OVER BY HALFTIME, WINNER!!)
Raiders +14 vs Broncos (RAIDERS 20-19, STRAIGHT UP WINNER!!)
Eagles -7.5 vs 49ers (EAGLES 27-13, ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!! WINNER!!)
Record Last Week: 4-2 Record on Hair Balls: 20-26-2
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Okay, let's ride the wave and throw some of that Christmas escarole out there for the taking....here we go...
San Diego +3 over Tennessee (love the moneyline +135 here, too)
North Carolina +2.5 over Pitt
BC/USC under 44
Texans +3 over Dolphins
Cowboys -6.5 over Redskins
Kentucky +6.5 over Clemson
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!!
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game on the Sean & John Show from 3-7 PM weekdays, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.