What Happened!? Champions Missing the Playoffs

Last night, the North Carolina Tar Heels fell to the Dayton Flyers in the NIT championship game, 79-68.  UNC had a chance to become the first team to win back-to-back championships.  That is, win the NCAA championship and then win the NIT championship.

Wow! What a difference a year (and the NBA Draft) makes!

North Carolina had this opportunity because they struggled mightily to adjust to life after Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington and finished 16-16 in the regular season.  The Tar Heels placed tenth in the ACC (5-11; technically tied for ninth with NC State and Virginia) and was bounced in the first round of the ACC tournament by Georgia Tech.

But, the Tar Heels also joined an “elite” group — teams that failed to make the playoffs the season following a title.  In college basketball, because there are so many teams, it does not happen that often.  Since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985, only four champions have failed to return to defend their crown — Louisville (1986 champion), Kansas (1988; on probation in 1989), Florida (2007) and North Carolina (2009).

But how often does this occur in other sports?  Due to the nature of baseball’s playoffs, it would be obvious that it occurs often in Major League Baseball.  So, let’s look at other playoffs.

In the NBA, this has only happened two times.  Following their 1968-69 title, the Boston Celtics fell hard, going 34-48 in the 1969-70 season and finishing sixth in the seven-team Eastern Conference.  The loss of many key players hurt the Celtics.  Similarly, the loss of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, and head coach Phil Jackson decimated the Chicago Bulls.  The Bulls went from celebrating a second three-peat in June of 1998 (and a 62-20 regular season record) to winning just 13 games in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.

Since the NHL took full control of the Stanley Cup, this scenario has occurred seven times.  Interesting to note that it happened three times prior to the 1967 expansion — the Detroit Red Wings (1936-37 champs); Chicago Blackhawks (1937-38); and the Toronto Maple Leafs (1944-45).  This is noteworthy because with fewer teams, there was a higher chance of making the playoffs.

Since expansion, champions have failed to make the playoffs four times, including the first post-expansion year (1967-68) when the Toronto Maple Leafs once again failed to find the post-season.  The next season, the Montreal Canadiens did the same thing, missing the playoffs due to tie-breakers and the Red Wings throwing the final regular season game (well, Habs fans believe that).  The other two champions to miss the next season’s playoffs are the New Jersey Devils (1995 Stanley Cup Champions) and the Carolina Hurricanes (2006).

Football has seen its champion miss the playoffs a lot — 13 times in the Super Bowl era.  Most teams do not miss the playoffs by too many games, in some cases only missing it because of tiebreakers.  The “worst” champions have been Super Bowl XXI winner New York Giants (6-9 in 1987) and Super Bowl XXXIII winner Denver Broncos sans John Elway (6-10 in 1999).  The San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XVI champs, went 3-6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

Here is the list of Super Bowl champs that failed to make the playoffs the following season:

  • Super Bowl II: Green Bay Packers
  • Super Bowl IV: Kansas City Chiefs
  • Super Bowl XIV: Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Super Bowl XV: Oakland Raiders
  • Super Bowl XVI: San Francisco 49ers
  • Super Bowl XXI: New York Giants
  • Super Bowl XXII: Washington Redskins
  • Super Bowl XXV: New York Giants
  • Super Bowl XXXIII: Denver Broncos
  • Super Bowl XXXVI: New England Patriots
  • Super Bowl XXXVII: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Super Bowl XL: Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Super Bowl XLIII: Pittsburgh Steelers

While the FBS does not have a playoff, the FCS tier does.  Since the playoffs were implemented for what was then known as Division 1-AA in 1978, there have been ten champions not return the following year.  It should be noted that four of those ten occurred prior to expansion to current 16-team format, including Florida A&M, which won the 1978 title in a four-team format that existed until 1980.

Idaho State won the title in 1981 — the only year with an eight-team format — and did not return the following post-season, while Southern Illinois (1983) and Montana State (1984) won it in a twelve-team bracket.

Since the 1986 expansion to the current format, Northeast Louisiana (now UL-Monroe) in 1987, Georgia Southern in 1990, Youngstown State in 1994 and 1997, and most recently James Madison in 2004 have not returned to the playoffs the following season.  The Dukes missed the D-I playoffs after finishing second in the Atlantic 10 South division (fifth overall) with a 7-4 record (5-3 in conference).

The other champion not to return to the playoffs is the 1996 Marshall team, which went 15-0 on its way to its second title.  Marshall moved up to D-1A in 1997 and continued its dominant play in the MAC, winning the conference title.  It helped to have Chad Pennington and some guy named Randy Moss.

So while in general it is unusual for a champion to follow up their title by missing the playoffs, it has happened.  The year 1970 was especially brutal as the previous champions in the NBA (Celtics – 1968-69), NHL (Canadiens – 1968-69) and NFL (Chiefs – 1969) all missed the playoffs.

It seems much more common in the NFL, the FCS and NHL than in other sports, although not as common in hockey since expansion.  It is rarer in the NBA.

So, chin up Tar Heel fans!  Some of the most successful teams in their sport — the Canadiens and Maple Leafs; the Celtics and the Bulls; the Steelers, 49ers and Packers — have missed the playoffs following a title.  That is mighty fine company!

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