Some of these sports teams had transcendent regular seasons only to flame out spectacularly in the playoffs, while others simply crapped the bed from day one. Whatever their differences, what the following 11 teams have in common is that they will all be remembered as colossal disappointments.
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11 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers
After failing to win the NBA title for the first time since 1999, during the 2003-04 season the Lakers decided to just overwhelm everyone, adding Hall of Fame locks Karl Malone and Gary Payton to a team that already included Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Right away everyone declared the Lakers the 2004 champs, but then a funny thing happened in The Finals. The Lakers ran into a Detroit Pistons team devoid of Hall of Famers, a team in the truest sense of the word and five games later the Lakers were sitting in their locker-room in Detroit wondering what in the hell just happened while the Pistons players and fans celebrated outside. It was really the end of an era for the Lakers, the last gasp for the Shaq/Kobe era which soon fell apart amid acrimony and Kobe running wild like Mike Tyson or Patrick Bateman in Denver hotel rooms. The Lakers would be back – eventually – but the 2003-04 Lakers remain an example for everyone to see of what can happen when a team gets lazy and tries to substitute team building for coasting on the reputations of a few big stars. But, hey, it did help inspire Shaq’s award winning diss track “Tell Me How My Ass Tastes,” so I guess it wasn’t a total disappointment.
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10 2000 Alabama Football
Coming off of an Orange Bowl appearance following a 1999 season that saw Alabama win 10 games, the future looked bright for the program under head coach Mike DuBose. Indeed, people were so convinced that DuBose had brought Alabama back from the malaise of probation and mediocrity which hampered the program throughout much of the mid-late ‘90s that AP poll voters ranked the Crimson Tide third in their preseason poll. Five months later, Alabama was sitting at home with a 3-8 record watching everyone else play in bowl games and DuBose was packing his office up, trying to get the hell out of town before irate Alabama fans lynched him and then offered his body up as a sacrifice to a statue of Bear Bryant. Alabama would eventually be resurrected by Nick Saban but the 2000 Alabama football team was a low point from which ‘Bama took over half a decade to fully recover. From third in the nation to radioactive disaster zone – I think that’s enough to qualify the 2000 Alabama football team as one of the most disappointing sports teams of all time.
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9 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings
The 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings finished the season with a league record 131 points and were stocked with Hall of Famers, so why are they on this list? Well, when you have a season for the ages like that you kinda sorta at least expect to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, but the Wings couldn’t even manage that, getting embarrassed by the Colorado Avalanche in the Conference Finals. To add injury to insult, poor Kris Draper also had his face mangled by a vicious cheap-shot from Colorado’s Claude Lemieux. On the bright side, that hit and the subsequent embarrassment the Wings had to deal with touched off a holy war between the two teams which ignited the Wings, forcing them to get grittier, and pushing them to become the team that eventually won back to back Stanley Cups. Still, it’s impossible not to call a team a huge disappointment when the things that people remember aren’t those 131 points or the graceful, transcendent skill with which the team played but the humiliating playoff loss and the site of Kris Draper in the locker room after the game looking like Eric Stoltz’s character from Mask. And that’s why they’re on this list.
Photo credit: Anna Enriquez, Flickr
8 1994-95 Duke Basketball
Coming off of yet another Final Four appearance the year before, Duke seemed like a team that no one would ever slow down. For over a decade they had remained among the elite squads in the country, never winning less than 24 games or losing more than 9 games in any season during that stretch. And with players like Cherokee Parks and Trajan Langdon ready to go, it was reasonable to expect Duke’s run of outrageously good fortune to continue. Yeah… about that. Duke managed to start the season 9-3 but then head coach Mike Krzyzewski announced that he was taking a leave of absence to deal with health issues. Sure, that was bound to affect the team but no one could have predicted just how far Duke would fall into chaos without their little Napoleon of a head coach hanging around. Under assistant Pete Gaudet, Duke fell completely apart, going a shocking 4-15 without Coach K on the bench. For the season, Duke finished with an almost unbelievable 13-18 record, horrifying their die-hard fans and delighting the rest of the college basketball loving – and Duke hating – world. Coach K would be back and so would Duke, but that 13-18 season stands as one of the most disappointing – and shocking – seasons of all time.
Photo credit: Mike Krzyzewski image by Aspen Photo/Shutterstock
7 2008 Detroit Tigers
The 2008 Detroit Tigers were only two years removed from a World Series appearance and had barely missed the playoffs in 2007, so fans were naturally excited when the Tigers solidified an already good team by pulling off a blockbuster trade that brought uber-slugger Miguel Cabrera and 20 game winning pitcher Dontrelle Willis into the fold. With a loaded lineup and a pitching staff filled with young fireballers, it wasn’t long before the hype train left the station. Articles began popping up comparing the 2008 Tigers’ lineup to that of the legendary ’27 Yankees and the Tigers were soon the damn near unanimous favorite to win the World Series. Then the season started and that hype drain quickly derailed and then caught on fire before being pissed on by a gang of hobos as the Tigers proceeded to go out and lose their first seven games of the season. Look, I was there. I’m a big fan of the Tigers and within a week or two I was close to hyperventilating into a paper bag. By the time the season mercifully drew to a close, the Tigers “super-team” finished with a 74-88 record, good for dead last in the American League Central Division and every Tigers fan alive learned a valuable lesson that we all should have already known had we just listened to Public Enemy – Don’t believe the hype.
Photo credit: Ivan Rodriguez image by Pete Hoffman/Shutterstock
6 2010-11 Miami Heat
The 2010-11 Miami Heat might be the most famous disappointing team on this list. That’s because it happened so recently and because of the ridiculous amount of hyperbole surrounding the team before they even stepped onto the court. From the moment that LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to join Dwyane Wade in Miami, two things happened: everyone crowned the Heat NBA champs and everyone began to root against them. Hated by everyone, the Heat played it up, claiming that they wouldn’t be satisfied with a single championship. They wanted multiple championships, 5 or 6 or 7. But basketball is perhaps the ultimate team game and as soon as the season started everyone realized that this “team” was really two superstars, one borderline All-Star and a bunch of guys who would struggle in a local YMCA league. Still, James and Wade managed to pull the Heat all the way to the NBA Finals before LeBron sadly – or hilariously depending on your viewpoint – shit the bed and the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks. It’s the degree of hype and the ridiculous egotism of James and this team that puts them on this list more than their actual lack of accomplishments. After all, they had a pretty decent season. But pretty decent doesn’t cut it when your stars are gibbering about winning 7 titles, you know? And that’s why the 2010-11 Miami Heat are on this list.
Photo credit: LeBron James image by Domenic Gareri/Shutterstock
5 2007 Michigan Football
As a Michigan fan, this one kills me, but hey, I can’t just pretend that they don’t belong here. After all, I am a professional. (Shut up…) Still, the memory of what went down during the 2007 season continues to haunt not just me but every Michigan fan, player and coach alive. That’s because following a 2006 season which saw Michigan barely miss out on the National Championship Game they came back loaded for 2007, led by the school’s all-time leading rusher, Mike Hart, all-time leading passer, Chad Henne, stud wide receiver Mario Manningham, and future number one overall NFL draft pick, left tackle Jake Long. And then Appalachian State came to town and the whole world burned. In perhaps the most shocking upset in college football history, Michigan was stunned by Appalachian State, which caused the rest of the world to laugh and cheer while we all cried and hid beneath our beds. One week later, Michigan was firebombed straight to hell by the Oregon Ducks and, really, things have never been even remotely the same for Michigan since. The only reason they’re not higher on this list is because those talented seniors managed to pull it together for one last desperate run, going out on a relative high note with a win over Florida in the Capital One Bowl, but then they left and darkness descended, and it all started with that 2007 team.
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4 2003 Oakland Raiders
Only a season after a Super Bowl appearance, led by the reigning NFL MVP, Rich Gannon, the Oakland Raiders went out in 2003 ready to conquer the world. By the time the season was over, the Raiders had finished 4-12, head coach Bill Callahan was feuding with half his team, Gannon was hurt and the Raiders would never be the “Raiders” and all that meant again for as long as Al Davis lived. As disappointments go, that’s pretty profound, wouldn’t you say?
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3 1981 Notre Dame Football
Following a season in which Notre Dame lost in the Sugar Bowl, they retooled, hiring high school head coaching legend Gerry Faust to lead the Irish into a new age of glory and prosperity. With Faust’s energy and optimism leading the way, Notre Dame was abuzz with expectation. They were ranked third to start the season and after beating LSU in week one, the Irish found themselves ranked number one in the country. And then they lost 25-7 to Michigan and that was the end of the Gerry Faust era. Sure, he would stick around for a few more years but Notre Dame never won more than 7 games under Faust. In that first, hype filled 1981 season, Notre Dame finished with a shocking 5-6 final record, their first losing season since 1960. And really, aside from an oasis during the time that Lou Holtz was the head man, it was the beginning of a long desert of despair for the Notre Dame faithful. Since that first shocking season under Faust, Notre Dame has suffered through 6 separate losing seasons. In retrospect not only was that 1981 season a disappointment for Notre Dame, it was a program changing disaster, and that’s why it’s so high on this list.
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2 2002 French National Soccer Team
After triumphantly winning the World Cup in 1998 – which was held in France that year – the French National Soccer Team seemed poised to take over the world. Ranked number one in the world, the French team went into the 2002 World Cup led by superstar Zinedine Zidane and proceeded to be immediately shocked 1-0 by an upstart Senegal squad. Two games later, and France still hadn’t scored a goal, had lost two more times and were waiting to fly home, slackjawed and stunned by their early ouster. The sheer magnitude of France’s failure in 2002 is what gets them such a high spot on this list. After all, they were the defending World Cup champs, the recognized best team in the world, and they not only lost, they failed to score a single goal before getting eliminated. I mean, there are sports disasters and then there is whatever the hell this was. Congrats, France. And yes, I’m proud of myself for not making a joke about France collapsing like they were having flashbacks to World War II. Oops, I guess I just did. I’d like to apologize in advance for causing an international incident, but let’s face it, some fruit just hangs too low to be ignored.
Photo credit: French soccer fan image by Shutterstock
1 1988 United States Men’s Basketball Team
The 1988 United States Men’s Basketball Team is number one on this list not only because they were a disappointment but because their disappointment completely changed the sport of basketball throughout the world. That’s a pretty powerful statement, but it’s true. In 1988, the United States, accustomed to kicking ass every four years in the Olympics, sent a team led by college stars like David Robinson and Mitch Richmond to South Korea to claim yet another gold medal in basketball. When it was over, the U.S. Team was indeed standing on the podium, but it was to accept their bronze medals, not gold. It was an unprecedented failure for the country which created the sport and it led the United States basketball honchos to push FIBA to allow NBA players to play for the U.S. for the first time. The result was the 1992 Dream Team which annihilated the rest of the world en route to a gold medal and completely changed the way we approach the Olympics as a country. Prior to that performance, the U.S. always treated the Olympics as the purest form of sport, a showcase for our country’s best amateurs. After that, we decided to hell with it and sent our professionals to make sure everyone else knew their place. In addition, the 1988 team’s failure and subsequent Dream Team domination led to an acceleration in the development of overseas basketball, which in turn led to more and more foreign born players in the NBA, which eventually led to Dirk Nowitzki celebrating while LeBron James hung his head in failure. Of course, it’s ridiculous to say that the 1988 team’s failure directly led to all of that, but it was the acorn from which everything else eventually grew, either directly or indirectly, and so it’s hard to say that there is any more significant disappointment in sports history than that of the 1988 United States Men’s Basketball Team, and that’s why they’re number one on this list.
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(Previously published on November 2, 2011.)