“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog” —Mark Twain
Few things in life are more emotionally satisfying than a come-from-behind victory. Whether it’s the triumphant “Miracle on Ice” hockey game in the 1980 Winter Olympics or Holly Holm’s stunning second-round knockout of UFC superstar Ronda Rousey in 2015, there’s just something special about a long-shot win that captures our collective imagination. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the NCAA, where skill, heart and sheer determination can transform an underdog team into champions.
To give you something worth cheering about, here are five of the most memorable upsets in college sports history.
Centre vs. Harvard – 1921
The New York Times called the historic Centre vs. Harvard game “arguably the upset of the century in college football,” and for a very good reason. Having lost to the mighty Crimson a year earlier, the Centre Praying Colonels surprised the world when they defeated the seemingly unstoppable Harvard team by a score of 6-0 on Oct. 29, 1921. The victory for Centre, a small Kentucky school of only 300 students, was due in large part to the partnership between fullback James “Red” Roberts and quarterback Bo McMillan. With the game tied at zero early in the third quarter, Roberts told McMillan, “It’s time to score — ride my hump.” Dodging three powerful defensive backs, McMillan ran for a 32-yard touchdown, breaking Harvard’s 25-game winning streak and cementing his team’s legend in college sports history.
North Carolina State vs. Houston – 1983
We’ve all heard the phrase “a Cinderella story” countless times, but the unforgettable 1983 championship game between the NC State Wolfpack and the Houston Cougars truly earned the fairytale description. Coached by Jim Valvano, the underrated NC State team launched a remarkable nine-game post-season run that included nine overtime and one-point games against superstars like Michael Jordan and Ralph Sampson. But it all came down to the final confrontation on April 4. With only five seconds left on the clock, senior guard Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation shot came up short, but a two-handed tip-in dunk from center Lorenzo Charles changed NCAA history. By a final score of 54-52, the unlikely Wolf Pack broke the top-seeded University of Houston’s 26-game winning streak and became the national champions.
Richmond vs. Syracuse – 1991
If it’s true that success means overcoming the fear of being unsuccessful, then the Richmond Spiders put fear behind them when they defeated the second-seeded Syracuse Orangemen on March 14, 1991, by a score of 73-69. They became the first 15-seed to win a game in the NCAA Tournament. Spiders coach Dick Tarrant spun a complex web of defenses, mixing zone, man-to-man, press and bluff press in an effort to keep the Orange off balance. His unorthodox strategy worked brilliantly as Richmond built a 10-point lead through the second half and fought valiantly to hold it. Helping cement the game’s historic reputation, CBS TV, which had just secured the rights to the opening round of the tournament, broadcast the real-life drama to millions of viewers.
Stanford vs. USC – 2007
It was the ultimate David and Goliath story. On Oct. 6, 2007, USC took the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with an extraordinary 35-home game winning streak. Stanford, on the other hand, suffered a Pac-10 worst season the prior year, including a crushing 42-0 loss to USC. Adding injury to insult, Stanford was forced to rely on backup quarterback Tavita Pritchard, who had thrown only three passes in official play, when their starting quarterback experienced a seizure the week before. Yet three hours and 27 minutes after the game began, the underdogs emerged victorious with a score of 24-23. Though USC had been favored by 41 points, Stanford’s fourth-quarter rally beat the odds, resulting in the largest point-spread upset in college football history.
Iowa State vs. Oklahoma State – 2011
In hindsight, it still makes almost no sense. Oklahoma State was on a devastating 10-0 roll when they moseyed into Jack Trice Stadium on Nov. 18, 2011, to face the Iowa State Cyclones. But what was expected to be an easy Cowboy landslide became instead a back-and-forth slugfest on the scoreboard, with neither team willing to give an inch to their opponents. By the end of the fourth quarter, the game was locked at a 24-24 tie. It took two tense overtimes, but the Cyclones, who had never beaten a top-five team before, ultimately broke Oklahoma State’s winning streak and ended their shot at the title with a final score of 37-31.