2011 was a wild year in the world of sports. Sadly, much of the drama occurred off the field and left many of us vainly searching for an answer to the question, “How could they have let this happen?” But fortunately, there were also a lot of great team and individual accomplishments to be enjoyed. Here is a look back at the 10 most significant sports stories of 2011.
Rory McIlroy Collapses in Masters, But Comes Back to Dominate US Open
Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, held a four-shot lead going into the final round at The Masters in April, but collapsed down the stretch, carding an 80 on the final round and giving South African Charl Schwartzel one of the most unlikely green jackets in history. However, McIlroy quickly removed the “choker” tag from his resume two months later with a dominating wire-to-wire win in the US Open at the Congressional Country Club. He beat his closest competitor by eight strokes and his four-day total of 268 broke the previous US Open record by four shots, all but burying memories of his earlier meltdown at Augusta.
NCAA Scandals Hit Ohio State, Miami
The new year began with Ohio State already under investigation and several key players who were implicated in the scandal being allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl. But as the NCAA investigation surrounding Buckeye players trading sports memorabilia for tattoos went on, the heat continued to grow, eventually costing coach Jim Tressel his job and sending starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor off to the NFL.
However, the OSU scandal didn’t begin to touch the shock value of allegations made by a former University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro against the Hurricanes’ program. Shapiro claimed to have provided cash, vacations, cars, drugs and prostitutes to several dozen Miami athletes (as well as a handful from other schools) over an eight-year period. Further, he claimed that university officials and coaches were aware of what was going on but turned a blind eye. A whopping 73 current and former Hurricanes players have been implicated in the report, which is still under investigation by the NCAA.
Japan Ends US Women’s Run in World Cup
This year, the US women’s team for the World Cup provided all the drama sports fans could have hoped for. Down 2-1 in the quarterfinals against soccer superpower Brazil, a spectacular crossing pass allowed US star Abby Wombach to score the tying goal on a header in the waning seconds of extra time. The US then went on to win 5-3 on penalty kicks to advance.
In the finals, the US women twice held a second half lead over underdog Japan, only to see the Japanese come back to tie it up, once in regulation and once in extra time. Japan then outscored the US 3-1 on penalty kicks to become the first Asian nation to win the World Cup. It was arguably the most dramatic World Cup finals in history and, although the US came out on the short end, it put soccer front and center on the American sports stage.
Tony Stewart Ends Jimmy Johnson’s Five-Year NASCAR Run
Jimmie Johnson dominated NASCAR like no one in recent memory, winning five straight NASCAR points titles and in the running for a sixth this year. But if his run had to come to an end, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more dramatic finish. Earlier in the season, NASCAR bad boy Tony Stewart had all but written himself off in the points chase. But he won four races during the final Chase for the Cup, putting him within striking distance of points leader Carl Edwards. In the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart came from the back of the pack and passed 118 total cars in the race before outlasting Edwards in a two-man duel over the final 20 laps to take the checkered flag. Stewart and Edwards actually finished tied in total points, but Stewart’s five wins gave him the tiebreaker and the most unlikely of his three career NASCAR points championships.
Dallas Mavericks Beat LeBron, Heat in NBA Finals
With his July 2010 infomercial on ESPN announcing he would be joining the Miami Heat, LeBron James became one of the most polarizing figures in American sports. So basketball fans on both sides of the debate watched intently in 2011 to see if the Miami “Big Three” of LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh would get their title rings. For most of the first two games, it appeared that would be the case. The Heat won the first game of the series and were up by 15 with just four minutes left in Game Two. But a furious rally by Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks to a come-from-behind win en route to an eventual 4-2 series win that left most NBA fans cheering.
College Football Realignment Continues
The seismic shifting of college football’s landscape continued in 2011. In July, Colorado and Nebraska made their moves from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 and Big Ten, respectively, while Utah jumped from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Those moves were just the tip of the iceberg, as several other teams this year finalized plans to move conferences in the future. Here are some of the key moves:
After a great deal of legal wrangling with their Big 12 counterparts, Texas A&M and Missouri finalized plans to move to the SEC next year.
TCU announced last year they would leave the Mountain West for the Big East, but changed their mind this year when they got a better offer from the Big 12.
West Virginia announced it would leave the Big East for the Big 12, but is currently engaged in a lawsuit to determine whether the move will take place in 2012 or later.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced their plans to leave the Big East for the ACC.
With the loss of four football schools, the Big East would have been left with just five football teams and the likely loss of their BCS automatic qualifying bid. In an effort to maintain their football relevance, the conference announced the addition of Boise State, Houston, San Diego State, SMU and Central Florida, making the Big East, as commissioner John Marinatto put it, “the first truly national college football conference.”
Green Bay Packers Win the Super Bowl and Keep on Winning
Holding the #6 seed, the Green Bay Packers needed three straight road wins (at Philadelphia, at Atlanta and at Chicago) just to reach Super Bowl XLV. They then got an MVP-caliber performance from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and secure the team’s fourth Super Bowl trophy. But the Packers didn't stop there, starting off the 2011 season with a perfect 13-0 record. While Green Bay finally lost to Kansas City in Week 15, the Packers' run of nearly a year (their previous loss came Dec. 19, 2010) without a loss was truly remarkable.
NBA, NFL Lockouts Resolved
In midsummer, sports fans should be focusing on baseball and the beginning of NFL training camp, but instead the sports page read like a pre-law class on labor relations and union negotiations. Both the NFL and NBA locked out their players for prolonged periods this offseason, forcing some NBA players to seek work overseas and delaying contract negotiations with NFL rookies and free agents. The NFL settlement came in early August, resulting in a shortened training camp schedule but no lost games. The NBA didn’t reach a settlement until late November, meaning the NBA 2011-12 season will be 66 games long, instead of the customary 82. Although the NFL settlement came later than most hoped, there was little doubt that the league and the players would reach an agreement — after all, everyone in the NFL was essentially just arguing over who got how much money.
Cardinals Get Miracle Rally to Win World Series
Officially, the record books will say St. Louis beat the Texas Rangers in seven games to win the 2011 World Series, but what everyone will remember years from now is Game Six. Leading the Series 3-2, the Rangers twice had the Cardinals down to their final strike, only to see St. Louis get a needed hit both times to keep the game alive. The Cardinals went on to win the game 10-9 on an 11th inning walk-off homer by David Freese to tie the Series. They then won Game Seven 6-2, capping one of the most improbable championships in history.
Child Sex Abuse Scandal Rocks Penn State
What happened to the days when the worst college scandals involved players getting money under the table? Those days clearly ended when former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse. Two former PSU administrators were charged with perjury for their roles in covering up the crimes, and the fallout resulted in the firing of once-legendary head coach Joe Paterno. Grand jury testimony recently began and included testimony from Paterno saying, once he was aware of the allegations, he waited to inform PSU officials because he “didn't want to interfere with their weekend.” The Penn State story has gotten more disgusting and stomach-turning with every new revelation and it, unfortunately, became the most important and talked-about sports story of 2011.
Auburn Wins Football National ChampionshipBoston Bruins Win First Stanley Cup Since 1972; Vancouver Fans RiotDerek Jeter’s 3,000th Career HitIndy 500 Winner Dan Wheldon Killed in Las Vegas Race CrashVirginia Commonwealth Crashes Final FourTebowmaniaAlbert Pujols Signs with Angels