American sports fans have witnessed some amazing coaching blunders in recent years. In 2015, we saw a Super Bowl end with the entire world asking itself, “Why?” But alas, the most obvious play is not always the best play, a wily coach might tell you. Then again, that same coach might refuse to admit he made the biggest mistake anyone’s ever seen.
Indeed, sports fans have learned time and again that coaches and managers are just like us — except in the worst way possible. Just when you expect cool-headed thinking to rule the day, you get reckless, bizarre moves instead. The bottom line is that coaches choke just as much as players. In the worst cases, the effects can last for generations. Here are the seven worst coaching decisions in sports history, ranked.
7. 2016 World Series: Joe Maddon medley
Sometimes, you win in spite of your manager. Take the 2016 World Series. Joe Maddon’s job was to get out of the Cubs’ way and let them return a title to Chicago after a 108-year hiatus. It didn’t turn out that way. In fact, there were enough boneheaded moves by Maddon to construct a medley.
It starts in Game 6, when he brought in Aroldis Chapman with a 7-2 lead in the seventh inning. Then he left him in for the eighth. Then he had him start the ninth, up 9-2. (Seriously, this happened.) So no one was surprised when an exhausted Chapman blew the save in Game 7. But Maddon wasn’t finished.
In Game 7, he brought in Jon Lester (last relief appearance: 2007) with a 5-1 lead and two outs in the fifth. Lester promptly allowed two runs. Later, with the go-ahead run on third and one out in the ninth, he had Javier Baez bunt with two strikes. (He bunted foul, stranding the runner.) Conspiracy theorists may have thought Maddon was throwing the World Series, but it was just terrible managing.
6. The 1978 ‘Miracle at the Meadowlands’
Though we tried to confine these horrible coaching decisions to championship rounds in the postseason, this jewel from the 1978 NFL season earned its way on the list through sheer incompetence. The New York Giants quite simply had this game won. With a kneel from quarterback Joe Pisarcik, the G-Men could go home with a win and the Eagles would return down the Jersey turnpike with the L.
But instead of a kneel, Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson instructed Pisarcik to hand it off to Larry Csonka. Pisarcik, who was skeptical but had already been reprimanded by the coaching staff that year, went along with it and promptly fumbled. The ball one-hopped off the turf into the hands of Philly’s Herm Edwards, who ran it into the end zone for the improbable win. In this case, a head rolled: The Giants fired Gibson the following day. He never coached in the NFL again.
5. 2003 ALCS: Grady leaves in Pedro
If the Red Sox broke the club’s longstanding curse, you knew Pedro Martinez would be involved. In Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, that plot unfolded beautifully for Boston after chasing the Yankees’ Roger Clemens in the fourth inning.
Heading into the bottom of the eighth, the Sox held a 5-2 lead and Pedro was at 100 pitches. Derek Jeter doubled, then Bernie Williams singled, leaving the score at 5-3 with one out and Hideki Matsui at the plate. Sensing trouble, Red Sox manager Grady Little came out and spoke with Martinez on the mound; Pedro insisted he was fine. On an 0-2 pitch, Matsui laced a double to right, putting runners on second and third. Surely, Little had to take him out then, right? He didn’t.
On a 2-2 pitch Jorge Posada blooped a double in front of a deep outfield, tying the game. Little then took out Pedro to the delight of the Yankee Stadium crowd. Aaron Boone later homered to win it, and Boston fired Little soon after.
4. ‘Miracle on Ice’ with a second-strong goalie
If you’re going to punish your best player, wait until you have the gold medal around your neck. At the 1980 Olympics, USSR hockey coach Viktor Tikhonov did not follow that advice. Tikhonov pulled star goalie Vladislav Tretiak after he allowed the U.S. team to tie the score 2-2 in the first period. With the Soviets’ second-string goalie on the ice, the seventh-seeded American squad knocked out heavy favorites in what became known as the “Miracle on Ice.”
In retrospect, the 4-3 upset sounds quite improbable. The Soviets won four straight gold medals by the time of the 1980 showdown in Lake Placid, New York.
Prior to the start of the Olympics, the club had destroyed the Americans 10-3 in an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden. All the signs pointed to the No. 1 seed claiming yet another gold. Instead, Tikhonov’s coaching blunder led to a loss in the semifinals. The U.S. team topped Finland to claim the gold and enter the history books.
3. 1986 World Series: McNamara sticks with Buckner
The T-shirts used to say something like, “There was no curse. Your team just sucked for 86 years.” Sure, Red Sox players were usually responsible for the losses during a nine-decade title drought, but this one we can blame in part on Boston manager John McNamara. The Sox skipper spent the entire ’86 playoffs subbing in Dave Stapleton as a defensive replacement for 1B Bill Buckner late in games.
Then, up 5-3 and ready to clinch the title in Game 6 of the ’86 World Series, McNamara smelled victory and got sentimental. He left Buckner in for the bottom of the 10th inning. It’s not like Buckner was hobbled enough to miss a routine ground ball and lose the game, right?
2. 1998 NBA Finals: Michael Jordan one-on-one
Though Bryon Russell did have success defending Michael Jordan in the ’97 Finals, you can’t send him out to guard the GOAT one-on-one with the ’98 championship on the line. Actually, we doubt any single defender could have stopped what followed.
The clear call was a double-team to get the ball out of Jordan’s hands (or at least make his path more difficult). Yet Jazz coach Jerry Sloan sent out Russell alone. One ruthless crossover preceded a perfect shot, and the NBA Finals were over, handing Utah its second straight loss to the Bulls.
1. Super Bowl 49: Carroll throws on second and goal
By late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 49, Marshawn Lynch had 102 yards, one touchdown, and the confidence of God after five days of creation. If you asked anyone, they would have called for Lynch to get the ball on second-and-goal to steal the title from New England. Too obvious, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll believed. He called for a pass, which was intercepted with 20 seconds to play. Seattle lost 28-24, and everyone spent the offseason scratching their heads in disbelief.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.