The Most Daring Decisions in Sports History

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIMarch 26, 2013

The Most Daring Decisions in Sports History

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    Success in sports is often dictated by repetition, routine and predictability, but it is the boldest, most daring decisions that make legends. The most significant moments in sports history were born from a coach, player or league’s decision to buck tradition and roll the dice for the chance at a big payoff.

    These gambles don’t always pay off, but when they do the results are spectacular—or in some cases disastrous.

    From individual play calls to decisions that dictated the future of sports, here are the 20 most daring decisions in sports history.

15. Pete Carroll Names Russell Wilson Starting QB

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    NFL coaches and executives are notoriously conservative when it comes to salary cap management and personnel decisions. They live in constant fear that a daring move may eventually cost them their jobs. 

    So when Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll chose rookie quarterback Russell Wilson as his starter before the 2012 season began, many people thought he was nuts.

    It was questionable enough with Wilson being an undersized, third-round pick with no NFL experience. Carroll’s decision seemed even worse considering Seattle had just signed free agent Matt Flynn to a three-year, $23.5 million contract last offseason.

    Rather than settling for the safe move, Carroll followed his instincts and went with the player he felt gave his team the best chance to win. Russell rewarded his coach by leading the Seahawks to an 11-5 record and a playoff victory in the NFC Wild Card round.

14. Jim Harbaugh Hitches the 49ers’ Wagon to Colin Kaepernick

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    Carroll’s decision to roll with Wilson was certainly risky, but San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh one-upped his long-time coaching rival with an even bolder move last season. Harbaugh kept incumbent quarterback Alex Smith on the bench in favor of second-year starter Colin Kaepernick, jeopardizing the team’s chance to get to the Super Bowl. 

    Smith led the 49ers to the 2012 NFC Championship game and was among the NFL’s top-five quarterbacks in passer efficiency before suffering a mild concussion against the St. Louis Rams. Once he was healthy enough to return, however, Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick, believing that the dynamic young QB made San Francisco a more dangerous team.

    How’d that decision work out for him?

    Despite some minor hiccups along the way, Kaepernick shined at almost every opportunity. He set NFL playoff records in his first postseason start against the Green Bay Packers and orchestrated a massive second-half comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game.

    Although San Francisco fell short of winning its sixth Super Bowl title in franchise history, Harbaugh’s daring move was certainly validated.

13. Jadeveon Clowney Decides to Play for South Carolina Next Season

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    South Carolina defensive tackle Jadeveon Clowney has been in the news lately for choosing to play college football next season, a seemingly non-controversial decision. Ah, but he is no ordinary football player.  

    Clowney is widely considered the best NFL prospect in each of the next two years. Because of the league’s eligibility requirements, however, he cannot enter the 2013 draft.

    To avoid injury, some people have suggested that he skip his junior year to secure his status as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. Given the gruesome knee injury suffered by Clowney’s former teammate, running back Marcus Lattimore, you could not blame Clowney for considering it. 

    While the financial reward for being a top-10 pick is substantially less than it was even three years ago, given the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement, it is still life-changing money. No college football player has gone this route yet, but the move is not without precedent. 

    Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings famously skipped college altogether, deciding to play oversees for a year before becoming the tenth pick in the 2009 NBA draft.

    Washington Nationals outfielder—and 2012 NL Rookie of the Year—Bryce Harper took process even further. 

    He dropped out of high school after his sophomore year, got his G.E.D. and played JUCO ball for a season to accelerate his MLB draft clock. That neat trick made Harper the No. 1 pick in the 2011 MLB Amateur draft.

    I respect Clowney’s decision to stick by his teammates for another year. I also would have understood had he decided that continuing to play on Saturdays was not worth jeopardizing his ability to eventually play on Sundays.

12. The Oakland A’s Introduce the Moneyball Era

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    During the late-1990s, the small-market Oakland Athletics were struggling to stay competitive—and relevant—among Major League Baseball’s behemoths. The days of the “Bash Brothers” (former Oakland sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire) were long gone, and general manager Billy Beane needed a newer, cheaper way to field a winning ball club.

    And so, out of necessity, the Moneyball era was born.

    Throwing conventional scouting wisdom aside, Oakland avoided pursuing expensive and sexy free agents that stole bases and sported impressive batting averages. Instead, the A’s put a premium on identifying bargains and retreads that could draw a walk and hit the occasional three-run homer.

    It helped that Oakland also had three of MLB’s best young starting pitchers in Tim Hudson, Mark Molder and 2002 AL Cy Young winner Barry Zito. 

    While the Moneyball formula failed to translate into much postseason success, the A’s did win three AL West titles in four years during the early 2000s. Ten years later, Beane is still running the club, and Oakland is still shocking the world of baseball by winning on a shoestring budget.

11. The Los Angeles Dodgers Declare "Death to Moneyball"

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    If the Athletics are the shining example of fiscal responsibility in Major League Baseball, then the Los Angeles Dodgers are the exact opposite. In less than a year, the Dodgers have soared past the New York Yankees as MLB’s biggest spenders. 

    Since Guggenheim Baseball Management took control of the team last April, Los Angeles has spared no expense in pursuit of its first World Series title in 25 years. Through a series of trades, contract extensions and free agent signings, the Dodgers have amassed a payroll that will exceed $220 million on Opening Day. 

    Looking beyond the 2013 season, Los Angeles has more than $600 million in long-term contract commitments. And 2011 NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw hasn’t even received his soon-to-be-record-breaking contract extension yet, a deal that could eventually push the total number well over $800 million. 

    It is too early to tell how the Dodgers’ daring approach will turn out, but the team will not be given much time to make it work before making more drastic moves.

10. Boise State uses Trickeration to Upset Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl

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    The Boise State Broncos not only pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history, but they did it in style. The Broncos used three trick plays late in the game—including the famous Statue of Liberty play—to pull off a shocking win over the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

    Although Boise State came in as only a 7.5-point underdog, this was the small schools big chance to introduce themselves to a national television audience. After blowing an early 22-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Broncos pulled out all the stops to force overtime in the final seconds, and eventually win the game 43-42. 

    Teams use trick plays all the time in sports. But by doing it several times, on the biggest stage, during their one shot at glory, head coach Chris Peterson and his Broncos took bold play calling to an entirely new level.

9. Saints Execute Onside Kick During Super Bowl XLIV Victory

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    The New Orleans Saints pulled off arguably the most famous onside kick attempt in NFL history on their way to winning the Super Bowl XLIV. Yes, it is notable because it happened during the NFL’s biggest game of the year, but the timing of the play is what really made it special.

    The Saints were set to kick off to start the second half, trailing the Indianapolis Colts 10-6. New Orleans then executed the unexpected onside kick and scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession.

    The play was indicative of head coach Sean Payton’s aggressive play calling, a style that led to an eventual 31-17 win. 

8. Green Bay Packers Prematurely End Brett Favre Era in Favor of Aaron Rodgers

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    While the controversy seems silly now, the Green Bay Packers’ decision to name Aaron Rodgers the starting quarterback before the 2008 season was very unpopular at the time. Some objective observers supported the switch to Rodgers, but a lot of Packers fans were furious with general manager Ted Thompson’s decision to part ways with Favre.

    It was bad enough that Favre refused to mentor Rodgers during their three years together in Green Bay. Rodgers’ job was made even harder by the initial lack of fan support. 

    The easiest way to make people forget about a legend is to win games and play your butt off, and Rodgers has done both. He led the Packers to the Super Bowl title after the 2010 season, was named the NFL’s 2011 MVP and is generally considered the league’s best quarterback.

    Even as far back as his high school days, Rodgers’ path to stardom was not a smooth one. But over the past five seasons, he has made Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy look like geniuses. 

    The good people of Green Bay are pretty happy about how things turned out too.

7. Former ABA Owners Sacrifice Lump-Sum Payment for Future NBA TV Revenue

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    In one of the shrewdest business decisions made in the last 40 years, brothers Dan and Ozzie Silna made a sweetheart deal with the NBA in 1976. In fact, their daring move showed the kind of foresight that investors often dream of. 

    When the former owners of the ABA’s St. Louis Spirits franchise negotiated a settlement with the NBA as part of their contraction agreement, they asked to receive a percentage of the league’s TV rights revenue for as long as the NBA was in existence. To date, that agreement has netted them in excess of $250 million, with more money sure to come.

6. AFL/NFL Merger

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    While there have been many decisions over the last 40 years that have led to the NFL’s success, it all started with the decision to merge with the American Football League. 

    Although terms of the merger were agreed to in 1966, the move would not become official until 1970, due to pending government approval. Still, the agreement paved the way for the first AFL-NFL World Championship game following the 1966 season, otherwise known as Super Bowl I.

    The merger created a 26-team league—combining the 10 AFL teams with the 16-team NFL—and eventually growing into the 32-team league that we know and love to day.

    The AFL-NFL merger is significant because it was the first—and really the last—time that a rival league posed a legitimate threat to the NFL’s monopoly on professional football. Many start up leagues have come and gone over the years, but the new NFL has grown to the point of being untouchable.

5. Michael Jordan “Retires” in his Prime to Pursue Professional Baseball Career

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    It is rare that we see a star athlete retire at the height of their career, especially when they have just led their team to three-consecutive championships. But that is exactly what Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan did following the 1992-93 NBA season. 

    For reasons that are still largely unknown (unless you believe the conspiracy theories that Jordan was secretly suspended by commissioner David Stern for gambling), Jordan decided, at 30, to pursue his life-long dream of playing major league baseball. He spent a forgettable summer as a member of the Chicago White Sox’s Double-A affiliate, the Birmingham Barons before returning to the NBA late in the 1994-95 season.

    Jordan went on to win three more championships with the Bulls, cementing his legacy as the greatest basketball player of all time. Still, it is hard not to wonder how many more titles he might have won had he not given up two prime years of his career.

4. John Carlos and Tommie Smith Raise Fists in Protest at the 1968 Olympics

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    United States track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gained world-wide notoriety for their silent protest during the 1968 Olympics. While it is hard to imagine modern athletes standing for anything other than the latest product they are endorsing, their raised fists sent a powerful message to the rest of the world.

    As the Star-Spangled Banner played during the medal ceremony for the 200m sprint—a race that Smith won in world-record time—both he and Carlos raised a clenched fist covered by a black glove as a sign of disgust towards the lack of equal rights for African-Americans. 

    It is difficult to measure the actual impact of their actions, but the symbolism of two athletes protesting against their home country in front of an international audience was undeniable. Smith and Carlos’ simple action soon became one of the boldest and most daring acts in the sports history. 

3. Branch Rickey Promotes Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers

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    When Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey added second baseman Jackie Robinson to the major league club, it was more than just a historic day for the game of baseball. At that moment, Rickey and Robinson became pioneers for civil rights in America, nearly 20 years before the movement became popular. 

    Robinson debuted for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947 becoming the first African-American to play in the major leagues. For his part, he immediately justified Rickey’s decision by winning MLB’s inaugural Rookie of the Year award—an honor that is now named after Robinson.

    Robinson went on to play in six consecutive All-Star games, won the 1949 NL MVP and led the Dodgers to six World Series appearances, including a win over the Yankees in 1955. While his playing days were cut short by diabetes, Robinson put together a Hall of Fame career and is considered one of the best players in MLB history.

    As much credit as Robinson deserves for enduring racial intolerance and paving the way for future African athletes, Rickey should be equally praised for giving him that opportunity. He had the courage to follow through with an unpopular and unwanted decision, judging Robinson strictly on the merits of his baseball talent.

2. Curt Flood Challenges MLB's Free Agency Rules

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    People who resent the ridiculous amounts of money that athletes make can thank former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood. In fact, modern day athletes owe him an even greater debt of gratitude.

    Following the 1969 season, Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause by refusing a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. When his appeal to commissioner Bowie Kuhn demanding that he be declared a free agent was denied, Flood took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme court.

    The court ultimately ruled in favor of MLB, denying Flood his freedom, but the case led to the formation of the current “10/5” rule in baseball, and encouraged players to form a stronger union. 

    Flood continued to advocate on behalf of free agency after he retired, providing a detailed account of his anti-reserve-clause stance in his memoir, The Way it Is. Free agency finally became a reality in MLB in 1975, establishing a blueprint for labor negotiations for professional athletes in all team sports to follow.

1. The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network is Born

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    Love it or hate it, ESPN has become the largest sports media company in the world. It would have been hard to imagine an all-sports network being this successful when it was founded in 1979, but in today's 24/7 news cycle, it is hard to imagine a world without it.

    The internet, cable television, computers and mobile devices have all led to an environment where fans can satisfy their insatiable appetite for the latest sports stories. As a result, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (where the ESPN acronym originated) has grown into a massive network of TV channels, websites and magazines. 

    Even a site like Bleacher Report owes a great deal of thanks to ESPN for creating a market for sports-related digital content.

    We can debate the impact or importance of any other decision on this list. But whether it is sports, fashion or business, information is king. And when it comes to sports, there is no bigger castle than the one that sits on a cushy spread in Bristol, Connecticut.