If the election of Barack Obama hadn't pretty much seized the word "historic" for all of 2008, I would have used that adjective to characterize the past year in sports. I'm hard-pressed to recall a year of such surpassing achievement and drama. The good news is that most of these stories were actually good news; last year, Marion Jones, Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, Don Imus dominated headlines—five of my top 10 stories in 2007 were tales of bad-news boys and girls. (Not that 2008 didn't witness stumbles, but Plaxico Burress's sins don't rank that high and O.J.'s ties to sports exist strictly—and ironically—in the realm of nostalgia.) The countdown starts this week with 25 through 11 and concludes next week with the top 10. My annual disclaimer: this list is no more definitive than the BCS rankings—just my opinion reflecting my tastes. Feel free to disagree and share yours in the comments.
25) Cash Crunch
Even as it still throws around record sums, the sports world is hardly inured to the global economic woes. NASCAR eliminated practice runs on the track, big spender Honda pulled out of Formula One, the LPGA lost several tournaments, the Arena Football League canceled its 2009 season and even Tiger Woods felt the pinch, as General Motors dropped its sponsorship of the country's premiere athlete. And the NFL is laying off employees. One wonders if the New York Mets stadium will really open this spring as CitiField? Upcoming Olympics—Vancouver in 2010 and London 2012—are feeling the squeeze, too. This story is a late-bloomer in 2008, but looms as a blockbuster in the coming year.
s Too Old? Not Papa Joe!
His critics insisted he should have retired years ago, that in his coaching dotage he was destroying his extraordinary football legacy at Penn State. But Joe Paterno, 82, led the Nittany Lions to a 10-1 season and into the Rose Bowl (with hip-replacement surgery in between). Paterno doesn't intend to let this 2008 revival be his crowning achievement; he says he plans to return for another season—his 44th—in University Park.
23) Tears of Hope
The U.S. women's softball team hoped to go out on top—four for four in Olympic gold medals. Softball had already been booted from the Games' roster of sports, collateral damage from a shot aimed primarily at baseball. But softball also suffered from the perception that the American women were simply too dominant. Japan, however, gave lie to that notion, beating the U.S. squad for the farewell gold. Ironically, the U.S. loss might be the last best hope for softball's Olympic future, as the game seeks reinstatement for 2016.
22) Chelsea Mourning
Chelsea had chased Manchester United all season in the Premier League and had fallen just short. Now it had a chance for redemption when the rivals wound up in the first-ever all-England Champions League final in Moscow. From the go, the game seemed destined to be settled by penalty kicks, and Chelsea seemed destined to prevail after none other than Cristiano Ronaldo, soccer's Player of the Year, missed his attempt. The championship lay on the foot of Chelsea's stalwart captain John Terry. But in a downpour, Terry slipped on his approach and slid his shot off the outside of the post—and the game slipped away too. Is there another sport where the greatest heroes—Zidane, Baggio, Beckham and now Terry—are so often recast as goats?
21) End of the Annika Era
She exited quietly, just as she always played the game. While Annika Sorenstam lacked the charisma of a Tiger Woods, nobody played the women's game better—she won 72 LPGA tournaments including 10 majors, and more than $22 million in her career—or with more class than the 38-year-old Swede. In 2003 she became the first woman in almost a half century to compete in a men's PGA event. The 2008 season should have been all about Annika. But the LPGA got far more attention for a clumsy initiative aimed at ensuring that its new wave of talented Korean players learned to thank sponsors in English.
20) Always a Bridesmaid ...
No national soccer team seems to squander as much talent in the major tournaments as Spain. Be it the World Cup or the Euros, the surest bet has long been that Spain will dominate the qualifying and then disappoint. All that came to an end at the 2008 Euros when Spain defeated Germany 1-0 for its first major championship in 44 years. Equally surprising was the quality of play. Too often the games at the biggest competitions become dreary, tactical matches with no flow, but plenty of fouls. Spain played exquisitely and the four quarterfinals were all thrillers. Even the American TV audience watched in record numbers.
19) Hockeytown, Titletown
The NHL championship, pitting the Detroit Red Wings against the Pittsburgh Penguins, was old-time hockey in the very best (rather than the "Slap Shot") sense. In Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh had the two brilliant young stars, but Detroit, deeper and more cohesive on the back line where it counts most, prevailed in six games. It's always good to see the Stanley Cup spend a year in a true, rather than a fairweather, hockey town.
It's getting to be a familiar tease. Since 1978, when Affirmed became the last horse to win the Triple Crown, 11 horses—four in just the past seven years—have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to falter at the Belmont. This year's pretender was Big Brown and, after his decisive romps in the first two legs, you would have bet the proverbial house—that is if you had no memory of Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, War Emblem and the rest. Big Brown outdid all of them by becoming the first to win two legs and then finish dead last in the Belmont, far behind 38-1 shot Da' Tara. Photos would later reveal that Brown's right rear shoe came loose early in the race and he was pulled up down the stretch.
17) Clemens Ks before Congress
The Republicans seemed to believe in him, but this year that was a bad omen. Roger Clemens's appearance before Congress—to deny that he was a drug cheat—was the worst performance on the Hill by a ballplayer since Mark McGwire's sad pleading that he didn't want to talk about the past, only the future. At least credit McGwire for a reluctance to lie before Congress; Clemens apparently thought his best fastball would blow away the pesky reps, just as it has hitters for more than two decades. But in the end, it was Clemens's credibility that whiffed, almost assuring that he and Barry Bonds will stand as the bookend figures of baseball's tarnished drug era.
16) BCS Bust
Florida's rout of Ohio State in the BCS Championship last year had made it clear that the perennial Big Ten champ was no match for the speedier SEC elite. So when late upsets sent the Buckeyes back to the big game, this time against LSU, we didn't expect too much—and we weren't disappointed. This time Ohio State's performance could at least be described as respectable—the team jumped out to a 10-0 lead—but LSU was dominant, scoring 31 straight points and cruising to the national championship 38-24. This year we were spared the Big Ten, but not the annual controversy after Oklahoma got the nod to move on to the Big 12 Championship despite the identical records of Texas and Texas Tech. Even President-elect Obama is fed up with the BCS and urged college football to adopt a playoff system.
NASCAR produced little in the way of dramatics and too many of the Formula One fireworks occurred off the course—a sex scandal involving circuit boss Max Mosley and the racist taunts of fans aimed at its top driver, Lewis Hamilton. Still, both circuits made history: Hamilton, a 23-year-old Brit, became the youngest and first black driver, to top Formula One; and Jimmie Johnson, in prevailing in NASCAR's "Chase" for the third consecutive year, joined the legendary Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to pull off a three-peat. The IndyCar circuit got a historic win, too, as Danica Patrick became the first woman driver to capture a race.
14) Of Bars and Beams
There was one, major, blemish—allegations that the Chinese women's Olympic gymnastics team was stocked with underage performers. But any controversy was overshadowed by the exciting rivalry between the Chinese and American teams and the brilliance of their Beijing performances. In the end, the home-mat advantage proved decisive. But America's top two stars—Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson—gave the team its first-ever 1-2 finish in the individual all-around. The 18-year-old Liukin, who in recent years had been slowed by injuries wound up with a gold, three silvers and a bronze while Johnson, 16, won three silvers and—in her final performance on balance beam—a crowd-pleasing gold.
13) The Smell of Grass
There must be something about the smell of grass, or at least of those famous grass courts at Wimbledon, that proves to be an annual restorative for Venus Williams, who this year won her fifth Wimbledon title. To capture the crown, her second in a row, Venus had to beat the woman who had always provided the biggest challenge, her sister Serena. Too often in the past the complexities of their relationship had resulted in disappointing snoozers. But this time both sisters shined with Venus's thundering serve—clocked at a Wimbledon record 129mph—the difference in her 7-5, 6-4 victory. With her seventh major championship, Venus pulled within one of little sister's eight Grand Slam titles.
12) At the Summit
The winningest coach in NCAA college-basketball history did it again. In her 34th season at the helm of the Tennessee Vols, Pat Summitt won her eighth national title and her second in a row. In the semifinals, Tennessee needed a last-second tip-in to slip past SEC rival LSU. Then in the finals, the team routed a Stanford squad that had defeated the Vols during the regular season. The lady whose trademark glower has always been a match for Bobby Knight's, entered the current season with 983 wins (and only 182 losses) and should top the 1,000-win mark in January. Summitt is only 56 and could eventually put the record for career wins far out of anybody's reach.
11) Read It And Weep, Austria
After his dismal and indifferent performance at the 2006 Olympics, Bode Miller got back to the business of proving himself the best American skier ever. Miller, who last year left the U.S. ski team to go his own way, won his second World Cup title—his 2005 championship was the first by an American since 1983—and, with 31 Cup wins overall, has surpassed Phil Mahre as the top winner in American history. Far more surprising was that the World Cup season saw an American sweep, as 23-year-old Lindsay Vonn won six races, five in her downhill specialty, and the women's overall championship.