Top Ten Worst to First teams
With the Tampa Bay Rays now headed for the World Series, they continue one of the most improbable worst-to-first turnarounds in the history of baseball. They are not the first team, however, to pull off the the remarkable feat in American sports.
Below is a list of the top 10 most improbable and impressive sports turnarounds from the last 30 years. When ranking these teams, we looked not only at the quality and accomplishments of the team from the turnaround year, but also at how impressive was the turnaround itself.
For example, the 1979 Buccaneers were hardly the best team in the NFL in 1979, however, given the futility of the franchise up to that point, the turnaround was quite remarkable.
So here is the list:
Honorable Mentions: 1981 Cincinnati Bengals (lost Super Bowl); 1988 Cincinnati Bengals (lost Super Bowl); 1998 San Diego Padres (lost World Series); 2007-2008 Philadelphia Flyers (lost Conference Finals) and 2008 Fresno State Baseball (lowest seeded team to ever win an NCAA Title).
10. 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL)
Much like this year's Tampa Bay Rays, the Buccaneers had been a perennial last place team through its entire existence. A NFL expansion team in 1976, Tampa Bay lost their first 26 games in a row.
This streak included the only 0-14 season in NFL history in 1976. The Bucs were headed toward a similar fate in 1977 before an upset win over the New Orleans Saints on the second to last week of the season (Saints head coach Hank Stram was fired after the loss).
The 1978 season started with some promise with the Buccaneers going 4-4, but, the team fell apart in the second half of the season to finish 5-11 and again in last place.
However, with the team lead by emerging quarterback Doug Williams, 1000-yard rusher Ricky Bell and future Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, the 1979 Bucs jumped out to a 5-0 start and a cover shot on Sports Illustrated.
The team would finish 10-6 and defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the NFC Playoffs. The following week the Bucs lost 9-0 to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship, one game from Super Bowl XIV.
9.1993 Philadelphia Phillies (MLB)
The 1993 Phillies entered the season without high expectations after finishing 70-92 the year before and making no major acquisitions in the off-season. However, the team took the NL East lead on opening day and never gave it up, finishing 97-65.
The team, often described as dirty and unkempt, endeared itself to Philadelphia fans with its style of aggressive, rough-and-tumble play. In the NLCS the Phillies knocked off the 2-time defending National League Champion Atlanta Braves and moved on to the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays triumphed in the World Series, ending the deciding Game 6 with a Joe Carter walk-off home run against the Phillies erratic closer Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams.
8. 2001 Illinois Illini (NCAA Football):
Illinois has a storied football tradition; however, by the end of the 2000 season the Illini had been relegated to a perennial also-ran in the Big Ten.
The team had not won a conference championship since 1990 and not had a winning conference record since 1993. Ron Turner's 2000 team finished tied for last in the Big Ten with a 2-6 conference record and a 5-6 record overall.
In a conference with traditional powerhouses like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, no one expected the Illinois team to break out of the middle of the Big 10 pack. However, lead by senior Heisman Trophy candidate Kurt Kittner the Illini went 10-2, won the Big Ten and advanced to the Sugar Bowl (where they were defeated by LSU 47-34).
The Illini finished the season ranked No. 12 in both major polls. Turner, however, was unable to follow up on this breakthrough season and was fired after winning only 9 more games in the next 3 seasons (finishing last in the Big 10 in both 2003 and 2004).
7. 1991 Atlanta Braves (MLB):
For much of the second half of the 1980's the Atlanta Braves were one of the worst teams in baseball. During the 1990 season the Braves replaced manager Russ Nixon with Bobby Cox, formerly of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Cox would go on to watch his 1990 club finish a dismal 65-97. During the off-season the Braves acquired veterans Terry Pendleton from the St. Louis Cardinals and Sid Bream from the Pittsburgh Pirates. These new additions, along with an emerging young core of pitching including Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz, led the Braves to a 94-68 record (finishing 1 game ahead of the San Francisco Giants).
The Braves would defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates 4 games to 3 in the NLCS to advance to the World Series. The Braves went on to lose a dramatic World Series to the Twins 4 games to 3.
6. 2008 Tampa Bay Rays (MLB):
Their story is still being written; however, even if they are swept in the upcoming World Series, their turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Coming into the 2008 season the Rays had never had a winning season.
In fact, 2004 was the only season where the Rays did not finish last in their division (they finished 70-91, 3 games ahead of the last-place Blue Jays).
Competing in a division with big-spending powerhouse clubs like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the future competitiveness of the franchise was very much in doubt.
Seeking a new identity for the team, ownership decided to change the team's name from the Devil Rays to simply the Rays. A new uniform and color scheme was developed featuring a bright yellow sunburst representing the "Sunshine State of Florida." The new and improved Rays, buoyed by much improved defense and pitching, finished the 2008 regular season at 97-65 to win the AL East.
The Rays defeated the Chicago White Sox 3 games to 1 and advanced to the ALCS to face the Boston Red Sox. After taking a 3 games to 1 lead over the Red Sox, the Rays led the Sox 7-0 with 7 outs left to get to the World Series. Boston would rally and take Games 5 and 6 pushing the series to Game 7.
The Rays finally defeated the tenacious defending World Champions 4-2 in Game 7 to advance to the World Series.
5. 2006 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (NCAA Football)
For most of the past several decades the football team from tiny -by BCS school standards—Wake Forest University (2008 enrollment 4,412) were the whipping boys of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The 2006 season was expected to be no different, with the Deacons picked to finish last in the Atlantic Division again by the ACC writers.
However, under 5th year head coach Jim Grobe the Deacons would go 10-2 and win the ACC Championship. Highlights from the season included a shocking 30-0 blowout of traditional powerhouse Florida State in Tallahassee, a 9-6 win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, a trip to the Orange Bowl (which they lost 24-13 to the Louisville Cardinals) and a final ranking of No. 17 by the AP.
Head coach Jim Grobe would win 5 national coach of the year honors and 6 different Wake Forest players were named to All-America teams.
4. 1991 Minnesota Twins (MLB)
The 1990 Twins finished with a surprisingly poor 74-88 record. During the off-season, the Twins added veterans Jack Morris and Chili Davis. Lead by their new additions along with Rookie-of-the-Year Chuck Knoblauch and perennial stars Kent Hrbek and Kirby Pucket, the Twins surged to a 96-67 record in 1991.
The Twins would advance to the World Series to face another worst-to-first team, the Atlanta Braves. The Twins would win one of the most dramatic World Series ever (5 games were decided by a single run, 3 went into extra innings) over the Braves 4 games to 3.
3. 2007-2008 Boston Celtics (NBA):
he 2006-2007 Boston Celtics finished at 24-58, last place in the Atlantic Division and just percentage points ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies for the worst record in the NBA.
During the off-season, the Celtics acquired perennial All-Stars Kevin Garnet and Ray Allen. The 2007-2008 Celtics would go on to complete the greatest single-season improvement in NBA history by going 66-16.
The Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals to face their historic rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics defeated the Lakers 4 games to 2 claiming their 17th championship and first since 1986.
2. 2001 New England Patriots (NFL):
The 2000 Patriots, in their first year under head coach Bill Belichick, finished a dismal 5-11, good for last place in the AFC East. In the second game of the 2001 season, All-Pro starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe was injured causing lightly regarded backup quarterback Tom Brady to enter the game (which the Patriots lost falling to 0-2 for the season).
However, under the former 6th round draft pick the Patriots would reel off an 11-3 regular season run to the playoffs. The Patriots would advance to Super Bowl XXVI with little help from a questionable tuck-rule call in the Divisional Playoffs against the Raiders.
In the Super Bowl, the Patriots would defeat the heavily favored St. Louis Rams 20-17 on Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal kick as time expired.
1. 1999 St. Louis Rams (NFL)
Going into the 1999 season, not much was expected of the Rams, even with their off-season acquisition of future NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk. At the time, Faulk was considered a malcontent and Indianapolis was happy to deal him for a 2nd and 5th round pick.
The outlook grew even more bleak when starting quarterback Trent Green was injured during a pre-season game. Head coach Dick Vermeil turned to a former Arena League quarterback and grocery store stocker saying, "We will rally around Kurt Warner and we will play good football."
And play good football they did. The Rams would go on to go to put up one of the greatest team offensive performances in NFL history en route to a 13-3 regular season record.
They would advance to Super Bowl XXXIV and win a dramatic 23-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans on a game-saving tackle by Mike Jones 1-yard from the goal line as time expired.