Guerry Clegg: Defining 'greatest' finish

December 3, 2013 

Greatest finish in the history of sports?

That's what one New York Post columnist called Saturday's Iron Bowl, Auburn's 34-28 victory over Alabama.

As you can imagine, that pronouncement sparked tons of spirited debate.

But was it really? Arguing the point on face value is like debating that blue is the prettiest color. There is that whole eye of the beholder thing. Partiality has to be set aside, at least as much as possible.

So, sorry Auburn and Alabama fans, but you have to recuse yourselves in this debate. Naturally, many -- actually, I dare say most -- Auburn fans would be inclined to lean toward Chris Davis' 109-yard field goal return with the game clock reading all zeroes. (By the way, I don't care how the NCAA records it statistically. Davis was nearly touching the back of the end zone, so that's 109 yards.)

Auburn fans have a right to be giddy. But are they objective? Let's be real here.

Any way, if we're going to have any credible debate, we have to establish some criteria. Mike Vaccarro did that to some degree in his Post column. His justification was logical. This was Auburn, winless in the SEC last year, taking down undefeated and two-time defending national champion Alabama. The word has made it beyond the Southeast that two schools just happen to not like each other very much.

And this was Gus Malzahn, a high school coach for most of his professional life, getting the better of the best coach in college football. Consider that in 2005, Malzahn was still coaching high school and no doubt doing his share of washing uniforms, while Saban was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. What's more, Malzahn is an offensive coach, whereas Saban's expertise is defense, so this really was a head-to-head matchup.

Good points, all. Still, we need more measurable criteria to call this the greatest finish ever. Let's start with ...

• Ever? That's quite a long time. I'm sure some gladiator some time back, but nobody bothered to post it onYouTube. So let's define "ever" as since 1900.

• Finish: Jack Nicklaus' back nine 30 in 1986, at age 46, is the greatest comeback in, well, ever. He shot 7-under over his last 10 holes. But it wasn't a finish. First of all, he parred No. 18. It wasn't over then. Tom Kite could have forced a playoff with a birdie on 18, but he missed his putt. Greg Norman could have won it with a birdie, or forced a playoff with a par. But Norman bogeyed.

Likewise, Larry Mize's chip-in the next year was possibly the greatest single shot in golf history. But he didn't win until the other guy missed his birdie putt. That guy being Norman.

• Shock value: Christian Laettner's turn-around jumper to beat Kentucky and send Duke to the Final Four was one of the great buzzer-beaters of all time. But it was not completely unexpected. Duke was inbounding the ball.

Everyone watching, either in person or on television, expected a catch-and-shoot. And it's not as if Laettner was an unexpected hero.

So, "finish" and "shock value"... that would have to make the greatest finish ever the Cal-Stanford "Don't Fall With The Ball" kickoff return, right? Not quite, because there's one more item.

• The stage: The Cal-Stanford game meant nothing outside the Silicon Valley. Sure, it made national news with all of the laterals and the Cal player boinking the tuba player with the football. But the sports nation wasn't paying attention when it happened.

So, "finish, shock value and the stage," that makes the Iron Bowl No. 1, right?

Well, not quite. Sure, the stage was even big by Iron Bowl standards with Alabama being ranked No. 1 and Auburn No. 4.

But Lorenzo Charles' put-back of Derreck Whittenburg's missed jumper to give N.C. State the 1983 national championship in men's basketball still has to rank on top as the greatest finish to a college sports event for two reasons. One, it flipped the outcome. Without Charles' basket, Houston would have won the championship. There was no in between. Yeah, Bama could have won the game if Griffith had made the 57-yard field goal. But it seemed likely that the game was headed to overtime.

N.C. State was only in the tournament because the Wolfpack won the ACC tournament. Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma was thought to be unconquerable.

Plus, that was for the national championship. The Iron Bowl merely decided who will play in the SEC Championship Game.

But that was just the greatest finish to a college event.

Nothing can top Bill Mazeroski's Game 7 walk-off to win the 1960 World Series. Kirk Gibson's gimpy shot off Dennis Eckersley? Close. But that was Game 1. (By the way, it was that moment when Eckersley came up with the term "walk-off.")

So wouldn't Joe Carter's walk-off in 1993 be just as great? Again, close, but there were some differences. Carter's home run won the World Series for Toronto in Game 6. If Philadelphia had won, there still would have been another game. Also, it came so late and on a college football Saturday night that sports fans' attention was split.

And there was another element. Mazeroski's home run beat the imperial New York Yankees, with Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Bobby Richardson and Whitey Ford. The Pirates had just scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth to take a 9-7 lead after trailing 7-4. It looked like the game would be over when Berra hit what seemed to be a sure double play grounder to first. But when Pittsburgh first baseman Rocky Nelson stepped on the bag to retire Berra, Mantle alertly dived back into first and avoided the tag, allowing Gil McDougald to score the tying run.

Mazeroski was so stunned after the half inning that he forgot he was leading off the bottom of the ninth. He was not exactly an expected hero. He was the Pirates' No. 8 hitter that day. His blast over the 406-foot mark in left center field might never be surpassed as the greatest finish ever.

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