clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The underdog rules

We love them, root for them, make movies about them, but what qualifies someone to be an “underdog”?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Team USA celebrates “the Miracle on Ice”
We believed in miracles in 1980, but who can exactly be an “underdog”?

Underdog Week! Let’s celebrate those special, crucial, emotional, against-all-odds-stories that we sports fans crave.

However, there are rules to this — or at least I think so.

Welcome to “Karleigh’s Criterion On What Is An Underdog”.

1. If we don’t know you, you’re an underdog

Those fresh faced kids above who pulled off that “Miracle On Ice”? Quick! Name a team member who is not Mike Eruzione or their coach Herb Brooks. To quote Al Michaels, “I’m sure a lot of people in this building didn’t know a blue line from clothes line” . So what! We loved it!

XIII Olympic Winter Games
Ken Morrow (above) won Olympic gold in February 1980, and then held up a Stanley Cup with the New York Islanders three months later. Morrow and Neal Broten are the only American players from the “Miracle On Ice” to also play for a Stanley Cup champion.
Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Same thing with that fresh faced kid from some college in Iowa in 1976? We didn’t know who Caitlyn Jenner was, even when she went by another name. Ten events, a Roone Arledge, and a cereal box later, everybody knew.

Nobody thought the Cleveland Browns were any good on opening day of the 1950 NFL season. The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles learned quickly, so did the rest of the league at the end of the season.

Otto Graham led the Browns to a 35-10 win over the defending NFL champion Eagles their first-ever NFL game. The Browns ended the season as NFL champions.
Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Did anybody see Leicester City coming in 2016?

5,000-TO-1 underdogs to win the English Premier League, but Leicester City didn’t get that memo.
Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

2. Swagger can be good, just don’t underdo it.

Think Joe Namath in Miami. Think Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston. Think Bill Johnson looking downhill in Sarajevo. They told you they were going to win and when laughed at them. They after the event, nobody was laughing.

Muhammad Ali Taunting Sonny Liston
“If you want to lose your money, be a fool and bet on Sonny.”

The exception: The “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons in 1987 (Ran their mouths — Stolen by Larry Bird), and 1988 (Ran their mouths — victimized by the “Showtime” Lakers)

Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons
The “Bad Boys” were left feeling bad after proclaiming it was their time against the NBA’s elite in 1987 and 1988.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

3. Underdog: It’s Complicated

Can you really call a 100-game winner an “underdog”? That’s how many games Dawn Ennis’s favorite Miracle Mets won in 1969. However, the same year they became the first expansion team to win a World Series, they lost to the expansion Montreal Expos on opening day, 11-10. Nobody picked the Mets to beat a dominant Baltimore Orioles club in the World Series.

N.Y. Mets vs. Baltimore Orioles. 1969 World Series., Mets’ c
The were amazin’ even before the World Series. The New York Mets went 100-62 in ‘69, but they were still underdogs against the Baltimore Orioles
Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

A few months later, Joe Namath ran his mouth and backed it up against an 18-point favorite in the Super Bowl. But were the Baltimore Colts really 18 points better than the New York Jets? The NFL old guard said yes, but the film, Matt Snell and five picks said NO!

Jets v Colts
Matt Snell was an underdog player who helps the New York Jets become an upstart overlord
Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

On the other side, favorites can get switched in a hurry. When you lose a 132-year winning streak, you become an underdog. Just ask Dennis Conner.

1987 America’s Cup
Dennis Conner lost the America’s Cup in 1983, but went to Australia to snatch it back in 1987
Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images

Greg LeMond know about this, too. Trailing by 50 seconds with a time trial left at the ‘89 Tour de France, and he put up the greatest ride by an American since Paul Revere.

Greg LeMond came back a hunting accident just to make the 1989 Tour De France. He erased an impossible 50-second deficit to win it.
FILES/AFP via Getty Images

4. “No One Cheers For Goliath”

Wilt Chamberlain said it about losing the 1957 NCAA Final to North Carolina, when nobody thought his Kansas Jayhawks could lose.

When you are Goliath, every David has a slingshot, or a helmet that was an extra hand.

Super Bowl 42 between New York Giants and New England Patrio
The New York Giants had a David (Tyree), who smote the unbeaten Goliath from New England
Photo by Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Even future would-be Davids and would-be actual Goliaths can be underdogs: Charles Barkley and Karl Malone played for Team USA in the 1983 World University Games. They lost in the semifinal to Canada, led by Bill Wennington. Oh by the way, Wennington flipped the other way. He was a backup center on the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls teams that beat Malone in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals.

Atlanta Hawks v Chicago Bulls
Bill Wennington was a David for Canada, and was a part of the NBA’s Goliath of the 1990s
Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

5. You can NEVER be an Underdog IF..

The rules say Derek Jeter can’t be an underdog
Photo by JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images

You are a New York Yankee or a St. Louis Cardinal (I hear you cheering, Ken Schultz).

You are a Dallas Cowboy.

Dallas Cowboys Introduce Head Coach Mike McCarthy
You can be America’s Team, but they’ll never be America’s Underdog.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Your name is Tom Brady.

Tom Brady began as an underdog story, but he won way too much to stay one
Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

You played for Geno Auriemma or Mike Krzyzewski.

2010 WNBA vs. USA Basketball: The Stars at the Sun
Both Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are prohibited from being underdogs. Those are the rules.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

You play for the United States Women’s National Soccer Team.

United States of America v Netherlands : Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France
Megan Rapinoe an underdog? Nope.
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

You drive for Roger Penske at Indianapolis.

103rd Indianapolis 500 - Winner’s Portraits
Simon Pagenaud won the 2019 Indianapolis 500 for Roger Penske but lost any claim to being an underdog under the “Karleigh Criterion”
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Exception #1: Chicago Cubs. — You could dominate like the Yankees and still be all-time underdogs.

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven
No matter how many championships the Cubs won, they’ll always have underdog status
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Exception #2: Joe Montana — He was counted out until he retired.

Joe Montana Celebrating Touchdown
Joe Montana was too slight, not enough arm, third-round pick, four Super Bowl rings. He qualifies.

6. Underdog is often the first step to dynasty

Many of those who fall under rule #5 began as underdogs but ended up being too good too often. For example, Who knew about Pele in the ‘58 World Cup final?

Pelé - Fussballspieler, Brasilien
Pele went from an unsung, unknown 17-year-old to one of soccer’s greatest ever
Photo by von der Becke/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Or UConn’s women on MLK Day in ‘95.

UConn Celebrates A Win Against Tennessee
UConn’s win over Tennessee in January 1995 sparked a run to their first national championship and domination of a sport for over 20 years.
Photo by Bob Stowell/Getty Images

Michael Jordan was an underdog for 7 years.

Michael Jordan Passing Basketball
The “Jordan Rules” kept MJ away from the title he wanted most until 1991

Before a rainstorm in Monte Carlo in ‘84, most thought Ayrton Senna played soccer.

Grand Prix of Monaco
Ayrton who? He answered that question in a Monaco monsoon and began a march that saw him win three Formula One world championships and be considered by some as F1’s best driver ever

And consider two great pro football dynasties who fell short at first. Vince Lombardi’s Packers lost in their first NFL championship game to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1960. Chuck Noll’s Steelers lost in their first AFC championship game to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins in 1972.

Green Bay Packers
Vince Lombardi didn’t lose much, but he did lose in his first appearance in an NFL Championship game.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

7. The best underdog can be found in your mirror

The fact is underdogs don’t end up winners, even in the movies. Remember, Rocky Balboa lost that first time against Apollo Creed.

On the set of Rocky II
“I don’t care what them judges said, this is the guy who won the fight!”
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Whether it’s the Italian Stallion on the big screen, or real life feel-goods like Eddie The Eagle Edwards or the Jamaican Bobsled Team, many of us relate to them. We know about being counted out, picked last, or told we can’t.

Jamaican four-man bobsleigh pilot Dudley
Most underdogs don’t win, but they’ll show up even if they are bobsledders who’ve never seen snow
Photo: GEORGES GOBET/AFP via Getty Images

Yet, we sign up for that couch-to-5K, or that marathon, or to sign up to play ball anyway and chose not to be “with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

That’s why I think we love underdogs, because they do something we all relate to on a bigger stage: They don’t listen to anyone who says they can’t win and they shouldn’t try.

That’s the most important rule, according to Karleigh.