The 25 Greatest Winners in Sports History

Chris ConnContributor IIIAugust 16, 2011

The 25 Greatest Winners in Sports History

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    "You play to win the game."

    Herm Edwards may have said it best, yet over the course of sports history, certain individuals have personified this adage better than others.

    And I'm not talking about Charlie Sheen's definition of winning.

    A winner is someone who knows the price of success and has developed a habit of coming out on top. 

    Without further ado, let's take a look at the 25 greatest winners of all-time.   

Honorable Mention

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    Scottie Pippen

    Scottie Pippen was a six time NBA champion, a seven time All-Star and even had his jersey number retired by the Chicago Bulls.

    There's no doubt that he was a great player, but the Hall of Famer always played second fiddle to Michael Jordan.

    To make the top 25, you have to be an undisputed leader.

25. Knute Rockne

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    Kicking off the top 25 is famed Notre Dame head football coach Knute Rockne.

    Guided by his 25 Commandments, Rockne was undoubtedly one of the greatest leaders that college sports has ever seen. In just 13 years of coaching, he compiled five undefeated seasons, six national championships and 105 wins. 

    To put in perspective how dominant he was, Rockne coached more seasons at Notre Dame (13) than he lost games (12).

    Though his career was cut short by a tragic plane crash in 1931, Rockne leaves a lasting legacy of loyalty, hard work and success.

24. Geno Auriemma

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    Before Geno Auriemma arrived in Connecticut, the Huskies had just one winning season under their belt.

    Fast forward to 2011, and the UCONN has won 14 Big East conference tournaments titles, 12 Final Fours and 7 national championships since Geno's arrival.

    In fact, Auriemma's Huskies have made it to the Sweet 16 every year since 1993.

    Geno's dynasty in Storrs includes four of the six undefeated seasons in NCAA women's college basketball history, seven AP Coach of the Year Awards, and an NCAA record 90 game winning streak.

23. Derek Jeter

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    The Captain, Derek Jeter has been the cornerstone of a Yankee dynasty that has won five World Series in fifteen years.

    In an era marred by steroid use, he not only played the game right, but he played it exceptionally well. 

    Jeter has been selected to 12 All-Star games, won 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, a Rookie of the Year and a World Series MVP award.

    A surefire Hall of Famer, he is more than just the heart and soul of the Yankees; Jeter is arguably the best postseason performer in recent memory. 

22. Martina Navratilova

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    Former tennis great Billie Jean King once said that Martina Navratilova is the greatest "singles, doubles, and mixed doubles player who's ever lived."

    With 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 Grand Slam doubles titles and 10 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, King has a pretty compelling case.

    Navratilova completely dominated women's tennis during the 1980s.

    To highlight some of her career achievements, she made 19 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals between 1983-1988, she won Wimbledon nine times and she holds the record for most titles won in both singles (167) and doubles (177).

    To further affirm herself as a winner, Navratilova came out of retirement and win three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, the last of which came just a month before her 50th birthday.

21. Mickey Mantle

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    Mickey Mantle was easily one of the best hitters to ever step up to the plate.

    A 20 time All-Star and three time Most Valuable Player, Mantle played his whole career in pinstripes, helping lead the Yankees to seven World Series Championships.

    Mantle is often regarded as the best switch-hitter of all-time, and his knack for crushing the baseball is only paralleled by his proclivity for winning games. 

20. Magic Johnson

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    Wherever he has gone, Magic Johnson has won basketball games.

    As a senior in high school, he led his Lansing-Everett (MI) team to a state championship.

    As a sophomore at Michigan State, he led the Spartans to an NCAA championship over rival Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores.

    In the NBA, Johnson carried the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships, three of which he was named Finals MVP.

    And to complete the quartet, Magic was a member of the "Dream Team" that brought home gold following the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

    That's a winner's résumé if I've ever seen one. 

19. Lance Armstrong

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    Though Armstrong has been subject to recent controversy, the seven-time Tour de France winner has never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.

    Setting the rumors aside, winning the Tour de France--arguably the most physically grueling test of endurance in all of sports-- seven times in a row, is nothing short of remarkable.

    And many believe that his biggest victory had nothing to do with cycling.

    Defeating cancer--now that's a winner.

18. Joe Montana

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    The Comeback Kid Joe Montana comes in at No. 18.

    Not only is Montana widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in football history, but he is also recognized as one of the most clutch athletes in all of sports.

    A four-time Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers, Montana was the game's most valuable player not once, not twice, but a record three times.

    And if his NFL achievements weren't enough, look no further than the 1979 Cotton Ball Classic when the flu-ridden Montana orchestrated a 23 point comeback to lead his Notre Dame team to victory in the final seconds.   

17. Roger Federer

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    Roger Federer is hands down the most dominant player in men's tennis history.

    Some argue that Pete Sampras was better, but Federer's numbers speak for themselves.

    Between 1990-2002, Sampras won 14 of 49 majors (28.6%), but Federer more than doubled that percentage, winning 16 of 27 majors (59.3%) between 2003-2010.

    He has won the Australian Open four times, the U.S. Open five times and Wimbledon six times, and the book is still open on this sweet-swinging winning machine.

16. Maurice and Henri Richard

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    Maurice and Henri Richard won the Stanley Cup a combined 19 times for their hometown Montreal Canadiens during the mid 20th century. 

    Though his younger brother Henri won more championships, Maurice, or "Rocket" as he was called, is often regarded as the better player and is appropriately immortalized by the trophy awarded to the NHL's best goal scorer.

    Both brothers are Hall of Famers, and interestingly Henri Richard is the only athlete in sports history who retired with more championships than birthdays (he was born on February, 29th).

15. Pat Summitt

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    Coming in at No. 15 is Geno Auriemma's rival, University of Tennessee women's head basketball coach Pat Summitt.

    Summitt's Lady Vols have made the NCAA tournament every season since it originated in 1982, and they have made the Sweet 16 all but once.

    To put that in perspective, North Carolina holds the men's NCAA record for most consecutive tournament appearances with 27, and between 1982-2009 Summit's Tennessee team made the same number of consecutive Sweet 16s! 

    With over 1,000 career wins, eight national championships, a gold medal at the Pan America games as a player and a gold medal in the Olympics as a coach, Pat Summitt is an easy top 15 choice. 

14. Joe Dimaggio

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    Joe Dimaggio is generally remembered solely for his historic 56 game hitting streak (which could have been 73 games had Indians third baseman Ken Keltner not made two fantastic plays to end it), but Joltin' Joe's career lasted more than just one streaky summer.

    Dimaggio was a 13 time all-star and a nine time World Series champion despite missing three years in the prime of his career to enlist in the Air Force during World War II. 

    Oh, and he married Marilyn Monroe.

    That's winning.

13. Joe Greene

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    Mean Joe Greene was the anchor of Pittsburgh's renowned "Steel Curtain" defense that won four Super Bowls during the 1970s.

    A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Greene had a deadly combination of brute strength, lightning quickness and an immense winner's mentality.

    He was a ten time Pro Bowler whose ruthlessly competitive attitude makes him one of the greatest winners in football history. 

12. Jack Nicklaus

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    Coming in at No. 12 is the best golfer of all time, the "Golden Bear" Jack Nicklaus.

    Nicklaus won a record 18 majors between 1962-1980, which includes the British Open three times, the U.S. Open four times, the PGA Championship five times and the Masters six times.

    Many have speculated that Tiger Woods will some day break his record, but until then, Nicklaus wears the crown as golf's greatest winner.

11. Wayne Gretzky

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    Wayne Gretzky is without a doubt the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of skates.

    The NHL's all time leader in goals and assists, Gretzky amassed nearly 1,000 more career points than the next player on the list, his former teammate Mark Messier.

    The Great One won four Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe trophies, and led the NHL is points ten times.

    Not to mention, his jersey number 99 was retired league-wide.  

10. Paul "Bear" Bryant

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    Kicking off the top 10 is legendary University of Alabama head football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

    In 25 seasons at Alabama, Bryant won 14 SEC championships and six national championships.

    He was the SEC coach of the year 12 times, national coach of the year three times, and named head coach of Sports Illustrated's NCAA Football All-Century Team. 

9. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    Like Magic Johnson, wherever Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went, championships followed.

    In high school, Abdul-Jabbar led his Power Memorial Academy to a 79-2 overall record and three straight New York City Catholic championships.

    In college, he played three season at UCLA winning the NCAA tournament as well as its Most Outstanding Player Award each year.

    And in the NBA, Kareem the Dream won six championships and two NBA Finals MVPs with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    The NBA's all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a 19 time All-Star and a six time NBA MVP whose jersey number has been retired by two different teams.

8. Yogi Berra

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    The fourth New York Yankee to make the list, Yogi Berra makes it seem like "it's déjà vu all over again"

    With all puns aside, the famed pinstriped catcher and king of malapropistic quotes, comes in at No. 8.

    An 18 time All-Star selection and three time American League MVP, Berra won 13 World Series as a player and coach for the New York Yankees and New York Mets.

7. Phil Jackson

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    It's strange to wonder what stars Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant would have been without the tutelage and coaching of Phil Jackson.

    The "Zen Master" as he is often called, perfected the Triangle Offense to the tune of 11 NBA championships over a 20 year period.

    Jackson's 11 NBA championships gives him the most rings as a head coach in American professional sports history.  

6. Sugar Ray Robinson

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    Though Muhammad Ali gets most of the love, Sugar Ray Robinson was the best pound for pound fighter in boxing history.

    As an amateur, Robinson was 85-0 with 69 of his wins coming by way of knockout.

    He turned professional at the age of 19 and went on to a 128-1-2 record over the next 11 years.

    He was strong, fast and fluid, and all he did was win.

    Though his record dipped a bit as he aged, Robinson still finished his career with an astounding 173-19-6 record with 108 total knockouts. 

5. Red Auerbach

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    Red Auerbach set the standard for elite coaching by winning nine NBA championships with the Boston Celtics between 1957-1966.

    But that wasn't enough.

    Following his ninth championship Auerbach ditched the sidelines and won an additional seven championships as the Celtics general manager and team president.

    In total, Red and his cigars won 16 NBA titles over a 29 year period with the Celtics, giving his fingers an unprecedented brightness.

4. Vince Lombardi

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    With numerous immortal quotations on the nature of winning, it is no surprise that Vince Lombardi is in the top 5.

    The famed head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi won five NFL Championships including the first two Super Bowls.

    Not only did Lombardi compile an impressive 105-35-6 overall record, but he was 9-1 when it counted most in ten career playoff games.

    With his numbers and his winning attitude, it is only appropriate that Lombardi is immortalized by the NFL's most prized hardware.

3. Michael Jordan

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    MJ, Air Jordan, His Airness, call him what you will, but Michael Jeffrey Jordan was a true magician on the basketball court. 

    After winning an NCAA championship at North Carolina, Jordan entered the NBA draft and was selected third overall by the Chicago Bulls.

    And, well, the rest is history.

    The NBA's all-time leader in points per game, Jordan was a 14 time All-Star, ten time scoring champion, and five time MVP.

    He led the Chicago Bulls to six world championships and won the NBA Finals MVP award each time.

    Often regarded as the best athlete of all-time, Michael Jordan is a true winner in every sense of the word.

2. John Wooden

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    The Wizard of Westwood had it all.

    As a player, Wooden won a national championship at Purdue and was the first to be named a basketball All-American three times. 

    As a coach, he constructed the Pyramid of Success and led the UCLA men's basketball team to ten national championships, including seven straight, during the 1960s and 70s.

    Under Wooden, the Bruins had four perfect 30-0 seasons, an 88 game winning streak and a 38 game NCAA tournament winning streak. 

    An unrivaled mentor, John Wooden's ability to win and win right makes him the greatest coach of all-time.

1. Bill Russell

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    And the winningest winner in sports history is none other than basketball legend Bill Russell.

    Russell led the University of San Francisco to three Final Fours and two National Championships while averaging upwards of 20 points and 20 rebounds throughout his college career.

    Following college, Russell brought his winning ways to Boston where he anchored a Celtics frontline that won 11 championships over a 13 year period (two of which came while he was a player/coach).

    He is 12 time NBA All-Star, five time MVP, an Olympic gold medalist, and following the 2009 season the NBA decided to name the NBA Finals MVP Award after Bill Russell.

    And to complete his winning pedigree, Bill Russell was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama for his accomplishments during the Civil Rights Movement.

    With an unmatched combination of individual achievements and team successes, Bill Russell prevails as the greatest winner of all-time.

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