Monday, August 09, 2010

The top ten post-season chokejobs in Houston sports history

A couple of weeks ago, the Houston Press presented their list of the ten best moments in Houston sports history, as well as the "five most heartbreaking." At the top of their ten best list was, of course, the Rockets' back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.

The Press notes that after the Rockets blew large leads - at home, no less - to the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the 1994 playoffs, a Houston Chronicle headline cynically proclaimed "Choke City." However, the Rockets didn't choke; they went on to win the next two games in Phoenix to win that series, giving rise to the "Clutch City" meme. The Rockets then defeated the Utah Jazz for the conference title, and edged the New York Knicks in seven games to secure the city's first major sports league championship. The following year, the Rockets won it all in even more compelling fashion, battling their way through the Western Conference playoffs as a six seed and sweeping the Orlando Magic in the finals.

But the Press admits that "for now, the Rockets stand alone as the only team to provide Houston thrills without subsequent disappointment." The 2003 Rice Owls baseball team and the 2006-07 Dynamo might disagree with that statement, of course, but I understand the general sentiment. That, combined with some of the items in the Press's "five most heartbreaking moments" list, led me to realize that, in many ways, Houston really is "Choke City" and that one could easily make a top ten list of Houston sports chokejobs. So I decided to do so, focusing exclusively on postseason events (regular season chokes just don't carry the same baggage of disappointment).

By "choke," I mean a situation where a Houston team has the advantage - either a big lead or is favored to win - but fails to do so. Therefore, not all of the myriad disappointing outcomes in Houston sports history qualify as "chokes." While the 1979 AFC Championship, the 1980 and 1986 NBA Finals, or the 1986 NLCS might be dark moments in Houston sports history, they don't count as chokes because the Oilers, Rockets and Astros, respectively, were considered the underdogs in those matchups. Albert Pujol's blasting of Brad Lidge's pitch in game 5 of the 2005 NLCS doesn't count either, especially since the Astros ended up winning the series. The 2005 World Series itself also does not count, because even if the Astros did get swept, they were swept by a White Sox team with a better record and home-field advantage. Besides, the simple fact that the Astros made it to the World Series is good enough to keep it off this list.

So without further ado, I present the Mean Green Cougar Red list of the Top Ten Post-season Chokejobs in Houston Sports History:

10. UH vs Air Force, 2009 Armed Forces Bowl

Maybe I'm putting this here simply because the Coogs' inexcusable 20-47 loss to Air Force in Fort Worth last New Year's Eve is still fresh in my mind. But I think it belongs, considering that Vegas had the Cougars favored by five.

Sure, the Coogs limped into the postseason with a depleted defense and losses in three of their last five games. And yes, it was hard to get motivated to play the same team in the same bowl game as the year before. But with the team's pride, and a possible season-ending top 25 ranking on the line, the Coogs simply did not show up to play. Case Keenum was especially atrocious, throwing six interceptions.

Thus a 2009 season that saw the Coogs upset highly-ranked Oklahoma State on the road, win a thriller over Texas Tech at home, and climb as high as #12 in the polls ended on a sour, unranked note. I can only hope that this bitter and embarrassing season-ending loss motivates the team to do better this fall.

9. Astros vs Cardinals, 2004 NLCS

The Astros had finally done it: they had beaten the hated Atlanta Braves in the divisional series, thereby securing their very first series victory in the baseball postseason. Now they faced off against division rival St. Louis for the opportunity to go to their first-ever World Series.

It wasn't going to be easy; St. Louis was division champion and had home-field advantage. But after falling behind in St. Louis two games to nothing, the Astros swept their homestand at Minute Maid Park to take a 3-2 series lead (Jeff Kent's home run in game five makes the Press's top ten list). That meant they had two chances to seal the deal and go to the World Series. Things looked especially advantageous for the Astros considering that they had ace pitcher Roger Clemens ready for game seven, if necessary.

Alas, the Astros dropped game six to the Cardinals and, in spite of Clemens' presence on the mound in game seven, lost that game as well to yield the series and the league crown to St. Louis. Of course, considering that the Cardinals went on to get swept by the Red Sox in the World Series, thereby cementing their role in baseball history as the team to which Boston's 86-year-old "Curse of the Bambino" ended, maybe the Astros lucked out by losing. Especially since they'd meet the Cardinals again the following October, with better results.

8. Rockets vs Dallas, 2005 NBA Western Conference First Round

This is the mirror opposite of the 1994 series against Phoenix which gave rise to the "Clutch City" meme. The Rockets jumped out to a 2-0 series lead on the road, and, with their next two games at home, looked to be in the drivers' seat. Unfortunately, the Rockets simply couldn't handle such prosperity; they lost the next two games at Toyota Center to surrender their home court advantage, and eventually lost to the Mavericks in seven games. Game seven, incidentally, was a true beatdown: the Rockets got hammered, 76-116.

7. Oilers vs Denver, 1992 AFC Divisonal Playoff

The 1991 Houston Oilers had won their very first AFC Central Division title with an 11-5 record, and had taken care of the New York Jets in the first round of the playoffs. On January 4, 1992, they traveled to Mile High Stadium in Denver. Beat the Broncos, and the Oilers would be one game away from the Super Bowl.

Things started out well enough. At one point the Oilers jumped out to a 21-6 lead. But the offense got bogged down, only managing a single field goal from there on, while the Broncos climbed back to get within a point of the Oilers late in the game. And that's when John Elway worked another one of his miracles. Starting from his own two yard line, Elway methodically marched the Broncos down the field, receiving only token resistance from the Oiler defense. The highlight (or lowlight) of the drive was Elway's 44-yard pass to Vance Johnson on fourth down and ten with 59 seconds left to play. The Broncos kicked a field goal with sixteen seconds remaining to win the game.

With that, the dream of "Super Blue in '92" came to an end. This Oiler chokejob was a harbinger of things to come.

6. Rockets vs Jazz, 1997 NBA Western Conference Finals

The Rockets were one year removed from back-to-back titles and were looking to add a third ring to the Clutch City dynasty. They had even acquired Charles Barkley from the Suns expressly for that purpose. After sweeping Minnesota in the first round and finally defeating their nemesis Seattle Supersonics in the second round, they faced off against the Utah Jazz in the third round.

Maybe the Jazz were the better team that year. And, given that they were up three games to two, maybe they would have won the series regardless of the outcome of game six. But this counts as a choke simply because the Rockets were leading comfortably at home in game six - 90-77 with 6:42 left to play - when they collapsed down the stretch, allowing the Jazz to claw their way back into the game and, with the help of John Stockton's last-second three-pointer, win the game as well as the series.

That would turn out to be the last gasp of the Clutch City Rockets. Eleven seasons would pass before the franchise would notch another postseason series victory.

5. Oilers vs Kansas City, 1994 AFC Divisional Playoff

After a shaky start to the 1993 season, the Oilers rattled off an impressive eleven straight wins, which was enough to secure themselves a 12-4 record, the AFC Central Division title, a first round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage in the second round against Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Once again, the Oilers jumped out early, leading 10-0 at halftime. And once again, they let the other team back into the game, allowing the Chiefs to score 21 unanswered points in the second half. The Oilers scored a late touchdown to cut the deficit to one point, but all that did was give the Montana-led Chiefs an opportunity to march 79 yards down the field. The game-winning touchdown was scored on a 21-yard Marcus Allen run.

Mercifully, this would be the Oilers' last chokejob while in Houston. Three seasons later, they moved to Tennessee.

4. Astros vs Philies, 1980 NLCS

The 1980 Astros, with a roster full of players whose names are now legendary amongst Houston sports fans - Alan Ashby, José Cruz, Joe Morgan, Joe Niekro, Tery Puhl and Nolan Ryan, just to name a few - notched their first division title with a 93-70 record and secured "Home Dome" advantage in the championship series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

From a baseball perspective, this was an exciting series, with four of the five games going into extra innings. After splitting the first two games in Philadelphia, the Astros won a true pitcher's duel in an eleven-inning game three to put them within one game of the World Series.

But they couldn't get it done. In game four, the Astros managed a two-run lead and at one point were six outs away from winning it all. However, the Astros were unable to pad that lead in spite of bases-loaded situations in the sixth and seventh innings, and in the eighth inning the Phillies scored three runs to go ahead. The Astros tied things up again in the 9th, but Philadelphia won the game in the 10th. In game five, the Astros once again found themselves in a similar situation, up by three runs with six outs remaining. In spite of the fact that Nolan Ryan was on the mound, the Phillies scored five runs in the eighth to take the lead. Once again, the Astros managed to tie the game. And once again, the Phillies managed to win in extra innings.

For most Astros fans, time and the 2005 World Series appearance might have erased the pain of this series. But, given that the Astros were playing at home and were six outs from winning not once but twice, this still counts as one of the bigger chokes in Houston's tortured sports history.

3. UH vs Notre Dame, 1979 Cotton Bowl

Long before it was the Oilers choking to a Joe Montana-led team in the postseason, it was the Cougars. The Coogs, who had managed a 9-2 record, a Southwest Conference championship and a #9 AP ranking going into the bowl, faced off against Notre Dame (8-3, AP #10) on a frigid and blustery New Year's Day in Dallas. The Irish scored the game's first 12 points, but Houston then rattled off 34 consecutive unanswered points to take control of the game. And that's when Joe Montana took over.

Montana, who had been suffering from hypothermia, spent most of the second half in the Irish locker room, drinking chicken broth. With seven and a half minutes left in the game, he returned to the field. Seemingly buoyed by the return of their quarterback, Irish special teams promptly blocked a Cougar punt to score a touchdown. Montana passed for the two-point conversion to make it 34-20. The Houston Veer offense stagnated on the ensuing position and the Irish got the ball back. Montana then marched the team on a 61-yard, five-play drive to score another touchdown and conversion to cut Houston's lead to six.

Again, Houston could do nothing on offense. And again, Montana got the ball back. However, with 1:50 remaining, Houston linebacker David Hodge forced Montana to fumble and the Coogs regained possession. All the Cougars needed to do to seal the win was to gain a first down.

They couldn't. For whatever reason, the Coogs chose to go for it on 4th and one from their own 29 rather than punt, and got stuffed at the line of scrimmage by Notre Dame. That gave Joe Montana a short field and 28 seconds to pull off the miracle, and that was all he needed. Montana found receiver Kris Haines in the endzone with no time left on the clock to tie the game, and Notre Dame, after having their first extra point attempt negated by a penalty, successfully scored on their second attempt to cap off one of the greatest comebacks in college football history, 35-34.

The Cougars would return to the Cotton Bowl the following year and redeem themselves by defeating Nebraska, 17-14, in an eerily similar fashion (a fourth-down touchdown pass with twelve seconds remaining). But the 1979 game has nevertheless gone down as one of the biggest chokejobs in Cougar athletic history, second only to...

2. UH vs North Carolina State, 1983 NCAA Basketball Championship

All these years later it's still a bitter pill for UH fans to swallow, especially considering how far UH basketball has fallen since the Phi Slamma Jama era.

Everybody knows what happened. CBS can't help but repeatedly air the clip during every March Madness broadcast. There's Derek Whittenburg inbounding the ball on a high arch, Lorenzo Charles taking the ball and dunking it over a clueless Hakeem Olajuwon's head, the buzzer sounding, Jimmy Valvano running out on the court madly screaming and flailing his arms, Cougar players crying and pounding the hardwood with their firsts... I've seen this clip so many times but simply can't get desensitized to it. Every time I see it I want to throw up.

It's easy to make excuses for the Coogs, i.e. that they were exhausted after their thrilling victory over Louisville in the semifinal (another moment on the Press top ten list) or that the high altitude of Albuquerque was taking its toll on a bunch of kids from the coast, or that Guy Lewis's decision to order the high-flying Cougar offense into "stall" mode during the second half was a mistake. But in the end, this choke occurred the way so many chokes occur: complacency. As a former player tells the Press:
"We took them seriously, but we didn't take them that seriously," says Bryan Williams, a member of that Phi Slama Jama team. "We were kids — we thought we had it in the bag already. We won that big high game and, for us, we knew we were going to beat NC State, they weren't even supposed to be there, so we knew we were going to walk all over them, and I guess everybody got kinda, well, horse before the cart."
The Cougars managed to make it back to the championship game the following year, but were dispatched by Georgetown. That was the end of Phi Slamma Jama. The Cougars haven't won a game in the Big Dance since.

1. Oilers vs Buffalo, NFL AFC Wildcard Playoff

Speaking of meltdowns caused by complacency, this one is the obvious number one. The Oilers, who led the Bills 35-3 early in the 3rd quarter, allowed Buffalo, led by back-up quarterback Frank Reich, to rally furiously to a 41-38 victory in overtime.

This game has own name - "The Comeback" - and is rated by some people as not only the biggest choke job in Houston history, or pro football history, but sports history, period. It is the very definition of "chokejob," a display of gutlessness and lack of character so jawdropping that almost two decades later it's hard to believe it actually happened. But happen it did, a feat which might never be equalled in the history of sport.

Honorable Mentions: University of Houston vs UCSB, 2004 NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament (the Chandi Jones - led Lady Coogs notched a 27-3 record, a conference title, and a #3 seed going the women's version of the Big Dance, but were bounced out in the second round, 52-56, by #11 seed UC Santa Barbara; to the Lady Coogs' defense, this was essentially a home game for the Lady Gauchos; UCSB got to host the first and second rounds of their part of the bracket) and Rice vs Troy State, 2006 New Orleans Bowl (yes, I know that this was Rice's first bowl game in 45 years. But still: a 17-41 blowout? To Troy State?)

So that's my top ten list. Looking at it, it's easy to understand why Houston sports fans are some of the nation's most cynical and jaded. What say you?

For further reading regarding the Press's top ten (and bottom five): Sean Pendergast's "best of the best" list of the Clutch City Rockets' greatest moments is here. Richard Connelly provides his reflections regarding the lists here. John Royal's own list of Houston's top ten sports moments can be read here, and a list of highlights and lowlights that didn't make the Press's cut (although a couple of them made mine) are here.

My only critique about the Press's top ten list is that it doesn't include Rice's College World Series championship in 2003.

(Speaking of the Houston Press, big-time congrats are in order to a high school classmate of mine, Troy Schulze, who has been named the paper's Arts & Culture Editor.)

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