Games are played for championships all over the world on a regular basis, at every level of sports. No matter the level of the sport, we know that nobody takes the field, ice, or court, wanting to fail. And that includes coaches, and officials, as well as the players. Nobody plans on going to a game and screwing it up somehow, or even worse, costing their team a championship. But everyone is human and mistakes happen. Some of them are minor and some of them are major. The small ones are easily forgotten but the bigger they are, the longer they last in sports lore.
In a split second, on one seemingly routine play, a person can go from a Hall of Fame candidate to a lifetime of shame. See Bill Buckner on this list for a perfect example. Did you know he had over 2,700 hits and played over 20 years? Or did you just know he cost his team a championship?
A lot of mistakes occur because of a mental brain freeze or maybe a loss of focus for that one split instant. Or maybe the pressure of what’s at stake just gets to a player and they can’t handle it. One thing is certain though, the bigger the stage, the bigger the error when one is made.
Bad decisions can be made by anyone in life. But when one is committed with a championship on the line, the world is usually watching. And thanks to the internet a costly error can be seen around the world in a matter of just moments.
Here are 10 of the biggest blunders in sports history made by players, coaches, and officials, which cost their team a championship.
10 Gary Anderson misses his first kick of the season
Gary Anderson was coming off of the best ever season for a kicker in NFL history. As a member of the Minnesota Vikings he was the first kicker to ever be perfect in the regular season. He kicked 59 of 59 extra point attempts and was 35 for 35 on field goal attempts.
So when he came out onto the field with 2:11 left to play in the 1998 NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons, nobody anticipated what was about to happen. As a matter of fact, Vikings fans all over started to celebrate. Minnesota had gone 15-1 during the regular season and they were a favorite to win the Super Bowl that year because of it. Anderson’s upcoming 39-yard field goal would give them a ten point lead and all but cement the Vikings spot in the Super Bowl as the NFC Champions.
But Anderson missed his first kick of the season, at what turned out to be the worst time to have it happen. The missed attempt kept the Vikings' lead at just 7 points. The Falcons came back to tie the game and eventually won it in overtime to become the NFC Champions. Anderson is no longer remembered for the perfect season that he had. Unfortunately for him, he is only remembered for that one lone miss.
9 Riegels runs wrong way, gives Georgia Tech Rose Bowl
Players have been making mistakes that cost their team a championship ever since sports began play. A good example was the 1929 Rose Bowl between California and Georgia Tech. It was a game of defensive superiority and a costly mistake in the second quarter was the difference in the game.
Cal’s Roy Riegels was Johnny on the spot to recover a fumble and began to return it toward the end zone. But he was running to the wrong end of the field. Another Golden Bear player actually had to tackle his teammate before he got all the way into the end zone. Benny Lom tackled Riegels just short of the end zone. But it was too late because Cal ended up having to punt from their own end zone. The punt wasn’t performed cleanly and Georgia Tech ended up getting a safety. The Yellow Jackets won the game 8-7 and that safety was the difference in the game.
8 Chris Webber calls one time out too many
One of the best college basketball teams of all time was Michigan’s Fab Five. They were also the first team to sport the baggy type of shorts and higher black socks. Players liked it so much that it eventually became the style we know today on the basketball court.
Chris Webber was a major contributing factor as the Fab Five went to National Championship games two years in a row. Unfortunately they lost both of them, and Webber was the cause of the second loss.
In that second game, the 1993 National Championship game, Michigan trailed North Carolina by only two points with eleven seconds left to play and the Wolverines had the ball. All they had to do was make a two point shot to send the game to overtime, or a three point shot would have given them the championship. Webber brought the ball into the offensive zone and didn’t like the defense he saw and called a timeout. The problem is that Michigan had already used all of their timeouts. The mistake resulted in a technical foul, and Michigan had to give up the ball to the Tar Heels, effectively ending the game in a loss for Michigan.
Maybe if Webber doesn’t call that time out, Michigan takes and misses a shot and still losses the game. It very well could have happened. But thanks to Webber we will never know. He went on to a great career in the NBA but has never been able to get out from under that horrible decision.
It was later determined that Webber made another mistake by accepting over $200,000 from a booster and he was convicted of perjury. All of his college awards ended up being stripped away because of his role in that scandal.
But if the mistake in the ’93 championship game in front of a national audience wasn’t enough, Webber’s dad got a license plate that said “Timeout”. How’s that for family support from dad?
7 Fred Merkle doesn’t touch second base
You know that you have committed a major bonehead play when people still talk about it more than a hundred years later. In 1908 when Fred Merkle failed to touch second base he cost the New York Giants the National League pennant and it's one of the biggest blunders in the history of baseball.
It was the bottom of the ninth inning and Merkle hit a single down the right field line. That moved the go ahead run to third base and if the Giants could bring him in to score they would move on to the World Series. Al Bidwell came up to the plate and promptly ripped a single into centerfield that scored Moose McCormick to give the Giants the win and the National League pennant. But not really.
Merkle saw the fans piling over the walls and coming onto the field in celebration. So he turned around and ran back to the dugout and started to celebrate with his teammates. But he never progressed forward and reached second base. Chicago Cubs legendary second baseman Johnny Evers saw this and went and got the ball and went and stepped on second base, getting the force out, wiping out the winning run and ending the inning. Nobody understood what was happening and extra innings weren’t played because of the confusion.
Harry Pulliam, who was the National League President at the time, said the play was legal and declared that the game ended in a tie. So the teams played one more game, a “playoff” game, and the Giants lost. The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series.
Can you imagine what would happen if such a mistake was made in New York today?
6 Jackie Smith drops a sure touchdown in Super Bowl
The Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers met up in Super Bowl XIII in what was a highly anticipated game. In the third quarter backup tight end Jackie Smith got open in the middle of the end zone and the quarterback noticed it and threw him a perfect pass for the touchdown. There were no defenders close to Smith and it was a sure touchdown. All he had to do was catch the ball. But as I bet you can guess because he is on this list, he didn’t.
He dropped the ball with no defenders around him and cost the Cowboys a touchdown. Dallas had to settle for a field goal on the drive and those four additional points that they lost cost them the Super Bowl, as The Steelers won the game 35-31. Oops. I guess that's why he was the backup.
5 Tom Osborne gets cocky, blows National Title
The 1984 Orange Bowl saw one of the most bizarre decisions in college football history. Nebraska Cornhuskers Head Coach Tom Osborne was one of the best in the business for a very long time. But on this night he outsmarted himself, and outsmarted the Cornhuskers right out of a National Championship.
Nebraska was matched up against a Miami Hurricanes squad that had swagger and boldness and they were a team that the country was quickly beginning to love to hate. The winner of the game was going to be the National Champions, but the odds were stacked higher against the Hurricanes. They had to win outright while the Cornhuskers only needed a win or a tie to become the National Champions.
It was a great back and forth game all the way through and when Nebraska scored with less than a minute to go it looked like the championship was theirs. They now trailed in the game 31-30 but the extra point would give them the tie that they needed to win the championship.
For some unknown reason Tom Osborne decided that he wanted to win the game and went for a two point conversion. All he had to do was send his kicker onto the field, kick the extra point to tie the game, and the championship was theirs. But instead he called a pass play for a two point conversion and the pass fell incomplete, giving the Miami Hurricanes the win and the National Championship. It was the beginning of a long dynasty in Miami.
4 Steve Smith scores on Grant Fuhr
Steve Smith was a rookie with the Edmonton Oilers in 1986. He got the luck of the draw by being drafted by a team that was one of the most powerful of those times. But it wasn’t all roses for him.
In Game 7 of the 1986 Smythe Division Finals, he had the puck behind his own net in a close 2-2 game. He brought the puck out and tried to pass it through his goaltender’s crease. Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr had no idea what he was doing and the puck went off Fuhr and into the Oilers net. Edmonton lost the game and their chance at a third Stanley Cup. They got it the following season but you can bet that Smith never passed the puck through his own goal crease again.
3 Pete Carroll calls for a pass in Super Bowl XLIX
In Super Bowl XLIX the Seattle Seahawks were on the verge of winning their second consecutive Super Bowl. They trailed the New England Patriots by just 4 points with 26 seconds left on the clock. Seattle had the ball at the New England 1-yard line and it was just a formality that they would win the game.
They had one of the best running backs in the league in Marshawn Lynch and all they had to do was give him the ball and let him run it into the end zone. But Seattle Head Coach Pete Carroll, for some unknown reason, called for quarterback Russell Wilson to throw a pass. He did and the ball was intercepted on the goal line. The Patriots held on for a 28-24 victory.
2 Between the wickets with Bill Buckner
Bill Buckner was one of the steadiest first basemen of his time. He played for a few different teams and at the plate he had over 2,700 hits. He was solid at both the plate and in the field. He had the numbers that dictated potential for entering the Hall of Fame. Until late in 1986.
It was Game 6 of the 1986 World Series in New York between the Mets and the Boston Red Sox. Bucker had a terrible game at the plate that night but nobody remembers that he went 0 for 5. What they remember is what he did in the bottom of the 10th inning.
The Red Sox scored twice in the top of the tenth inning to take a 5-3 lead. After the first two men in the bottom of the inning made outs, Boston was one out away from their first World Series title in a very long time. Several more times before the end of the game they were actually just one strike away from winning it all. But the Mets came back and would not go down.
The Mets rallied to tie the game at 5-5 and Ray Knight was at second base with the winning run. Mookie Wilson was at the plate and he could not seem to get good wood on any pitch from Bob Stanley. Wilson had two strikes on him and he kept fouling off balls that he was barely getting bats on. He was barely staying alive. Then he hit another slow rolling tapper but this one was in fair territory, to first base. Buckner charged the ball and when he bent down to pick it up, it rolled right between his legs past first base. Knight easily scored the winning run as the Mets tied the series.
In Game 7 the Red Sox took a 3-0 lead but couldn’t hold it as the Mets won the game 8-5, along with the 1986 World Series.
We don’t know what might have happened if Buckner had come up with that ground ball. Maybe the Red Sox win the championship in the 11th inning. We’ll never know. But Mets fans will always have a love in their heart for Bill Buckner. He has never been able to escape the shadow of that major miscue.
1 Bad call robs the Cardinals of the 1985 World Series
Game 6 of the 1985 World Series was a classic pitcher’s duel between the Kansas City Royals’ Charlie Leibrandt and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Danny Cox. The Cardinals held a 3-2 lead in the series but this game was scoreless after six innings. The Cardinals scored in the top of the 8th inning and held that 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the 9th. They were three outs away from the World Championship.
The first batter of the inning for Kansas City was Jorge Orta. He hit a chopper to first base that Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark fielded cleanly. He tossed the ball over to pitcher Todd Worrell who got to first base before Orta reached the bag, for the out. But the toss was behind Worrell, who had to reach back to make the catch. When this happened, Orta, while running, moved into the sight line of umpire Don Denkinger. The umpire saw Orta step on the base but his view was obscured so he didn’t see Worrell touch the base first, and he called Orta safe, when he was clearly out. After an argument Denkinger, who was the crew chief, refused to reverse the call because he thought that he had got it right. It opened the door for the Royals to score twice and win the game, tying up the series. They went on the win the World Series in Game 7.
The Cardinals’ manager at the time, Whitey Herzog, later wrote a book and in it he said that he thought about asking Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who was at the game, to overturn the call. Herzog said that if the Commissioner refused to overturn the call that he was going to pull his team from the field and forfeit the game. But he never made the request to Ueberroth. He should have.
Denkinger met with Ueberroth after the game and they watched the replay that proved Denkinger had made the wrong call. He said that since he couldn’t see Worrell at the base, he was listening for the ball to hit his glove. But the stadium was so loud he couldn’t hear it, leading him to make the wrong call.
The Cardinals have said that it robbed them of the World Series but we have no idea what might have happened if Denkinger got the call correct. Maybe the Royals only score one run and the game goes into extra innings. Maybe they go on to score two runs and win anyway. That’s the beauty of sports on such a large stage. You never know what MIGHT have happened. Sports are filled with more “what ifs” than we can count.