“If you’re going to play at all, you’re out to win.”
Sport is one of the greatest gifts from God, coming in right behind union with Christ, marriage, and parenting. Every year in American sports becomes defined by a single memory: a walk-off home run in the Series, a career-completing fadeaway J in the Finals, a 2-minute drive to win the Bowl. The memory may not be a single event; it can also be a team that defied odds or age (the Spurs in 2013-14), a single transcendent figure (His Airness in roughly every year of the 90’s), or a unbelievable underdog—more than a player, coach, and team, an entire sport can reach new heights in a single moment (see NC State under Jimmy V in ‘83).
The great thing about sports glory: it can happen at almost any moment, and it is completely unpredictable. “It” doesn’t even have to be defined—in fact, it can’t be defined, it can only be described. You just know it when you see “It.”
So it’s with great joy that I can announce that The Fidelity Sports Council of ChampionsTM has gathered one last time in 2014 to bring you our first-ever Annual Review: the top 10 most memorable moments, individuals, games, teams, scandals, and sport-related cultural breakthroughs of the past twelve months. But first…
Intermission: General Pop Culture
Editor’s Note: I am unashamedly stealing the idea for this post from Christ & Pop Culture’s 25, which highlights the top artists, films, books, shows, and performances from the year in pop culture. The folks over at CAPC are great, and no list will ever be perfect—without including The Council, that is!—but if I’m making a general pop culture list of 2014 highlights, these three individuals/performances make my top ten.
(1) JIMMY FALLON!!! I would put the emergence of Fallon in the top five, and an argument could be made for #1. When aliens take over the world in 2021 only to be later defeated by our zombies and Will Smith (and his big-hearted adoptive mother, Sandra Bullock), they will assimilate every bit of recorded information about the year 2014 and astutely determine that Jimmy Fallon was the most significant icon in popular culture in this calendar year by a sheer measure of Emmy awards/nominations, shared YouTube videos, amount of laughter, and appearances by the POTUS (one).
There’s only one person who could possibly threaten Jimmy’s ownership of pop culture in the past twelve months. I’m talking about my girl…
(2) TAYLOR SWIFT!!! Sure, T-Swizzle was on fire before 2014, but her migration from country to pop (wait, when did that happen exactly?), her ownership of radio minutes and the music industry’s attention, and her influence on women of all ages combines to make her a force. A dope force, that is. In fact, I might even say her new album is trill. Am I using that word correctly? Anyone under 18?
(3) LECRAE’S ANOMALY!!! Have I written enough about the dopest album of the year? I think I have.
And finally… any summary of the Year MMXIV in Pop Culture must note the single truly original breakthrough in cultural history. I’m talking, of course, about the formation and viral* spread of…
(4) FIDELITY SPORTS!!! So let’s get to it, Fidelity style. The Sporting Year In Review…
* Viral is being used here with intentional hyperbole. But thanks to all seven of you for reading!
Fidelity Sports 10
So, here’s how this works. I’m going to try to fairly represent a wide range of sports and sport-related culture, rather than just focusing all my attention on MY favorite moments (which would include basically 10 moments and individuals from Missouri and Kentucky and, probably, videos of Tim Duncan baby hooks and Kobe Bryant 30-foot fadeaways). There’s no personal agenda here. Only deft-as-a-mug, totally-unbiased rankings of Sporting MMXIV.
#10: America Basically Wins the 2014 World Cup and Olympics
See, you almost forgot about this, right? Yes, the United States has a men’s soccer team, and this year, it actually played above expected potential. I mean, if our school systems rank somewhere around 30th in reading skills and 85th in math and science, then finishing in the top 16 of a global soccer tournament sounds like progress—even if we did lose to Belgium, which most of us thought was the same as the Netherlands. Four more years! Four more years!
Here’s a quick recap. First, America qualified for the Group of 32 through games in 2011-2013. At that point, the US was ranked #13, with Spain, Germany, and host country Brazil taking the top three spots. After beating Ghana 2-1 and tying Portugal 2-2, we lost to Germany only 1-0 to qualify for a game against Belgium. The US-Belgium game was mostly a nightmare, and if it weren’t for Tim Howard (remember the jokes: “The only guy with more saves than Tim Howard is Jesus”), we probably would have lost by a football score: 14-0. But the American soccer players hung in there, fought like the second-tier nation that we’ve grown accustomed to being, and even had a chance to tie it near the end. But alas, America and men’s soccer just aren’t meant to be. But we’ll never forget the year we went 1-2 with a tie in the World Cup!!!
As for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Americans were reminded how boring the Winter Games are, and how annoying Bob Costas is. Seriously, when did Costas become the Male Oprah? Does everything have to be so darn serious and heart-warming all the time? My goodness. It’s never the intent of The Council to attack any single individual. Like that deer said, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” But Christian social justice demands saying difficult things at critical times, and that means I must address the 2014 evils of: Oscar Pistorus, Ray Rice, Roger Goodell (more on him later), the kansas jayhawks, Donald Sterling (ditto), Tiger Woods’s short game, and Bob Costas’s three-decade career of interrupting live sports to tell a teary eyed story about the upbringing of some Danish Nordic skier. Save it for The B Magazine and the BC Network, Bob! Can we just watch sports!?!
#9: Derek Jeter Retires (And An Era Ends in the Bronx)
I don’t love Derek Jeter. And I don’t like the Yankees. Never have. But as the Bilastrator puts it, Real recognizes Real. And if any one baseballer has embodied the Three Rules over the past two decades (post-Ripken), it’s Jeter. The jump-throw. The catch-and-flip. The diving-and-bloody-catch. The home run for 3,000 hits. Two of the best nicknames in baseball history: “Mr November” and “Captain Clutch.”
During his 20 seasons with the Yankees, the team returned to its former glory—the days of Ruth, Mantle, Yogi, DiMaggio, and Maris. But with his retirement (especially with Mariano’s retirement and A-Rod being replaced at third base), the Yankees’ two-decade era of greatness has officially ended, too. Here’s a quick overview of Jeter stats.
20 seasons—all with the Yankees
5 World Series championships (WS MVP in 2000)
358 stolen bases
14 All-Star appearances
5 Gold Gloves
Most notably, Jeter holds nearly every MLB postseason record a shortstop can achieve. His 158 playoff games is basically an entire 21st season in the majors, with this unbelievable line:
650 AB, .309 avg, 200 hits, 32 2B, 111 runs, 61 RBI, 66 walks, 18 SB
Said the ever-quotable Captain: “If you’re going to play at all, you’re out to win.”
#8: The New Face of Golf
As the sun set on a muggy August evening in East Louisville, PGA officials broke their own precious rules to allow the final group to tee off prematurely. I stood on the elevated viewing suite for Valhalla Club Members near the 18th green, and though you could hardly spot a white ball sailing through the darkened sky, not a single person had left early. All one million plus golf fans crowded around the picturesque uphill par five. Four days, four majors, an entire year—it all came down to one hole. And most importantly, to one player: the New Face of Golf, 25-year old phenom Rory McIlroy.
Why were McIlroy and Rickie Folwer allowed to play through? Sure, it was so dark the officials didn’t want the tournament—much less a single hole—be delayed to Monday morning. (The head PGA official told me in the Club that they had exactly zero volunteers scheduled for the following day—no security guards, no scoring officials, no fairway spotters, no food and drink vendors, nada. “It WILL end tonight,” he told me.) But was that enough reason to let McIlroy and Fowler tee off to only save 10-15 minutes?—much to the chagrin of Phil Mickelson. Maybe. Or maybe it was bigger.
The 2014 PGA Championship wasn’t just another tournament, it was a turning point. The Tiger Era had ended several years ago when Woods’s affairs, addiction, divorce, and career-threatening injuries fully surfaced. But there had been no replacement. Phil had a great following, but was already well past his prime. A number of younger golfers were very good, but none were great. The one great hope, Rory, was slumping and exorcising his own personal demons.
But there on #18 at Valhalla, all of that was about to change as Rory drilled another 300-yard tee shot into the fairway. The Great Hope of Northern Ireland had won two majors earlier in the year, and was in the middle of a majestic back nine (his eagle on the 590-yard #10 was the most impressive piece of golf I have EVER seen in person), enjoying a two-stroke lead. With a million people on their feet in the humidity and mud, Rory played it safe and left himself a short par putt. He tapped in the victory putt, threw his hands in the air, and as a thousand flashbulbs lit up the night sky, golf found its new face.
#7: A National Championship Game Made in College Hoops Heaven
March was good enough. At the end of the month’s Madness (the regional semifinals): The first team to survive the regular season undefeated since 1991, the Shockers of Wichita State, had fallen to an 8th seed. There were a record five overtime games in the second round alone, versus two total overtime games in the previous two tournaments. And there were a slew of great upsets: (14) Mercer over (3) Duke, (11) Dayton over (6) Ohio State and (3) Syracuse, and three great 12-over-5 wins: North Dakota State over OU, Stephen F Austin over VCU, and Harvard over Cincy. And the annual second-round kansas knockout by a double-digit seed was provided by (10) Stanford. By the time we reached April (the Final Four), there was only a single #1 seed left.
The Final Four brought us: (8) Kentucky vs (2) Wisconsin—which the Wildcats of this fair commonwealth won on another DEEP Aaron Harrison three. And (7) Connecticut vs (1) Florida—which UConn surprisingly won by ten. This brought us to a National Championship Game with the lowest combined seeds ever.
As I watched from a $35 Atlanta hotel (while completing training for my coaching certificate), UConn took a 15-point lead behind star guards Shabazz Napier (22-6-and-3) and Ryan Boatright (14 points). But UK cut the lead to 35-31 at the half, and stayed within striking range throughout the second half. James Young put up 20 and seven, Julius Randle had a respectable-but-not-dominant 10-6-and-4, and tournament stud Aa. Harrison mustered only seven points. In the end, UConn held off UK on all fronts, and dribbled out a 60-54 win for second-year coach Kevin Ollie. Of note to my Fidelity faithful, UConn went 10-for-10 from the free throw line, and finished the tournament with a record-setting 88% pct from the charity stripe. (Rule #2: There’s just no substitute for hard work.)
Outside of controversies, this game ranks as a top four memory of MMXIV. But, then again, 2014 was the Year of the Sporting Controversy…
#6: New CFB Playoff Committee Makes the BCS Computers Look Smart
Like most college football fans, I was excited for the new four-team playoff system over the annual BCS fiasco. But toward the end of the season, it became clear: this Committee (a.k.a. Condi’s Eleven) was even worse than the computers! They released self-contradictory explanations of their rankings. They represented their interests: even after Mizzou crushed Arkansas, the committee refused to move Mizzou up the board, or Arkansas down. Why? The chairman of the board is Arkansas’ athletic director! More seriously, the one major conference not to make the Final Four, the Big 12, is also the only major conference not represented among the Committee! If there’s one thing I’ve learned from raising three boys, it’s that if it smells like poop and looks like poop, something needs to be changed.
When TCU was moved up to #3 just days before the final rankings would be released, all hell broke loose. How could a one-loss TCU—which only a few years ago was grinding out 3-point wins over mid-majors—jump over an undefeated Florida State?! Then, less than a week later, we were left with three clear playoff teams (‘Bama, Oregon, and FSU), and three “Maybes” (Ohio State, Baylor, and TCU). All three Maybes could make their own cases: Ohio State played the best over the second half of the season; Baylor was the outright Big 12 winner and held the head-to-head edge over TCU; TCU endured the most difficult SOS of the three and was the computers’ favorites. Now it was up to our Committee to decide who should get the chance to get destroyed by Alabama on New Years Day. It felt like the pre-1998 days: champions were decided by media and university voters. All of the sudden, the Committee had made the Computers look smart!
But in the end, the humans did the right thing. Ohio State deserves to get crushed by ‘Bama by five touchdowns. Not one of the central Texas Bible colleges. The Committee wasn’t the only one proved right thorugh. Back in August, the Council picked ‘Bama, FSU, Oregon, and Ohio St to earn spots in the first CFB Playoff (even if I later removed OSU).
But here’s a thought. Where would the 1998-2013 BCS Computer Rankings have ranked the top four teams? A simple google search shows that other people wanted to know just as much as me!
(1) Alabama—1.52 avg BCS rank
(5) Ohio State—4.13
So, actually, the BCS computers would have gotten it wrong! Of course, the system was designed to identify only the two top teams. But even then, it would have wrongly bumped FSU over Oregon. (I get that FSU has won 25 straight games, but do even FSU fans think they’re really better than Oregon? Nope!) Also for the record: the BCS computers have six SEC teams, including my beloved Mizzou Tigers, in the top 15.
So, after all, hats off to us humans for outsmarting the computers—this time.
Tune in some time soon for Part Two: Fidelity Sports’ top five moments of 2014…