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VOL. 132 | NO. 125 | Friday, June 23, 2017

Stanley Cup Run Makes State Sports History List

By David Climer

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Nashville Predators celebrate after beating the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final to secure the franchise its first-ever slot in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Preds eventually lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Time and again during the recent Stanley Cup Final, people asked the rhetorical question: Is this the greatest moment in Nashville sports history?

Let the debate continue. But let’s take it a step further: Was this the greatest moment in the state’s sports history?

The Preds’ push to the Stanley Cup Final has home-ice advantage because it is still fresh in our minds. So is the scene in Nashville’s Lower Broadway corridor before, during and after the games at Bridgestone Arena.

Feel free to do your own ranking. I’ve made my list. First, though, we must add criteria and context.

We’re going back a quarter century, which makes 1992 our starting point. Beyond that, we’re looking at sports teams from the state, not individuals.

No one should question the level of accomplishment by Sterling Marlin of Columbia, when he won back-to-back Daytona 500s in 1994-95.

NASCAR proponents might argue that racing at that level is a team effort. Point. My counterpoint is that Nashville’s Brandt Snedeker might not have won the FedEx Championship in 2012 without his caddie, Scott Vail.

Over the years, we’ve found that national championships come few and far between for our state. This isn’t Texas, where you have two NFL teams, three NBA teams, an NHL team and 19 colleges playing football and/or basketball at the highest NCAA level.

We’re dealing from a comparatively small deck of cards.

The 2013 Memphis Grizzlies made it to the Western Conference final with wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City but were then swept 4-0 by the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. The 56 victories are the most by any Grizzlies team since the franchise relocated to Memphis 10 years ago.

Yes, 25 years is a long time. But because of that cut-off line, some memorable performances were not considered.

At Tennessee State, John Merritt coached some of the greatest teams in black college football. But he retired in 1983.

In 1965, Vanderbilt lost to Cazzie Russell-led Michigan 87-85 in the regional final, just one step away from the Final Four.

The list goes on and on.

What was then called Memphis State lost in the 1973 national championship game when UCLA’s Bill Walton made 21 of 22 shots.

In other words, there are a lot of great performances left on the cutting-room floor.

Here, then, is one man’s ranking of the Top 10 performances by Tennessee sports teams in the past quarter century:

1. Biggest win for Big Orange

It began with a critical pass interference call on fourth down in the season opener at Syracuse, continued with a raucous overtime victory over Florida, detoured through a bizarre fumble late in the Arkansas game and climaxed with a 23-16 conquest of Florida State in the BCS Championship Game.

Those were just a few of the high points of the Tennessee Vols’ 1998 football season – a 13-0 run to the national championship. There were moments that dominated, instances of luck and overall a performance worthy of No. 1 on this list.

The funny thing is, that was supposed to be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Vols. Peyton Manning had graduated along with seven other players selected in the NFL draft – three of them in the first round.

But instead of taking a step back, those Vols took a big step forward.

2. Music City Miracle

After three consecutive 8-8 seasons – one as the Houston Oilers, the next two under the name Tennessee Oilers – the Titans were christened in 1999 when they moved into a new stadium on the east bank of the Cumberland River in Nashville.

And it was pure magic.

Most magical of all was what became known as the Music City Miracle in the first round of the playoffs, a gimmick play on the kickoff return after Buffalo had kicked a field goal to take a 16-15 lead with just 16 seconds remaining. Titans players later joked that the play almost never worked in practice. But it worked against the Bills.

What followed were upset wins at Indianapolis and Jacksonville before the dream season ended just one yard short of a potential tying touchdown in the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams.

3. Holiday on ice

The charge to the Stanley Cup Final is not for the faint of heart. To get there, you must survive three best-of-seven series. Once there, your resolve is again tested. And even in defeat, the Predators made a statement.

Hard-core fans went for the hockey and stayed for the party. Bandwagoners just came for the party. No matter, the scene both inside and outside Bridgestone Arena got the attention of the nation. Nineteen years after the Preds first touched skate to ice, this franchise landed on hockey’s biggest stage.

And the rest of the state came along for the ride. Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis were among the top 10 U.S. cities in terms of TV viewership for the decisive Game 6, based on the Nielsen Ratings.

4. Pat’s perfect season

Of all of Pat Summitt’s great Lady Vols teams, the 1998 edition stands out. Tennessee went 39-0 and won its third straight national championship. Only three opponents came within 10 points of UT. The Lady Vols sealed the title with a 93-75 victory over Louisiana Tech.

In terms of sheer talent, it was the best of Summitt’s rosters, ranking just ahead of the 2008 team that included Candace Parker. The ’98 team had the Three Meeks – Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall.

As for the coach, well, it’s safe to say she had a little something to do with the success of that team.

5. Ignoring the past

When James Franklin won six games and took Vanderbilt to the Liberty Bowl in his first season of 2011, many considered it a fluke. But Franklin was just getting started. His Commodores followed that with matching 9-4 seasons in 2012 and ’13, winning back-to-back bowl games for the first time in the program’s history.

The 2013 Commodores closed the season with five straight victories and had wins over Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.

Some point out that Franklin was at the right place and the right time since the SEC Eastern Division was in a state of flux, but there is no disputing that he instilled a winning attitude at a program that had historically been an SEC doormat. He proved you could win at Vanderbilt.

6. Memories not vacated

You won’t find it on the NCAA’s official list but the University of Memphis played for – and should have won – the national championship in 2008. The NCAA later vacated the runner-up finish for rules violations.

When the Tigers beat UCLA in the semifinals that year, they became the first team to win 38 games in a season. Memphis had a chance to push that number to 39 and secure its first national championship when it pushed its lead over Kansas to nine points with 2:12 remaining.

That’s when the Jayhawks started fouling. And Memphis, whose only real weakness was free throw shooting, missed four of its final five foul shots in regulation, including one by Derrick Rose with 10.8 seconds left that might have clinched the title.

Mario Chalmers’ three-pointer with 2.1 seconds remaining tied the game, and Kansas won 75-68 in overtime.

7. The kids are all right

The Goodlettsville All-Stars were one of the feel-good stories at the 2012 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, winning its first three games to reach the U.S. championship game against a team from Petaluma, California.

It was almost too easy. Goodlettsville built a 15-5 lead entering the bottom of the sixth inning, but Petaluma scored 10 times to force extra innings.

Was the magic over for Goodlettsville? Hardly. The team from just north of Nashville scored nine runs in the top of the seventh to win the U.S. championship. A 12-2 loss to Japan in the world championship game the following day did little to dampen the accomplishment.

8. True March Madness

March 18, 2016, will be remembered by many as the day their NCAA Tournament brackets suffered irreparable damage. Why? Because Michigan State, a No. 2 regional seed, looked poised for a title run, thanks in no small part to coach Tom Izzo’s history of success in the month of March.

But those Spartans never saw what hit them in the first round. Middle Tennessee State became the eighth No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 since the tournament bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

After jumping out to a 15-2 lead, the Blue Raiders had to withstand everything the Spartans threw at them in a furious second-half rally. With the shot clock ticking down at the one-minute mark, Giddy Potts hit a floater that pushed MTSU up by five points in an eventual 90-81 upset.

9. Vanderbilt hits it big at the CWS

Only two balls had been hit out of TD Ameritrade Park in the 2014 College World Series when John Norwood stepped to the plate in the top of the eighth inning of the final game.

Norwood promptly torched a Nick Howard fastball over the left-field wall to break a 1-1 tie, providing the winning margin in Vanderbilt’s victory over Virginia.

It was a team effort. The Commodores found the right combination of quality pitching and timely hitting to claim the title. Dansby Swanson, who had been drafted No. 1 overall by Atlanta the previous week, was the MVP of the College World Series. The championship is coach Tim Corbin’s crowning achievement – so far.

10. Belmont’s noteworthy near-miss

Despite winning 754 games as a college head coach, including 662 in 31 years at Belmont, Rick Byrd’s most notable game was a loss.

In the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Byrd’s 15th-seeded Bruins almost pulled off an upset for the ages before losing to Duke 71-70.

Trailing by one with the clock running down, Belmont’s Justin Hare got a decent look at a 35-footer. The shot was a touch long and bounced off the rim. Duke escaped. But Belmont left an impression on the nation with the near-miss.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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