Winning a championship is a struggle, the greatest in all of sports. Every player and coach dreams of it, of the honor of holding a trophy over their heads and taking their place among the immortals of the sport. But there is a second facet of this struggle: Once you win a championship, the expectations and pressures of gaining another are set on you. Surely, if you climbed the mountain once, you can do it again, right? Yet far, far too many guys are unable to achieve that same success and it can be amazing how badly they falter.
Some teams are able to keep it up for years. The dynasties of the Yankees, Bulls, Celtics and more litter the landscape and showcase the greatness of sports teams. But nothing lasts forever and that includes such powerhouses. Sooner or later, they will falter and have bad periods although in some cases, it ends up much faster. Some teams can have a slow decline after a championship season, trying their best but failing before going into losing years. And then some just fall apart in no time flat, going from the heights of glory to the depths of defeat so fast that it’s astounding. It can be the loss of key players or coach or bad timing but other times, it’s still the same guys who just can’t achieve greatness once more. Here are 15 teams who went from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the heap and shows how fast fortunes can turn.
15 1967 Los Angeles Dodgers
When the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to L.A., their first year in 1958 was rough. However, they would more than rise above that as for the next seven years, they would win three World Series and remain one of the stronger teams in baseball. They did have a falter, going from World Series champions in 1963 to seventh place the next year but rebounded to win the Series again in ’65.
However, the aging out of several key players combined with some poor moves by management and the shifting tides of the National League to steal some of their power. Not helping was that the Dodgers’ ancient enemies, the Giants, picked the late ‘60s to have a bigger rise in success. The result was that in 1967, the Dodgers finished 73-89 and not much better the next year. While they would rebound a bit in the next decade, it was the close of the first great period in Los Angeles and some would grouse that the old Dodger bad luck had finally followed them to the West Coast.
14 1982 San Francisco 49ers
While they’d come close in the 1970s, the 49ers could never quite crack the championship code. That changed in 1981 as Joe Montana led the team to a 13-3 record, winning the NFC Championship with the play that’s become simply known as “The Catch.” This set up a great Super Bowl victory and thus San Francisco was confident entering the next year.
However, the 1982 season was marred by a player strike that cut the schedule from 16 games to only 9. The 49ers had already lost the first two games before the strike and when play resumed, they were unable to cope, ending up 3-6. True, you can blame much of that fall on circumstances but still amazing how badly the Super Bowl champs failed. They would rebound to win another Super Bowl two years later yet the terrible loss of this year is a poor mark on the 49ers legacy.
13 2007-08 Miami Heat
After years of subpar play, the Miami Heat finally turned it around in 2005 with Pat Riley leading Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton , Dwyane Wade and Antoine Walker into a terrific unit. The Heat were top-notch, ending the season 52-30, a wild run in the playoffs and finally bringing the NBA Championship to Miami. However, with Payton retiring soon afterward and key injuries abounding, the team’s fortunes faltered.
They lost in the first round of the playoffs the next year and in 2007-08, they “celebrated” the 20th anniversary of the franchise with a terrible 15-67 record (which, ironically, was the same as their very first year). It took the arrival of the “Big Three” to get back on track but still amazing how fast the Heat cooled down.
12 1997 Dallas Cowboys
After ending the 1980s as a complete joke, the Cowboys were rebuilding for a new decade with Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones working to get the team back on track. Thanks to a key trade of Herschel Walker that nabbed picks that turned into Emmitt Smith and others, the Cowboys were soon riding high and won back to back Super Bowls. The animosity between Jones and Johnson got to be too much and Johnson left, replaced by Barry Switzer who lost the NFC Championship in his first year but got the Cowboys back on top the following season.
However, the hard-partying style of the team and the out of control egos (especially Smith) were taking their toll along with slews of injuries. In 1997, it finally came calling as the team came apart, finishing 6-10 and signaling the end of the dynasty. While the Cowboys have done their best to bounce back, there have been far more disappointments than wins and thus ’97 stands as the end of the last golden period for Dallas.
11 1982 Cincinnati Reds
From 1970 to 1976, Cincinnati was the Big Red Machine, winning five division titles, three National League championships and back-to-back World Series. With Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey Sr. and more, the Reds seemed ready to dominate the rest of the decade. But after a pair of second place finishes, owner Dick Wagner shocked fans by firing Sparky Anderson, the manager who built the team up.
Angered, Rose became a free agent and led the Phillies to the World Series. This paved the way for other key members to leave the team shaken. The Reds would end up first in 1980 but lose the NLCS while they had the best overall record in 1981 but kept out of the playoffs by the strike that year. In 1982, they came apart, ending up in sixth place and it would take a while to get themselves back on track. Thanks to one owner’s inability to see the winner he had, the Machine was turned into a battered pushcart, a move fans in Cincinnati still haven’t forgiven Wagner for.
10 1958 Detroit Lions
Believe it or not, once upon a time the Lions were actually a serious team. True, they had a bad year in 1955 but they were otherwise quite strong in that decade, making it to the NFL Championship game four times with three of them victories. However, in 1958, Detroit decided to trade star Bobby Layne to the Steelers, a move that no one was happy about, including Layne.
According to legend, the man declared that the Lions would lose for the next 50 years and it seemed to bear him out as Detroit immediately went 4-7-1 and 3-8-1. Since then, the Lions have had the worst winning percentage in the NFL, never reached a Super Bowl and are one of only a handful of teams to go winless for an entire season. Hard to argue against evidence of such a strong team becoming truly cursed.
9 1974-75 Milwaukee Bucks
In one of the fastest rises in NBA history, the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship in 1971 in only their third season of existence. The key was the star of the team, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and his terrific play under coach Larry Costello leading the Bucks to a then-record 66-16 standing and sweeping Washington in the Finals. The Bucks would keep in the running but never achieved another championship with Kareem suffering some injuries.
Thus, the 1974-75 Bucks would fall to 38-44 and out of the running. The nail in the coffin was when Kareem was traded to the Lakers and the team collapsed, ending up 30 and 52 in 1977. While they would do their best, they’ve never made it the Finals since and thus that one title is all that Bucks fans can cling to instead of the dynasty that could have been.
8 1977 Oakland Athletics
Arguably the most underrated dynasty in baseball history, the A’s were riding high in the early 1970s as owner Charles Finlay brought in major talent such as Reggie Jackson and Jim Hunter and allowed a wild style of play and personalities that broke the conservative mold of baseball at the time. It paid off with the A’s winning the AL West from 1971-75 and three straight World Championships.
The coming of free agency would be the death knell for this powerhouse as Finlay played major political games that angered other owners. Team members, never happy with Finlay pinching their salaries accepted the coming of free agency as a sign to go, Jackson leading the way by joining the Yankees. In one season, the A’s plummeted from second place, finishing 63-98 in 1977 and would take a long time to become the “Swinging” winners again.
7 1970 New York Jets
In Super Bowl III, the Jets pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history taking down the far stronger Indianapolis Colts. It was thanks to the skill of the flashy Joe Namath and the victory proved the AFL deserved to be on the same level as their NFL counterparts and most believed the Jets would be the powerhouse for some time. However, it didn’t work out that way as Namath had issues off the field that led to a brief “retirement” and several other players leaving for better signings.
The 1969 Jets did their best at 10-4 and a divisional crown but lost in the playoffs to the Chiefs. The next year, the bottom fell out as the team ended up 4-10, not able to handle the merger with the NFL and it would be a solid decade before they had another winning season. That one Super Bowl appearance is still the only one for the Jets who went from flying high to a hard crash that rocked their fans.
6 1920 Boston Red Sox
This is the year no Boston fan will never forget, no matter how bad they want to. For seven years, the Red Sox had won four World Series, a powerhouse behind star Babe Ruth and ready for more domination. But then, in the move that made him the most hated man in Boston, owner Harold Frazee decided to sell Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000.
The sale put a gloom on things as the Red Sox would fall to sixth place with Ruth clearly ready to go. Over the winter, Frazee would sell or trade most of the rest of the Red Sox team, the majority of whom would help forge the future “Murderers' Row” that began the Yankees dynasty. The Red Sox took a long and hard fall, years to get back into contention and of course decades before they would win the World Series again. It was the year that began the Curse and still a hard one to remember for Sox fans.
5 1915 Philadelphia Athletics
Under manager/owner Connie Mack, the A’s were always an interesting team as they were either riding high on top or in the cellar with very little in between. The first example came as Mack forged the team into one of the first major dynasties of baseball, winning the pennants in 1910-1913 and the World Series in three of those four years, thanks to Mack being the first owner to lay out major cash for top talent.
In 1914, the A’s seemed ready for another World Championship only to be shockingly swept in the Series by the upstart Boston Braves.
The next year, almost half the A’s team decided to jump to the Federal League and Mack let them go and build with younger talent. Thus, the A’s fell hard to 43-109 and followed it up the next year going 36-117. Mack’s long game did pay off as in 1929, the A’s returned to form with another dynasty but faltered again after that, showing how fans had to put up with some serious lows to go with such heights.
4 1994-95 New York Rangers
After 54 years of waiting, New York fans were finally rewarded as the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994 to joy and fans were naturally eager for a repeat. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Coach Mike Keenan left for the Blues and took Doug Lidster, Glen Anderson and Esa Tikkanen with him. Without those key players and the leadership of Keenan, the Rangers fell badly, ending up the next year with 22-23-3 and their playoff victories since have been few and far between. Oddly enough, the Rangers upset the heavily favored Quebec Nordiques in the first round. Few Rangers fans could have imagined that in the end 1994 ended up being just the salve for another long drought that’s haunted the team ever since.
3 1966 New York Yankees
When the Yankees lost the 1964 World Series; they were disappointed but not bitter. They were the Yankees, after all, the team that had been to 15 of the last 20 World Series with 10 of those being victories. They took a return to the Series for granted. But to the shock of everyone, the dynasty that had dominated baseball for decades would end 1965 under .500 for the first time in 40 years.
That was just a prelude to the horror of ’66 as the Yankees truly became damned, ending up dead last, their worst finish since 1912. The team was paying for years of complacency and assured pennants, a terrible farm system, not paying for top talent and a long-standing refusal to sign on black players. It would take years and the arrival of George Steinbrenner to turn things around but there’s a good reason why Yankees fans refer to 1965-76 as the Dark Ages of the franchise and how even the mighty Yankees aren’t immune to hard times.
2 1998-99 Chicago Bulls
Through the ‘90’s, the Bulls were the unstoppable force of the NBA, winning three straight championships before Michael Jordan briefly retired. They remained strong in those two years before Jordan returned and the addition of Dennis Rodman sparked them to another threepeat. But following that last title, the Bulls came apart. Jordan retired again, Rodman and Scottie Pippen signed with other teams and Phil Jackson, the architect of it all, quit as well. In a season hampered by a lockout, the Bulls were the big losers, going from those title glories to a 13-37 finish, last in their division. While Chicago fans had always feared the end of the dynasty, the way it came apart quickly still threw them all and ended a golden period for Bulls fans.
1 1998 Florida Marlins
The good book “If They Don’t Win It’s a Shame” details how, just four years after their debut, the Marlins reached the top of baseball thanks to owner Wayne Huizenga opening his wallet up big time. Moises Alou, Kevin Brown and Cliff Floyd were the highlights of a team that stormed through the season, finishing 92-70 and winning a Wild Card slot. They then got through the Giants and the Braves, two supposedly much stronger teams before defeating the Indians in a thrilling seven game series, winning at home in front of a sold-out crowd. It looked like they would continue their run for a long time.
However, rather than do the logical thing and see how a championship team could fire up a fanbase and lead to constant sellouts, Huizenga basically sold every one of those key players in one of the biggest fire sales in sports history. The result: The 1998 Marlins went 54-108, an epic collapse that killed off all the great fan interest and it took them years to rebuild that faith. Still amazing to see how the same owner who built a great team could be the same guy to kill it.