Looking back on 1972, the greatest collection of champions in history
It is one of the legendary numbers in sports, the perfect record the Miami Dolphins achieved 40 years ago Monday with a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII. The names Fernandez and Buoniconti, Csonka and Warfield and Griese and Shula left a lasting legacy as the NFL's only unbeaten team of the playoff era.
Yet in 1972 and early '73 the Dolphins were not alone in battering the opposition. Indeed, so outstanding was the caliber of champions in the six major U.S. team sports of pro and college basketball, pro and college football, hockey and baseball that the Dolphins might only rank fourth or even fifth among their championship brethren.
The '72 champions in college basketball and college football also were unbeaten. The NBA champ won 33 straight games and set a regular season record for wins. The Stanley Cup winner was rarely challenged and featured one of hockey's seminal players. The World Series champion, playing without its top slugger, won the first of three straight Fall Classics by beating a team loaded with future Hall of Famers.
In a year remembered for The Godfather, All in the Family, the Watergate break-in, the Rolling Stones' landmark album Exile on Main Street and the final two Apollo manned missions to the moon, team sports in '72 also forged new frontiers. UCLA basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Bruins, Oakland Athletics, USC football and the Dolphins outclassed the competition and forged a league of extraordinary champions. Indeed, 1972 may well go down in history as the greatest year in American sports history.
Yes, the schedule was easy (only two winning teams) and, yes, they caught a few breaks, but the '72 Dolphins carved a permanent place in NFL history with a perfect 17-0 season, a feat unmatched since the playoff era began in 1933.
Stung by a humiliating 24-3 defeat to Dallas in Super Bowl VI a year earlier when the Cowboys rushed for 252 yards, Miami fortified its "No-Name Defense" into the NFL's best. Led by tackle Manny Fernandez, middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti and safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott, the defense topped the NFL in fewest points and fewest yards and was second in turnovers.
Coach Don Shula's ground-oriented offense set an NFL record for yards rushing as Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris became the first teammates to run for 1,000 yards in the same season. Despite losing starting quarterback Bob Griese to injury in Week 5, the offense scored an NFL-best 27.5 points per game.
Miami's closest call was Week 3 at Minnesota when the Dolphins trailed 14-6 late in the fourth quarter. But an unlikely 51-yard field goal from Garo Yepremian (he was 5-for-22 lifetime on attempts of 50 yards or more) and a 3-yard Griese to Jim Mandich TD pass that was set up by a roughing the passer penalty on a third-and-long play gave Miami a 16-14 win.
There were two oddities in the playoffs. Even though Miami was undefeated, the AFC title game was played at Pittsburgh because the NFL used to rotate playoff sites among division winners. Fortunately for the warm-weather Dolphins, the temperature was near 60. Miami won 21-17.
And in Super Bowl VII, the unbeaten 'Fins were underdogs to George Allen's 13-3 "Over the Hill Gang" Redskins. It didn't matter. Behind Fernandez's 17 tackles (11 solo), Miami shut out Washington until the final minutes in a 14-7 victory.
As the Dolphins carried Shula off the field, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum scoreboard flashed the historic numbers -- "17-0."
When ESPN published its College Football Encyclopedia in 2005, it asked 11 noted writers and commentators to select the college game's greatest team. Seven different teams earned one vote apiece. The other four all went to the 1972 Trojans.
Keith Jackson called the team "a remarkable group of athletes" and longtime SI college football writer Dan Jenkins recalled how the 12-0 Trojans "destroyed every opponent," scoring more than 40 points seven times.
USC's average margin of victory was 24 points. The Trojans were sixth nationally in total offense, seventh in total defense, third in scoring offense and seventh in scoring defense. Eleven Trojans would earn All-America recognition between '72 and '74. And many of the '72 underclassmen helped the Trojans win a share of the '74 national title.
The '72 offense featured running backs Anthony Davis (fourth nationally in scoring) and Sam Cunningham, tight end Charles Young, wide receivers Lynn Swann and Edesel Garrison and quarterback Mike Rae. Linebacker Richard "Batman" Wood led the defense.
USC opened with a 31-10 win at No. 4 Arkansas and finished with routs of three ranked teams: 24-7 over No. 14 UCLA; 45-23 over No. 10 Notre Dame as Davis scored six touchdowns; and 42-17 over No. 3 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl as Cunningham scored four TDs and Rae passed for 229 yards. It is the most points ever scored against the Buckeyes in a bowl.
Coach John McKay recorded the third of his four national championships at USC and would say of his '72 squad, "I've never seen any team that could beat them."
Like the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, the Chicago Bears of the '80s, the Atlanta Braves of the '90s and the Indianapolis Colts of the 2000s, the Lakers of the 1960s and early '70s were a failed dynasty, a supremely talented team that managed only one championship. Between 1962 and 1973 the Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and later Wilt Chamberlain played in nine NBA Finals, winning only once. But that 1971-72 championship season was one for the books.
Although Baylor retired after only nine games, the Lakers rolled. Happy Hairston and Jim McMillan handled the forward slots, guards West and Gail Goodrich provided the bulk of the scoring (nearly 52 points per game between the two) and Chamberlain led the NBA in rebounds. Pat Riley averaged seven points off the bench.
New Lakers coach Bill Sharman was one of the first to institute morning shoot-arounds, a practice that even the nocturnal Chamberlain bought into.
Between Nov. 5 1971, and Jan. 7, 1972, the Lakers didn't lose, winning a record 33 straight games that shattered the old NBA mark of 20. No North American major league franchise has approached this streak.
The Lakers finished with a 69 wins, a record that stood for 24 years and outscored opponents by 12.28 points per game, a record that still stands. They averaged 121 points per game, a total since surpassed only by Doug Moe's up-tempo Denver Nuggets of the 1980s.
After sweeping the Chicago Bulls to open the playoffs, L.A. faced a far sterner test in the West finals from the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Bucks embarrassed the Lakers 93-72 in Game 1 but L.A. rebounded to win three of four of the next four games. The Lakers then rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to take Game 6 in Milwaukee, 104-100.
During Game 6, ABC commentator Bill Russell was asked how he would defend Jabbar's seemingly unstoppable sky hook. Moments later, Chamberlain soared to block Jabbar's shot as Russell chuckled, "THAT's how I would do it."
In the Finals, the Lakers again started slowly, losing Game 1 by 22 points as the New York Knicks bombed from the outside. But the Knicks' shooting cooled, forward Dave DeBusschere joined injured center Willis Reed on the sidelines and the Lakers won the next four games for the franchise's first championship since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.
Chamberlain, playing with a broken hand, was voted Finals MVP after scoring 24 points and grabbing 29 rebounds in Game 5 as the NBA ended play on May 7, about six weeks earlier than today's playoff schedule.
Of coach John Wooden's seven straight national championship teams (1967-73) the '72 squad may have been the most dominant. Led by sophomores Bill Walton and Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes and senior guard Henry Bibby, the Bruins (30-0) toyed with opponents and ran UCLA's winning streak to 45 games en route to a record 88.
UCLA ranked fourth nationally in offense (94.6 points per game), fourth in field goal percentage and were top 10 in scoring defense. The Bruins won by an average of 30.3 points per game, an NCAA record.
By comparison, UNLV's 1991 juggernaut had a point differential of 26.7, 1996 national champ Kentucky's was 22.0, the 2005 and '09 North Carolina national champions were both 17.8, and the unbeaten 1976 Indiana team was 17.3.
Not until the NCAA title game vs. outlier (some said outlaw) Florida State was UCLA challenged. The Seminoles had run afoul of NCAA recruiting rules twice in three years, and the president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches called their presence in the Final Four "a disgrace."
But after an upset of No. 2 North Carolina in the semifinals, which featured future NBA stars Bob McAdoo and Bobby Jones, FSU made UCLA sweat. Led by Ron King's 27 points, the 'Noles stayed close before losing 81-76, the closest NCAA championship game for any Wooden team.
Tournament MVP Walton, who led the Bruins with 24 points and 20 rebounds against Florida State, seemed disappointed that UCLA had not "dominated like we're capable of doing."
The game also marked the end of an era. After more than 30 years as a Friday-Saturday or Thursday-Saturday event, the Final Four switched in 1973 to its current format of Saturday semifinals and Monday night final.
The 1972 baseball season started in gloom as the first of numerous players strikes canceled the first 13 days of the schedule and ended sadly when the legendary Jackie Robinson died two days after the World Series. But the '72 playoffs were glorious.
For the first time, both league championship series went the full five games and the World Series lasted a full seven. Of the 17 postseason games, 11 were decided by one run including six in the Fall Classic.
When the dust settled the new champion was Oakland, one of baseball's most resourceful outfits. The A's were capable of winning in a variety of ways, leading the American League in both home runs and sacrifice hits.
First the A's outlasted the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS with a 2-1 win in the deciding Game 5. However, they lost slugger Reggie Jackson when the future "Mr. October" tore a hamstring muscle stealing home to tie the game.
The Cincinnati Reds, meanwhile, rallied to oust the defending champion Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS and secure their second World Series appearance in three years. The clean-shaven Reds, whose policy forbidding long hair and moustaches rivaled the Nixon White House, were heavy favorites over the hirsute A's, particularly with Jackson sidelined.
But Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams utilized Oakland's entire roster to best the Big Red Machine. Oakland won four one-run games and three of four on the artificial turf of Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. Catcher Gene Tenace tied the World Series record with four home runs and topped all hitters with nine RBIs. Future Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter (two wins) and Rollie Fingers (two saves) led the pitching staff.
Without Jackson, the A's had defeated most of the same Reds lineup (Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion) that would form one of baseball's greatest teams in 1975-76. Oakland went on to become the only non-Yankees team to win three straight World Series and one of only two to do so in the divisional era.
During the early 1970s, a Boston sports fan usually could get a ticket the day of the game to see the Red Sox or Celtics. For the peripatetic Patriots, who played in four stadiums in four seasons, good seats were always available. The Bruins were another story. Led by the transcendent Bobby Orr, the B's were the hottest ticket in town.
Orr won two NHL scoring titles, three MVP awards and eight Norris Trophies as the league's top defenseman. His arrival in the late 1960s galvanized a sorry franchise and his overtime goal as he flew across the ice to win the 1970 Stanley Cup created one of hockey's iconic photos.
The Bruins were even better for most of 1971, setting NHL records for wins, points and goals scored. Phil Esposito's 76 goals smashed Bobby Hull's old record of 58. A popular bumper sticker said "Jesus Saves" and in smaller letters underneath, "Esposito gets the rebound and SCORES!"
But in an upset nearly as devastating to Hub fans as the Pats' Super Bowl XLII defeat to the New York Giants, the Bruins were eliminated in the first round of the '71 playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens and rookie goaltender Ken Dryden in a seven-game shocker.
The Bruins dominated again in '72, registering only two fewer points (119) and allowing fewer goals than in '71. Esposito (66 goals) and Orr finished 1-2 in scoring, and Boston's potent power play converted nearly 29 percent of its chances. Orr won his third straight MVP. Boston left nothing to chance in the playoffs, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games, sweeping the St. Louis Blues and then topping the New York Rangers in six games to win the Stanley Cup as goalie Gerry Cheevers turned in a series of acrobatic saves. Orr scored a dazzling goal in the 3-0 Game 6 clincher to win his second Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP.