Any capable sportswriter must learn to write with a neutral perspective, if not necessarily a neutral voice, no matter how tempting it is to be a homer and take sides. I'll never win the Cerulli Award, but I watched enough baseball, football, basketball, and hockey over the years to know what seperates a truly dominant team from a ghastly one. Without putting my favorite teams in consideration, I settled on two smaller lists, written in a perspective that has no other concern for that program or organization, in chronological order from 1984 to now:
- The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers. College sports were barely in my peripheral in grade school, but overall '95 was one of the best years ever for college pigskin. Northwestern's unexpected rise of prominence following upsets of Notre Dame, Michigan, and Penn State was remarkable, but the Huskers were the undisputed #1 team all season. The Green-Phillips backfield was impossible to stop, the defense was a brick wall, and Nebraska averaged 51 points a game en route to a Fiesta Bowl decimation of Florida.
- The 1998 New York Yankees. Maybe the last "pure" Yankees championship squad: few if any overpriced free agents, no known juicers, and a roster that was mostly homegrown. The year that Mariano Rivera broke out and Derek Jeter cemented his superstar status. They averaged more than two runs per game, and outside of early April they never lost more than two games in a row. They won games with their hitting, their rotation, their bullpen, and their bench. Top to bottom dominant.
- The 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings. As a Chicagoan, I am just as obligated to hate the Wings as any true Bears fan spews vitriol at the Packers. Sweet holy crap, however this team was stacked. This was an alignment of All-Stars and Hockey Hall of Famers that could only last one year, a true fantasy hockey roster if there ever was one. Besides familar faces like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, the roster read like a who's who of '90s NHL superstars: Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios, with Dominik Hasek in goal. A near-constant offense threat on every line more than made up for the advancing age of the Wings' ringers. Outside of a first-round scare by Vancouver, there was little doubting who would win the West and hoist the Stanley Cup.
- The 2007 New England Patriots. Maybe the greatest sports team to not win a championship. You can blame their underwhelming performance in Super Bowl XLII on both exhaustion and a strong effort by the New York Giants' defense. The fact of the matter is, they went 16-0 in a season where the AFC East was still competitive and their ease of schedule was somewhere in the middle. No one except Big Blue gave them much of a challenge.
- The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs. Too soon, you say? Granted, the Spurs were the best team in a stacked Western Conference, and in the '14 Finals they disposed a much flashier Miami Heat squad in five games simply by playing the game right. They demonstrated how Gregg Popovich and company put fundamentals first; their formula was a blend of young and seasoned players, a mix of solid shooting with crisp defensive play. Tim Duncan are Manu Ginobili are two of the most low-key future Hall of Famers in the game, with Tiago Splitter --arguably the greatest 30th overall pick ever-- having a coming out party with his solid two-way play against Lebron et al.
- The 2002 Tampa Bay Devil Rays. A textbook example of a youth movement, and the exact moment people realized the Rays' original management didn't know what they were doing. All the aging, overpriced free agents from their inaugural squad four years earlier had either moved on or retired. This left the Rays with a roster of cheaper, still aging free agents (hi, Greg Vaughn!) thrown together with maybe the most disorganized farm system in recent memory. Top prospect Greg "Toe" Nash never made it to Tropicana Field, a disappearing act that was nearly as fast as his unlikely arrival. Former first round pick Josh Hamilton was still in his cocaine and painkillers phase. Carl Crawford was probably called up to The Show too soon, but his .259 average showed promise. This was the only full major league season of Jared Sandburg, the nephew of the Cubs' Hall of Fame second baseman. It was obvious that Jared wasn't major league material, but the Rays' farm system didn't have any other third basemen, so Sandburg's so-so glove and .220 average made do.
- The 2003, 2004, and 2005 College of DuPage Chapparals (football). If you're from the west suburbs of Chicago and your family couldn't afford to send you to a four-year university, chances are you earned your basic credits at COD before transferring. I was no exception; I earned an Associates in Arts before spending two years at Illinois State. During my 2 1/2 years in Glen Ellyn, JNCO sports were always in my peripheral, and COD's atrocious football program symbolized school spirit or lack thereof. The '03 and '04 Chaps both went 0-11, and the '05 squad won their first game before dropping the next ten. The star running back on the 2003 team shot and killed a guy, than almost got off the hook because of Illinois' "defense of dwelling" statute. (He spent two months in jail for not having an owner's ID.) The intent of JNCO is to assemble a competitive team out of the prep players the major schools overlooked. The COD Chaps were misfits and castoffs, and played with a massive chip on their shoulders.
- The 2007 and 2008 Indiana State Sycamores (also football). Even for a mid-major, the Trees were pitiful. From 2006 to 2009 ISU dropped 32 games in a row, and their winless seasons in '07 and '08 were bookended by 1-10 campaigns. Other schools in the Gateway Conference were clammering to host Indiana State for their homecoming game (including my Illinois State Redbirds) if only because their incompetence guaranteed a home blowout win in front of a sellout crowd. The Sycamores' football program has since upgraded from awful to merely mediocre, but those rough years in the late 2000s still linger.
- The 2012 Charlotte Bobcats. I won't deny the brilliance of Michael Jordan as a basketball player; he's the G.O.A.T. for a reason. As an executive and scout, however it's been a lengthy learning experience to say the least. After dropping 23 straight games to finish the season, Jordan was booed on his home court for the first time ever because of this hot mess, a 7-59 squad in a lockout-shortened season. At least the Bobcats' two lottery picks that season (Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker) weren't the busts that many had feared.
This is not a complete list by any means. Maybe it's fatigue from decades of watching NU hoops, but I don't really care about college basketball until bracket time. The 1992 U.S. Olympic "Dream Team" was ridiculously dominant, but everyone and their mother expected them to crush everything in their path. I'm not that concerned with non-team sports, so no NASCAR or PGA. Either way, it's my birthday and I'm feeling super self-indulgent.