From Shula to Shanahan

Who deserves the hype? Who doesn't get enough? A look at sports' most overrated, and overlooked.


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Allen Barra
August 29, 2001 12:00PM (UTC)

Overrate, underrate, everyone's doing it. Now, right on the heels of American Heritage's annual issue (which, in the interests of total disclosure, I am a contributor to), Sports Illustrated has decided to jump on the bandwagon in its current issue. If I don't jump on soon I risk getting left behind by USA Today. So here goes.

Most Overrated Pro Football Coach: Don Shula

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That he was the winningest coach in NFL history matters as little to me as it should to you. All those seasons, all those Hall of Famers, all those opportunities and just two championships to show for it? Did you ever stop to think how many big games this guy's teams not only blew but never even showed up for?

Think about it: In 1964 his Colts go into the NFL Championship game against Cleveland as an 18-point pick and get stuffed 27-0, one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. In 1969 his Colts go into the Super Bowl against the Jets as 19-point favorites, and get stuffed 16-7. In 1985 his Miami Dolphins go into the Super Bowl as 3-point favorites against the 49ers and lose 38-16. I could go on. Was there ever a worse big-game coach? Does anyone remember a Shula-coached team scoring a touchdown in the second half of a big game?

Most Underrated Pro Football Coach: Mike Shanahan

He made a winner out of John Elway, his Denver Broncos have won him two Super Bowl rings and he might have had a third if Brian Griese hadn't been injured before the championship game last season. He's a Bill Walsh disciple, and he's going to win at least a third ring, maybe this season, maybe next, but someday, and that may not be the last.

Most Overrated Sports Trend: Baseball's coming economic crisis

Who cares? If they have to drop a couple of teams, let them do so; if they have to share their revenue, let them share it. Just don't use that as an excuse to stop the game while you're trying to decide.

Most Underrated Sports Trend:The slow death of football

Kids have stopped playing it as a sandlot sport altogether. Fewer young people are watching it. The talent pool, within the next few years, will begin to shrink rapidly. And, increasingly, we're watching all our old idols from the '60s walking on canes and crutches -- not an inspirational sight for the next generation.

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Most Overrated Liberal Piety: Boxing injury and death, which affects just a handful of people per thousand per decade

Most Underrated Liberal Piety: Injury and death in auto racing, football, hockey and lacrosse -- to say nothing of skiing -- which affect tens of thousands per year

Most Overrated Baseball Superstar: Tony Gwynn

For all the hits (3,200 plus), batting titles (eight) and hits titles (seven), the San Diego Padres right fielder has driven in more than 100 runs in a season just once and scored more than 100 just twice.

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Most Underrated Baseball Superstar: Jeff Bagwell

In his career with the Houston Astros, his 11-year batting average of .305 is about 22 points below Gwynn's 20-year mark, but he already has more than 200 more walks, nearly 200 more home runs, five more 100-plus RBI seasons (six more after this year), four more 100-plus runs-scored seasons (five after this year), an on-base average more than 30 points higher than Gwynn's and a slugging percentage nearly 100 points higher.

Most Overrated Live Experience: Going to a football game

After years of watching every move replayed on TV, who the hell can watch a football game in person? Yeah, yeah, I know about the intricacies of line play, etc., etc., but how many seats in a football stadium offer you anything like the view you'd need to focus on such things? Now, if you care who wins, that's a different matter, but if you're going somewhere to see the game, just go to a sports bar. The beer is cheaper, too.

Most Underrated Live Sports Experience: Seeing a live tennis match

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You can't believe the speed at which the game is played unless you're there, and every seat in the house is good.

Most Overrated Sports Journalist: Howard Cosell

The upcoming "Ali" movie will no doubt stir up more memories and debates about Cosell's place in sports history, but ultimately, aside from the monuments he built with his own ego, what is his legacy? Little more than a pompous, unreadable, self-serving autobiography.

Most Underrated Sports Journalist: Dick Schaap

Schaap has written great books, from his 1962 Sport magazine library bio of Mickey Mantle to volumes with Jerry Kramer and Joe Namath that read as well today as when they were written. On ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" he makes an entire younger generation seem both underread and unhip.

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This is fun. I'm going to do some more in upcoming weeks. Send me some of yours.

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Both American Heritage and Sports Illustrated went after Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. S.I.'s Tom Verducci calls it an underrated accomplishment while baseball historian John B. Holway in A.H. suggests the streak was a result of a scorer's accident (or bias) and further states that DiMaggio's "fame" rests on the "record." I think they're both wrong. DiMaggio's streak is amazing, but ultimately it's a freak of nature. Above all, who cares? If you're going to get a certain number of hits over a certain number of games, what difference does it make if they're in consecutive games or whatever?

Would DiMaggio be any less of a player if he had had two 28-game streaks, or three 19-game streaks, or no long streak at all? As for Holway's assertion, it's a cheap shot at one of the five or six greatest players in baseball history. What long record or streak doesn't have questionable calls? As for DiMaggio's fame, I think it rests a great deal more on his having been the first great all-around player in baseball history and the primary force behind the greatest dynasty in baseball history, than on any scorer's lapse.


Allen Barra

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

MORE FROM Allen Barra

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