Top 10 Greatest One-Season Turnarounds in Sports History

Few turnarounds in sports history surpass what Gus Malzahn and his team pulled off.

Few turnarounds in sports history surpass what Gus Malzahn and his team pulled off.

When Auburn barely fell 34-31 to Florida State on Monday night in a showdown for the national title, it didn’t just lose a game. It lost a shot at securing status as the greatest one-season turnaround in major American team sports history. Auburn was within three points of completing a U-turn which, in terms of winning percentage and postseason results, had never before been seen on this scale.

That said, these Tigers still went from 3-9 to 12-2 and a No. 2 ranking. That in itself is still historic and ranks at the top of all-time turnarounds in major college football. But, when it comes to all-time bounce backs, a few examples in pro basketball and football still take the cake.  The St. Louis Rams, for instance, overcame 300-1 odds heading into the 1999 season to win the 2000 Super Bowl. In fact, looking at the official odds at the start of the season has provided fodder for some of the best “comebacks” and “turnarounds” recorded in recent time. One may click here for more on NFL betting this postseason and ask themselves if anything indicates a franchise turnaround.

Unquestionably, those ’99 Rams and these ’13 Tigers are  all-timers. Here are eight more:

10. Hawaii (college football)

1998: 0-12 (12.4 points per game / 35.2 points against per game)

1999: 9-4   (28.5 points per game / 26.8 points against per game)

Like at Auburn, an offensive guru turned the Rainbow Warrior program around.

When June Jones arrived as Hawaii’s head coach, he faced a team which was suffering through an 18-game losing streak and could not pass the ball to the Pacific Ocean. Within a fall, he had the offense humming and led Hawaii to the Oahu Bowl, where it beat Oregon State 23-17.

“He actually came in and gave us a system,” former Hawaii quarterback Dan Robinson told the Montgomery Advisor.  “We started the exact same players as the season before when we went 0-12. He gave us a system and taught us how to believe in that system. The season before, every week, we’d run a different offense.”

9. Kansas City Wizards (pro soccer)

1999: 8-24 (24 goals scored total / 53 goals scored against total)

2000: 16-9*-7 (47 goals scored total / 29 goals scored against total)

In 1999, the team had a talented roster – including two-time World Cup starters Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas – but could not put it together. Of course, it’s never a good sign when a defender (Lalas) is your third-leading scorer for a season. Putting points on the board was not a problem for KC the following season, thanks to the vastly improved play of midfielder Chris Henderson and his Danish friend and MLS newcomer Miklos Molnar. What’s now Sporting Kansas City won its first MLS Supporters’ Shield, beating the Chicago Fire 1-0.

*Eight draws, along with 16 wins and seven losses. This was the first season MLS games were allowed to finish in ties.

8. New England Patriots (pro football)

2000: 5-11 (17.2 points per game / 21.1 points against per game)

2001: 11-5  (23.2  points per game / 17.0 points against per game)

It’s hard to imagine the Patriots slogging through a losing season under Bill Belichick. That’s because it hasn’t happened since 2000, when he start reorganizing everything in his first season as head coach in Foxboro. He certainly laid a good foundation, which was unexpectedly helped in the second game of the following season when the Patriots were blessed by the “fortune” of having their 29-year-old franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, go down with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, stepped in to replace him and proceeded to lead New England to an 11-3 record as starter. With the help of three clutch Adam Vinatieri field goals, the Patriots won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.

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Gus Malzahn & Arkansan head coaches who have won major conference titles

As head coach, Gus Malzahn doesn't have a single major conference title to his credit .... yet.

Gus Malzahn doesn’t have to be so angry anymore.

This afternoon Fort Smith native Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers will play the Missouri Tigers in the SEC Championship Game. If Malzahn pulls out a win that looks much less improbable than the one seared across the nation’s memory last Saturday, he will become the fifth Arkansan to have won an SEC title and at least the ninth to have won a major conference title as head coach. [UPDATE: Auburn won 59-42] Below is a list of native Arkansans (i.e. spent a majority of childhood in the state) who have already pulled this off. Not surprisingly, some are part of college football’s pantheon of coaches:

1. Bear Bryant

Hometown: Fordyce

School: Kentucky/Texas A&M/Alabama

Conference Titles Won: 15

(14 in SEC: 1950, 1961, 1964–1966, 1971–1975, 1977–1979, 1981; 1 in SWC: 1956)

National Titles Won: 6

(1961, 1964–1965, 1973, 1978–1979)

2. Barry Switzer

Hometown: Crossett

School: Oklahoma

Conference Titles Won: 12

(All in Big Eight: (1973–1980, 1984–1987)

National Titles Won: 3

(1974–1975, 1985)

3. Ken Hatfield

Hometown: Helena

School: Arkansas/Clemson/Rice

Conference Titles Won: 4

(3 SWC: 1988–1989, 1994; 1 ACC: 1991)

4. Fred Akers

Hometown: Blytheville

School: Texas

Conference Titles Won: 2

(SWC: 1977, 1983)

5. Tommy Tuberville

Hometown: Camden

School: Auburn

Conference Titles Won: 1

(SEC: 2004)

6. Charlie Strong

Hometown: Batesville

School: Louisville

Conference Titles Won: 1

(Big East: 2012)

7. Charlie McClendon

Hometown: Lewisville

School: LSU

Conference Titles Won: 1

(SEC: 1970)

This fancy Dartmouth-educated fella was Arkansan? I had no idea either...

This fancy Dartmouth-educated fella was Arkansan? I had no idea either…

8. Clarence Spears

Hometown: DeWitt*

School: Minnesota

Conference Titles Won: 1

(Big Ten: 1927)

*I admit it: I simply don’t know how long Spears lived in Arkansas before his family moved to Illinois, where he graduated high school. But I sure like to think he stuck around for longer than a Douglas MacArthur-minute.

N.B. For this list, I only focused on coaches who had spent the majority of their childhood in Arkansas. That’s why you don’t like Frank Broyles or Butch Davis, guys who came to Arkansas after high school. Malzahn, for instance, was born in Texas but grew up in Fort Smith. If I missed someone, please let me know.

Also, I’m defining “major conference” as a current automatic qualifying conferences as well as the now-defunct Big East, Big Eight and Southwest conferences. Akers won a WAC title with Wyoming, but I didn’t include that in the list above because the notion of Wyoming being a major conference school is just plain wack.


Of Booty Calls and Bret Bielema

Of all the stories coming out of Bret Bielema’s hiring as Arkansas’ head football coach last week, perhaps the most endearing is how he wooed his wife Jen.

One evening in April, 2008, Bielema was enjoying a game of blackjack at the Wynn Las Vegas when he spotted “a smiling blonde, brown-eyed woman wearing a teal tank top, blue jeans and black flip-flops,” as recalled in a 2011 Fox Sports article. Interest sufficiently piqued, Wisconsin’s head coach approached the beautiful stranger to start what became a five-hour conversation.

While the attraction was initially physical, it soon became so much more. After that night, Bret and Jen didn’t see each other for five months. They relied on phone talks, the postal service and, later, flying halfway across the country. Love flourished; they married last March.

Many Americans believe this is the stuff of true romance. The couple took its time getting to know each other. They turned a chance encounter into a long-term relationship, choosing trust before intimacy.

This progression matters not only to Bret and Jen, but to Razorback fans and recruits. It tells the public: Here is a good man who refrains from acting on impulse for the sake of others.

But if Bret and Jen had gotten hammered that fateful night in Las Vegas, hooked up in the backseat of a cab and exchanged oaths at a drive-thru wedding chapel, would their story still charm? Would it even be shared?

I think not.

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Did Gus Malzahn Just Nuke His Chances at Hog Head Honcho-dom?

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Malzahn mills about after speaking at Monday’s LR Touchdown Club, which was standing room only.

A football coach isn’t trained to look too far down the road.

He earns most of his pay to make decisions in the now, to successfully adjust schemes in the span of minutes and get his players locked into the present moment with laser-like intensity. The best coaches develop the ability to think one step ahead of the game on the field. All the recruiting, fish fry glad-handing and long film sessions serve only one purpose – 60 minutes, played 12 or 13 Saturdays a year.

So, it’s not surprising that Malzahn was operating very much in the present tense as the guest speaker at the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Monday. In his case, that means toeing the party line as head coach of the nascent Arkansas State Red Wolves program. In his first season, Malzahn has continued to stoke statewide interest in the program that’s now vying for its second consecutive conference title.

He stoked fires of a different sort at the Monday luncheon.

Without prompting, Malzahn launched into the state’s most enduring hot-button sports issues – the ASU vs. UA debate. UA’s unofficial policy has prevented the program from scheduling in-state competition since 1946. But that hasn’t stopped what many Hog fans perceive as other such programs from showing up at the UA’s doorstep, hat in hand, beseeching the master of the home for a few gold coins in the form of a guarantee game.

Malzahn reminded us ASU is the latest  program to make such a request.

“We’ve reached out to the University of Arkansas. We’d like to play them in Little Rock in the future, and we think that would be good for the state.”

He later added: “I think it’s the day and time that Arkansas State and Arkansas needs [sic] to play to play in Little Rock… It’s not 1970 anymore. It really isn’t. I think it’s healthy for everybody concerned.”

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Gus Malzahn resurrects former Hog QB Mitch Mustain through the magic of PowerPoint

As a freshman all those years ago, Mitch Mustain went 8-0 at Arkansas and was one of the key figures in some of the controversy that enveloped first-year college coach Gus Malzahn and head coach Houston Nutt as the 2006 season wore on.

We know the aftermath: Malzahn to Tulsa, Nutt out, Petrino in and Mustain gone to USC. Mustain had thrived in high school, then in college, under Malzahn but he never really worked out in SoCal. Aside from a start against Notre Dame, Mitch had pretty much faded into shades-wearin’ obscurity by last December.

Well, Mustain’s back. Not in the flesh, but in bullet form. His UA success – however fleeting – forms the base of a national recruiting pitch new ASU coach Gus Malzahn unleashed on ESPNU on signing day:

In this next video, you’ll notice in the following analysis that Mustain’s inclusion trips up ESPNU analyst David Pollack some, but it’s interesting to note that while Mustain’s playing days in the state of Arkansas are long over, he could still play a role in Malzahn’s ability to recruit future recruits.

Of course, ASU hopes to end up with QBs who pan out more in line with Malzahn’s latest star college quarterback, Cam Newton, rather than his first.


Why if Fredi Knighten and Michael Dyer Risk It, They May Just Get that Biscuit for ASU

This guy was so good there's never not a good time to talk about him.

Little Rock Central hasn’t had an All-America caliber football player in decades, but that sure doesn’t mean the neighborhood cupboard’s bare. Two speedsters who have recently grown up in an area a few blocks southwest of the downtown high school both merited Parade All-America honors as seniors: Darren McFadden (who attended what is now Maumelle High School) and Fredi Knighten of Pulaski Academy. No, they didn’t know each other – not like McFadden befriended another high profile private school star soon to be Knighten’s teammate.

But Fredi was certainly aware of the McFaddens, who lived three blocks away from the home into which his mother moved when he started middle school. On many evenings, he recalls hearing stereos booming from McFadden’s car as it rumbled down his street. Of course, McFadden was also making all kinds of noise in Fayetteville, where he solidified his place as the best Razorback running back of all time with consecutive Heisman runner-up finishes.

It’s yet to be seen whether Knighten, a quarterback, can translate his own outstanding prep success to the college level. But if he does, it will likely be to the Razorbacks’ recruiting detriment in central Arkansas. Arkansas State now has three new inroads into central Arkansas it didn’t have during its record-setting 2010 season – Gus Malzahn, a longtime Arkansas high school coach, along with Michael Dyer and Knighten, the area’s last two Parade All-Americans. If ASU continues to build on its recent success, Jonesboro can’t help but become a hotter destination for central Arkansas high school players. A Little Rock native like Knighten, or Dyer, throwing up All-American-type numbers while at ASU would likely lavish unprecedented amounts of media attention on the Red Wolves program.

At the same time, it’s important to note as a Top 5 team the Razorbacks are also becoming a hotter name, not just at home but everywhere around the nation. Arkansas no longer needs to rely on nabbing every 5-star recruit that comes out of central Arkansas (or Springfield, Mo., for that matter). Sure,  Altee Tenpenny, North Little Rock’s star running back, recently said “aye” to Alabama. But with the wide net Petrino and his coaches are casting over the nation – especially Western states – that loss doesn’t hurt the program like it would have in the Houston Nutt years.

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Predictions for 2020: Joe Johnson mania sweeps Japan, Malzahn becomes Hogfather

 
Year-end lists this time of year are a dime a dozen.
So, to shake things up, I’ve imagined delving into the future to find some of the most provocative stories of the year 2020, and I examined what 2011 events led to them.
In brief, I found what in nine years will turn out to be the biggest stories of 2011.
Enjoy:

Never underestimate an LR Central graduate.

1. In 2011, NBA star Joe Johnson spent his prolonged off season establishing the foundation for a career in Hollywood. The Little Rock native, who was typically reserved while playing at Central High and the University of Arkansas, shares a somewhat surprising revelation he wants to act after retirement. That summer, he is seen at the downtown Little Rock piano bar Willy D’s, rocking a fist-sized diamond watch while singing a rendition of Jodeci’s “Come and Talk to Me.”
Johnson’s public embrace of excess doesn’t end there. A little later, he opens his LR pad’s 500-square-foot closet to ESPN The Magazine. Glistening on its shelves are 436 pairs of Nike sneakers, mostly Air Jordans.
  In 2020 … a retired Joe Johnson, who had been attacking acting classes with the same diligence as he’d applied to basketball, gets his first TV show gig as the head judge on BET’s “Kicks ‘n Karaoke.” The show combines the 38-year-old’s two non-sports loves in a competition format, and Johnson soon establishes himself as the Simon Cowell of the emerging genre.
“Kicks ‘n Karaoke” makes the six-time NBA All-Star more popular than Elvis Presley in Japan.

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Why Gus Malzahn is the Chris Paul of college football coaches

They are closer than you think.

Gus Malzahn. Chris Paul.

The two names shall not, it is safe to say, be forever linked in the annals of history.

But last week, these two accomplished team leaders – one a college football coach, the other a pro basketball player – shared headlines across national news outlets as they changed teams.

On closer examination, they actually share much more.

Here’s why:

1) Both specialize in quarterbacking teams to outstanding offensive success.

Malzahn, a former high school quarterback, developed into a high school head coach and offensive coordinator who specialized in turning quarterbacks into record-book smashing Godzillas. At each level – whether Springdale High, Tulsa University or Auburn – he helped that program’s offense set numerous records.

Paul plays point guard, the hardcourt’s quarterback equivalent, and he’s done it at extremely well.Toward the end of his senior year in high school, Paul averaged nearly 31 points and 10 assists a game. In five NBA seasons, Paul has put up numbers as impressive as  any point guard in league history. Sure, he scores 20+ points but consider that his 9.9 assists per game average is third-highest all-time. Or that he’s the only player to lead the NBA in steals and assists in two consecutive seasons.

2) Their abilities burst into the national spotlight at Baptist schools.

Malzahn’s second head coaching job (1996-2000) was at the private Shiloh Christian School, which is closely tied to the First Baptist Church of Springdale. In 1998, the Saints set a national record with 66 passing touchdowns and would win 1998 and 1999 state titles.

Paul attended the private Wake Forest University, which was originally founded by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. The school opened in 1834, with a focus on teaching Baptist ministers and laymen. In 2005, Paul left Winston-Salem, N.C. after a sophomore year in which he had earned first team All-America honors.

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Pulaski Academy vs. Gus Malzahn’s best high school team & 2010 Shiloh Christian

[Go to bottom of post for more on Malzahn's 2005 Springdale team]

None of Pulaski Academy’s 14 wins this season came down to the wire. Votes for season-ending rankings, however, proved a different matter altogether. As expected, there is a severe rift in public opinion concerning Arkansas’ best overall high school football team this season.

On one hand, the state’s largest newspaper deemed P.A. the best team, followed by Fayetteville, then Bentonville. Central Arkansas-based sportswriter Robert Yates constructed these Democrat-Gazette’s rankings. Rivals.com’s national prep sportswriter Dallas Jackson also deemed P.A. as the state’s best, again followed by Fayetteville and Bentonville.

The Arkansas arm of national prep sports outlet VYPE, meanwhile, conducted a poll with Arkansas prep football coaches. Fayetteville won this poll, with P.A. and Bentonville trailing. Finally, about a dozen Associated Press members released their poll Monday. Their rankings mirror VYPE’s.

That the 4A Bruins didn’t top the Associated Press poll isn’t a surprise.  In fact, no team of a similar classification (4th-largest) has ever finished first in the state’s final A.P. poll. Only two teams – 1964 Conway and 1987 Arkadelphia –  have finished atop that final poll. Both teams were in the second-largest classification at the time.

Hunter Henry is one of P.A.'s several future Division I players - possibly seven or more. Is that much talent enough to beat powerhouse 7A squads?

This is according to the Almanac of Arkansas High School Football, by longtime Arkansas sportswriter Leland Barclay.  Barclay, conveniently enough, also happens to be one of the Associated Press members whose votes comprise the poll.  For Barclay, 7A teams – even those with multiple losses – are nearly always better than lower classification teams:

“Schools from the state’s largest classification will always get the nod as the overall final No. 1 team in the state because as the state champion that team had to compete and excel against the best teams in the state over an 11-week stretch. Schools from the other classifications don’t do that…”

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