Since it is playoff time for the Rockets and Aeros, and since the Astros and Texans probably won’t be seeing the playoffs for a long time to come, I figured it was an appropriate time to visit the Five Biggest Choke Jobs in Houston Sports History.
So, in descending order, away we go.
5. January 1, 1979, Notre Dame vs. UH: The weather in Dallas is beyond awful. The temperature is below zero. It’s sleeting. But the Cotton Bowl must go on because CBS is paying lots of big bucks and the teams have been promised lots of money. The Houston Cougars are leading the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame 34-12 with only 7:37 remaining in the game. The Notre Dame starting QB has been sitting in the locker room, suffering from the flu. The QB is fed some chicken noodle soup. Notre Dame blocks a Cougar punt for a TD. The QB emerges from the locker room to pass for the two-point conversion to make the score 34-20. Notre Dame moves the ball 61 yards on their next possession, with the QB gaining the final three yards for the TD, then throws for the two points. And with 4:15 on the clock the score is suddenly 34-28. The Irish manage to get the ball back and, with :00 on the clock, the QB connects for an eight-yard TD to tie the game. The Irish make the PAT, and just like that, the Irish have won 35-34.
Oh, and the name of that Notre Dame QB: Joe Montana, and it was on this day that the legend of Joe Montana was born.
4. January 4, 1992, Oilers vs. Broncos: The Houston Oilers take a quick 14-0 lead on the Denver Broncos. But the Broncos score to make it 14-6. The Oilers make it 21-6, and by the time the half rolls around, the Mile High Stadium crowd is kind of quiet as the Oilers are still leading 21-13. The Oilers manage to make it 24-13, and they struggle to hang on to the game from there. They’re up 24-23 when the Broncos get the ball on their two-yard line with only 2:07 remaining in the game.
John Elway didn’t begin a myth on this day, as he was already known for leading The Drive against the Cleveland Browns several years before. But the myth did grow bigger as, without using a single timeout, Elway steadily drove the Broncos down the field until, with 16 seconds remaining in the game, the Broncos kicked a field goal to win the game 26-24.
3. October, 1980, Dodgers vs. Astros: The Astros were new to this whole post-season thing, but they seemed to have the hang of it. The National League Championship Series was a best-three-of-five affair, and the Astros held a lead of two games to one. And they had home field advantage. The Dome was rocking in Game Four, as the Astros were up by two runs with just five outs to go. Of course, they blew the lead, then lost the game in ten innings. But that didn’t matter, as the Astros would surely win Game Five.
The Astros were leading Game Five. And Nolan Ryan was on the mound to start the eighth inning with the Astros up 5-2. By the time the inning was over, the Astros were trailing 7-5. Though the Astros would tie the game in their half of the inning and take it, once again, to extra innings (four of the five games went to extra innings), they would once again lose in the tenth inning. Thus beginning a string of playoff failures that would last 25 years.
2. April 3, 1983, North Carolina State vs. UH: The Houston Cougar basketball team was 31-2 and the number one team in the country. It was coached by the legendary Guy V. Lewis and the team, nicknamed Phi-Slamma-Jamma, was led by Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon. The previous Saturday, the Cougars had dismantled the highly ranked Louisville Cardinals in a Final Four game that was destined to be remembered though the ages. For the title game, the Coogs were matched up against the North Carolina State Wolfpack, a team that lost ten games during the regular season and barely scraped into the tournament.
The Cougars controlled much of the game, but they were never able to put the Wolfpack away. And the Coogs had one problem: They were a very poor team at the free throw line. So the Wolfpack started fouling, and the Coogs started missing. Suddenly, the score is tied at 52-52. The Wolfpack have the ball and the clock is ticking down to zero. At four seconds, the Coogs nearly steal the ball, and at three seconds Dereck Whittenburg launches a wild off-balance shot from about 35 feet out. From nowhere, his Wolfpack teammate Lorenzo Charles grabs the ball just short of the basket and jams it for the winning score.
And now, every year during NCAA Tourney time, CBS makes sure we see Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano running across the court looking for someone to hug.
Damn, just watch it yourself.
1. January 3, 1993, Oilers vs. Bills: The Houston Oilers journey to Buffalo to take on the Bills in the AFC Wild Card Game. Amazingly, the Oilers shut down the high-powered Bills offense and lead the game by a score of 28-3 at the half. On the NBC halftime show, Bob Costas speaks with Steelers head coach Bill Cowher and they discuss how the Steelers are going to prepare for the Oilers in next week’s game. And the Oilers aren’t done scoring, as they score a TD on an interception return just a little over a minute into the third for a seemingly insurmountable 35-3 lead.
Do I need to remind you about what happened next?
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Within seven minutes, the Bills, under the direction of backup quarterback Frank Reich, have scored four touchdowns and that insurmountable lead is only 35-31. The Bills score a touchdown to go up 38-35 in the fourth, and with under a minute remaining, the Oilers kick a field goal to send the game to OT.
Oilers QB Warren Moon throws an interception early in overtime, and three plays later, Bills kicker Steve Christie kicks a 32-yard field goal for the 41-38 win. Thus ended the game that would become known as The Comeback.
-- John Royal