The unpredictability of sports is one of its greatest attractions. We all expect the dominant teams and players to capture the titles they are favored to win. However, it is the teams and players that come out of nowhere to capture a championship who are remembered forever.
Some sports see unlikely champions more often than others. These ten champions surprised their sport and the general public by defeating a more favored opponent to capture their sport's championship trophy.
At the dawn of the 1989 NCAA Tournament, then University of Michigan Head Coach Bill Frieder announced his resignation to accept a position at Arizona State. Famously, legendary Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler announced he wanted a Michigan man coaching Michigan, so Steve Fisher succeeded Frieder. Led by Glenn Rice's 184 points in six games, the Wolverines went on to win the national championship.
In the national semifinal, Michigan avenged two regular season losses to Illinois to advance to the championship.
In the final they met first time finalist Seton Hall. The game was the first National Championship game to go to overtime since 1963. Michigan's Rumeal Robinson was fouled with three seconds remaining in overtime. He went on to make both free throws and give the Wolverines an 80-79 victory and the school's first title.
At least six Wolverines from that team played in the NBA.
Francesca Schiavone entered the 2010 French Open as the 17th seed. Her previous best finish had been three quarterfinal appearances at the French, Wimbledon and the US Open. She became only the second double digit seed to ever win the French Open women's title. After losing the first set of the first round, she rattled off 13 straight sets to win her first Grand Slam at the age of 29. Her win vaulted her 11 spots in the rankings to number six with Wimbledon just around the corner.
100 years later, Donerail remains the highest payout for a Kentucky Derby winner. With 91-1 odds Donerail won by half a length.
Becker entered his first Wimbledon unseeded. Becker stunned four seeded players on his way to the title. He also won two five set matches during the fortnight.
Becker upset eighth seeded Kevin Curran to win the Final. Becker's big serve and diving all over the court made him a Wimbledon favorite. His 1985 victory made him, at the time, the youngest Grand Slam Tennis champion ever at 17 years and seven months. The record would later be broken by Michael Chang.
Volponi pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Breeders Cup History when he won the Classic with odds at 44-1. He was competing against favorite Medaglia d'Oro, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Winner War Emblem, and Kentucky Derby favorite Harlan's Holiday. Volponi not only shocked the field by winning as a long shot, but his 6.5 length win is the biggest margin in Breeders Cup History.
2006 St. Louis Cardinals- The 125th season of the St. Louis Cardinals was one of its most unlikely. A year after winning 103 games a being upset in the National League Championship series to the Houston Astros, the Cardinals won only 83 games.
They began the season 31-16 and appeared to be the best team in the National League for the second consecutive season. The Cardinals 83-78 record was the third worst record for a playoff team.
The 1973 Mets and the 2005 Padres were the only teams to qualify for the playoffs with worse records. Coincidently, those are the teams the Cardinals eliminated in the 2006 NL Postseason.
Jeff Suppan was the MVP of the NLCS. He allowed only one run in 15 innings and hit a home run in game three.
After winning the NL Pennant, the Cardinals defeated an error prone Detroit Tigers in five games for their first World Series Championship since 1982. David Eckstein earned MVP Honors with a .364 batting averages and four rbi's.
At the time, few would have guessed that as the Patriots stood at the precipice of history, the final game of the 2007 regular season would become a preview of Super Bowl XLII. As the Pats tried to complete an undefeated season, the Giants played all their regulars in an attempt to end New England's perfect season. In the end, the Patriots prevailed 38-35 to complete a 16-0 season.
However, the New York Giants were able to avenge their regular season loss by ending the Patriots perfect season on Super Bowl Sunday.
Chang was seeded 15th at the 1989 French Open. Prior to his entry at Roland Garros, Chang's best Grand Slam finish was the fourth round at the 1988 US Open. His title came virtually out of nowhere.
The most memorable match during his run to the title occurred in the fourth round. Chang faced the reigning Australian Open Champion Ivan Lendl who had won in Paris three times. Lendl took a two sets to none lead but Chang stayed alive winning by the third set. However, he seemed doom in the fourth when he developed cramps. Chang had to resort to any tactic he could stay alive.
His unusual game included high arching shots, aka moon balls, underhanded serves, standing high inside the baseline (almost at the t-line) and going for as many winners as possible. The strategies worked. Lendl seemed to come unnerved by Chang's tactics. Chang would later say that he considered retiring up 2-1 in the fifth, but "felt an unbelievable conviction in [his] heart to continue". He won the fifth set 6-3 in a match that took four hours and 37 minutes to complete.
After wins over Ronald Agenor and Andrei Chesnokov in the quarters and semis, Chang matched up with Stefan Edberg, who was a three time Grand Slam Champion at the time. Chang authored another comeback after trailing two sets to one. He won the final two sets 6-4, 6-2 to become the youngest Grand Slam Champion by four months at 17 years and three months. That would be the only Grand Slam title Chang would ever win.
Led by Jim Valvao, North Carolina State is the most improbable NCAA Champion in history. The Wolfpack entered the ACC Tournament likely needing to win it to get into the NCAA Tournament. After a 71-70 first round win over Wake Forest, NC State faced the unenviable task of defeating ACC Co-Champions North Carolina and Virginia in the semis and finals to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
They held on to eliminate UNC and Michael Jordan 81-74 in overtime. After beating the best player ever, they next matched up with UVA and three-time player of the year, Ralph Sampson. An 81-78 victory gave NC State the Conference tournament champions and the league's automatic bid.
In the first round, NC State had to rally from a six point deficit with 24 seconds left before the three-point field-goal was introduced to the game. After the win over Pepperdine, the Wolfpack upset UNLV 71-70 in the second round, and won easily against tenth-seeded Utah to advance to the West regional finals for a fourth meeting of the season with Virginia and Sampson. They survived another tight game 63-62 to move on the the Final Four. Behind Whittenberg's 24 points, NC State overcame a five point halftime deficit to win.
The Wolfpack won their semifinal game with Georgia, dubbed the JV 67-60 to match-up with number one Houston, who had defeated number two Louisville for a championship bid.
Valvano did a brilliant coaching job in the final. Houston had a clear advantage in talent but were somehow matched by NC State.
It all came down to the final play.
In one of the most famous plays in tournament history, Whittenberg fired up a shot from 30 feet away, and Charles caught it and dunked for the 52-50 win. Valvano ran around looking for someone to hug and the players all seemed to take a while to realize what they had just accomplished.
The Cougars had Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon who would do on to be named to the NBA 50 greatest players in NBA history. NC State was more cerebral. Backcourt mates Sidney Lowe and Derrick Whittenberg would later become Head Coaches and reserve Terry Gannon became an accomplished sports broadcaster.
Drexler once said it was a higher power that meant for NC St. to win. The national championship gave Valvano instant national credibility. His death at age 47 from cancer was the inspiration for the V Foundation. They have raised $90 million for cancer research in the 17 years since. Drexler suggested without that victory, the V-Foundation would not have had as much success.
The Jets entered Super Bowl III as an 18 point underdog. Jets Quarterback Joe Namath boldly predicted the Jets would win during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Namath led the Jets by completing 17 of 28 for 206 yards. Matt Snell carried 30 times for 121 yards and the Jets lone touchdown and George Sauer caught eight passes for 121 yards.
The game was the first game that was called the Super Bowl at the time of the game. The unlikely victory catapulted Namath to stardom and forced those that followed professional football to respect the AFL. Two years later, the NFL and AFL would complete the merger.