15 Best Cinderella Teams in Sports History

Ben Chodos@bchodosCorrespondent IIFebruary 22, 2012

15 Best Cinderella Teams in Sports History

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    Cinderella stories make sports great. From the overachievers to the underdogs to the middle-of-the road teams that got hot at the right time, these are the 15 fairy-tale endings in team-sports history that stand out.

    When a group of athletes is able to come together and defy impossible odds, their exploits are forever cemented in sports scripture.

    Watching an incredible upset can undoubtedly be a religious experience, and when David takes down Goliath, people genuinely believe they are witnessing a miracle.

    Here are the most miraculous journeys that teams have ever taken to reach the promised land.


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    Here is what separates these 15 teams from all the other dark horses that shocked the sports world.

    *All teams must have won a championship. As the story goes, Cinderella shacked up with the prince and got to live in the castle. No team that turned into a pumpkin at midnight gets to be in the top 15.

    *Teams must have been underdogs in multiple elimination games. 

    *The amount of elimination games a team plays, and the odds they overcame in those games are both taken into strong consideration. Teams that faced opponents who were extraordinarily heavy favorites will receive the highest rankings.

    *A movie being made about a team's season significantly affects a team's placement on the list in a positive way.

    *The list is dominated by teams from the past 40 to 50 years because modern teams played against more teams, had more playoff games and faced leagues with much deeper talent pools.

    Now let the listing begin.

Honorable Mentions

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    1949-50 City College of New York men's basketball team: The term "Cinderella story" was first widely used in a sports context to describe CCNY's run to the NCAA tournament championship in 1950. The team fits all the criteria to be on the list, but a point-shaving scandal that broke the following year casts a shadow of illegitimacy over its accomplishments.

    2009-10, 2010-11 Butler Bulldogs: The '09-'10 team came within two points of defeating Duke in the championship game as a five-seed, and the '10-'11 team made it to the finals as an 8-seed. But neither team closed the deal, making them ineligible for this list.

    2004 Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox did complete the most incredible comeback in sports history and were up against a decades-old curse. But for those who do not believe in the supernatural, Boston just was not enough of an underdog to crack the top 15.

    The team had the third best record in baseball during the regular season and finished just three games behind the Yankees. They had a loaded roster and were definitely one of the better squads in the league that year.

    1971 T.C. Williams Titans: The real-life version of the team that inspired Remember the Titans broke racial barriers but were also never really underdogs. Charles Mitchell, a backup running back on the team said this about the season in which they were the top team in Virginia,

    "There were more than a few times that I felt genuinely sorry for the teams we played. We would have won the state championship without the coaches, in my opinion. We were that dominating. We were that deep."

    In addition, a spot on this list was reserved for a different high school state-champion that served as inspiration for a better sports movie.

    2007 Boise State Broncos: The Broncos used the "Statue of Liberty" play to defeat Oklahoma in one of the most thrilling and improbable bowl games in college football history. The fairy-tale ending continued to get more romantic when star running back Ian Johnson proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend after the game. However, Boise State was only an underdog in the Fiesta Bowl, and did not face multiple elimination games.

    Furthermore, the next 15 teams were even more memorable.

15. 1999 St. Louis Rams

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    The 1999 St. Louis Rams looked like a disaster heading in to the regular season. The team was coming off a 4-12 record and starting quarterback Trent Green sustained a season-ending injury before the first week.

    The Rams turned to Kurt Warner, an unknown player who had spent time in NFL Europe and the Arena League. 

    It turned out to be the best decision in franchise history. Warner was also fortunate enough to begin his stint with the Rams in the same season that Marshall Faulk was acquired.

    The two tore through the NFL and debuted "The Greatest Show on Turf."

    The Rams finished 13-3 and battled the Tennessee Titans in one of the most exciting games in Super Bowl history.

    St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones tackled Titans' receiver Kevin Dyson on the 1-yard line as time expired to preserve a Rams' victory and a fairy-tale ending to the season.

14. 1966 Texas Western Miners

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    The 1965-66 Texas Western basketball team became the first to win an NCAA championship with five African American starters.

    The team started the season outside of the limelight but quickly built a reputation by rolling to a 28-1 record. They were the No. 3 seed in the country heading into the tournament.

    The Miners pulled out a thrilling overtime victory over national power Kansas in the Elite Eight and eventually made it to the finals against a formidable Kentucky squad.

    The team changed history by defeating the country's top seed in the finals and would later inspire the book and movie Glory Road.

    The athletes on Texas Western triumphed in the face of bigotry and hatred and had a profound impact on sports history.

13. 2011 St. Louis Cardinals

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    On Aug. 24, 2011, the Cardinals were 10.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild-Card race. By Sept. 28, the team had won 23 of its last 33 games to erase Atlanta's lead and advance to the postseason.

    They then took down a loaded Philadelphia Phillies team and the Milwaukee Brewers, who had beat them out for the NL Central crown.

    In the Game 6 of World Series against the Texas Rangers, the Cardinals staged one of most thrilling comebacks in baseball history. At two different points in the game, they were one strike away from elimination. St. Louis is the only team in World series history to rally back from a ninth-inning deficit and an extra-inning deficit. 

    The Cardinals won 10-9 in the 11th inning and took the final game of the series to take home baseball's biggest prize. 

12. 1954 Milan High School Indians

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    The 1954 basketball season at Milan High in Indiana was the inspiration for Hoosiers, one of the greatest sports movies ever made.

    While Hollywood took some liberties, many of the most amazing parts of the story actually happened to the real members of the "Milan Miracle" team.

    The character Jimmy Chitwood is based on Bobby Plump, who really was the star of the team and really did hit a last second shot to win the Indiana state championship.

    Indiana hosted a single-class style tournament, which meant all school, regardless of size, competed in the same bracket. The school Milan faced in the finals was a perennial powerhouse with a significantly larger enrollment.

    Under the single-class format, no team with an enrollment smaller than Milan's ever won the tournament. In fact, no team with less than five times the enrollment ever became champions.

11. 2004 Pistons

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    The Detroit Pistons finished third in the East during the 2003-04 regular season and showed little signs of being a championship caliber team.

    After Michael Jordan retired in 1999, the Western Conference went on a five-year reign of dominance in which the East only won six finals games.

    The Los Angeles Lakers won three consecutive championships and the San Antonio Spurs took the other two. NBA fans got in the habit of assuming the Western Conference champions would also become league champions.

    When the Lakers returned to the finals with a revamped lineup featuring Gary Payton and Karl Malone, few expected the paradigm-shifting upset that would ensue. 

    The Pistons' five quality starters were too much for the Lakers' top-heavy lineup. Detroit dominated L.A. and won the series 4-1 to complete one of the biggest upsets in finals history.

10. 2007 New York Giants

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    The New York Giants shocked the sports world when the defeated the 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

    The G-Men were the fifth seed in the NFC and, after struggling with consistency during the regular season, finished at10-6.

    In the playoffs, Michael Strahan led the defensive line on a relentless tear through the opposing team's blockers.

    The fearsome trio of Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora proved to be Kryptonite to the seemingly invincible Patriots. 

    No team ever faced worse odds going into a Super Bowl, but the Giants accomplished the unthinkable and took down football's greatest offense.

9. 1983 NC State Wolfpack

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    Jim Valvano led the North Carolina State basketball team into the NCAA tournament as a 6-seed.

    NC State squeaked by Virginia, the top seed in the region, by a one-point margin in the Elite Eight and defeated Georgia in the Final Four.

    They faced Houston, the best team in the country, which was led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. The teams propensity for dunking all over people earned them the nickname "Phi Slamma Jamma."

    In the previous round, Houston had beaten the Louisville Cardinals, who were known as "The Doctors of Dunk." Many considered this game to be the de facto championship.

    NC State was supposed to a speed-bump on the road to Houston's title, but Lorenzo Charles had other plans. Charles snatched a Dereck Whittenburg airball and dropped it in the basket as time expired to give his team a 54-52 victory. 

    The miraculous play sent coach Valvano on a frantic search for someone to hug and gave fans one of the most iconic images in sports history.

8. 2001 New England Patriots

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    No no one knew what was coming when sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady took over at quarterback for injured Drew Bledsoe in the second week of the 2001-02 NFL season—except Tom Brady.

    Brady led the team to an 11-5 record and the third seed in the playoffs, but few expected the upstart Pats to stand a chance against the St. Louis Rams.

    St. Louis had already won the Super Bowl two seasons ago and touted itself as "The Greatest Show on Turf." The team was led by Associated Press MVP Kurt Warner and Pro Football Writers of America MVP Marshall Faulk.

    But the offense stalled against a feisty New England defense and only put up 17 points. Brady's legend began to take shape as he led the Pats down the field and set up a game-winning Adam Vinatieri field goal.

    The Patriots were hailed as a team of destiny and the red, white and blue-clad franchise was a fitting champion in the season succeeding the September 11 attacks. Players and coaches dismissed this topic, but it adds a little something extra to the memorable 2001 Super Bowl victory.

7. 2008 Fresno State Bulldogs

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    The 2008 Fresno State baseball team were a complete afterthought when they entered the NCAA tournament.

    The Bulldogs finished the regular season with a 33-27 record but made it to the postseason after an improbable run to win the Western Athletic Conference tournament.

    The team earned the No. 4 seed in its regional bracket. Since the NCAA baseball tournament only has four seeds in each regional, this is the equivalent of a No. 13 seed or lower in the basketball championships.

    Fresno State defeated Georgia in the finals of the College World Series to overcome mind-boggling odds.

    The Bulldogs became the first team in any NCAA sport to reach the semifinals of the national tournament after being ranked below 48th in the country during the regular season.

    The team took out two No. 2 seeds and two No. 1 seeds and won six elimination games on its way to the title.

    The 2008 baseball national championship was the first for any Fresno State men's team and no team has ever overcome greater odds to win it all.

6. 2004 Greece National Soccer Team

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    In 2004, the Greece national soccer team qualified for the European Championships for the first time in 24 years. The last time the team had played in a major tournament was the 1994 World Cup, and it lost all three of its matches.

    The Ethinki immediately turned heads by defeating Portugal, the host nation, in the opening fixture. The team would go on to tie Spain in the next game and in the group standings. They moved on to the knockout stages via a tiebreaker.

    The road to the finals was daunting and started with defending-champion France. The French went unbeaten in the group stage, but could not crack the Greek defense. The underdogs went on to win the match 1-0.

    In the semifinal, fans were sure that the Greek's dream run would come to an end against the Czech Republic. The Czechs had won all of its matches in the tournament and were the heavy favorites. The Greek defense again refused to budge and the team won 1-0.

    Next up was the finals and a rematch against Portugal. While a pattern had started and spectators should have seen it coming, nearly everyone still believed the Greeks would lose. But sure enough, the blue-clad back line held firm and the Greeks became improbable champions by winning the game 1-0.

5. 2011 Japan Women's National Soccer Team

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    The Japan women's national soccer team entered the 2011 World Cup having won just three games in past tournaments.

    The team made a giant step forward leading up to the World Cup and was ranked No. 4 in the world.

    The Japanese had the support of fans all over the world as their country was disaster-stricken and in mourning.

    Despite being sentimental favorites, no one actually thought they would be able to compete with No. 2 Germany in the quarterfinals. The team showed incredible resolve and won the match 1-0 in overtime.

    Japan reached the finals and faced the United States, the world's top-ranked team. The Japanese trailed by a goal in regulation time and extra time but were able to come back both times to force penalty kicks.

    The brave women brought a moment of joy to their country in the midst of pain and sadness by putting away their penalties and winning the World Cup.

4. 1969 New York Mets

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    1969 was the New York Mets' eighth season as a franchise.

    In the team's history, it had never had a winning record or finished higher than ninth in the 10-team National League. 

    But 1969 was a great year for New Yorkers for so many reasons, and one of them was the Mets. The Big Apple's new team stole some of the struggling Yankees' thunder by winning 100 games in the regular season.

    However, the Baltimore Orioles dominated the American League and finished with an even more impressive 109 wins.

    Both teams cruised through the League Championship series, but conventional wisdom suggested that the new kids on the block had no chance against the established Orioles.

    The "Miracle Mets" took their place in baseball history by blindsiding Baltimore and wining the series 4-1.

3. 1985 Villanova Wildcats

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    The 1985 Villanova men's basketball team is the lowest seed to ever win the NCAA tournament.

    The Wildcats were given the eighth seed in their regional bracket and defeated top-seeded Michigan and second-seed North Carolina to reach the Final Four.

    Once in the semifinals, Villanova defeated Memphis State, another two-seed, to set up a finals match against a Georgetown juggernaut.

    The Hoyas were led by Patrick Ewing and finished the season with a 35-3 record as the country's top-seeded team. Gerogetown had been ranked either first or second for the entire year while the 25-10 Wildcats were on no one's radar.

    The game was supposed to be a blowout, but on April Fools' Day in 1985, Villanova was in a history-making mood. The team defeated the overwhelmingly favored Hoyas 66-64 and recorded the greatest upset in college basketball history. 

2. 1969 New York Jets

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    1969 was the year of counter-culture, and the New York Jets embraced that.

    Joe Namath, the team's quarterback was a larger-than-life personality with many less-than-wholesome hobbies.

    The Jets were New York's second team behind the Giants and played in the supposedly less competitive American Football League.

    In the first two Super Bowls, the Green Bay Packers represented the National Football League and demolished the AFL champion. Few people in the late 1960s felt that any AFL team could compete with the best of the NFL.

    Namath was not one of these people and he was not shy about letting others know his opinion. The quarterback famously guaranteed a Jets victory in Super Bowl III, despite facing Johnny Unitas and the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.

    But Broadway Joe delivered on his bold promise and defeated Baltimore 16-7, forever putting the AFL on the map.

1. 1980 United State Olympic Hockey Team

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    The 1980 United States Olympic men's hockey team is the greatest Cinderella story in sports.

    The team was a scrappy bunch of college kids who made history by defeating the USSR 4-3 in the semifinals. The Soviets had won the previous four gold medals and were universally considered to be the best team in the world.

    The game had importance on an even deeper level as it came in the midst of the Cold War and national tensions added another element to the game.

    The Soviets led 3-2 heading into the third period, but the relentless Americans clawed back to tie the game and a Michael Eruzione shot gave the U.S. a one-goal lead, which would be enough to shock the world. 

    The team went on to defeat Finland, win the gold medal and inspire the movie Miracle.

    Insurmountable odds, countries at war, a Disney-worthy story and a victory for America—no sports story could ever be better.


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