'06 made the downtrodden downright delightful

Updated: December 29, 2006, 12:49 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

My vote for Sportsman of the Year goes to St. Jude.

I know he's been dead for centuries. I know he has no historical record of any sporting pursuits beyond fishing. But name me someone who had a better 2006 than the patron saint of lost causes.

This was the year when the lost cause became winnable.

Have-nots had lots. No fewer than a dozen terminal underdogs had their day in '06. The countdown:

12. Butler wins the NIT Season Tip-Off

Butler
Butler rolled its way to a title at Madison Square Garden.
Cinderellas do their most memorable work in March, but this one worked the glass-slipper trick in November.

Put Duke, Indiana, Gonzaga, Tennessee and Notre Dame in the NIT tournament field, and you don't expect a team picked to finish sixth in the Horizon League to win the title. But the Bulldogs did, beating the Fighting Irish, Hoosiers, Volunteers and Zags in succession.

Understand, this is normally a heavyweights-only affair. Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona and Syracuse are multiple winners of the event. Only once before, in the 23-year history of this preseason tournament, has a school come from completely off-radar to win the thing (Ohio U. in 1994).

And Butler has the potential to carry this over into '07. The Bulldogs currently are 12-1 and No. 15 in the AP poll, their highest ranking since the 1948-49 season.

11. Miami Heat win the NBA title

Shaq
Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade led Miami to its first title.
It was not a shock to see Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal embracing the Larry O'Brien Trophy. But it was a first for an '80s-era franchise that entered last season 44 games below .500 in its history.

Why did it take 18 years to even make the NBA Finals, much less win a title? Well, the Heat had eight first-round draft picks in the 1990s and expended six of them on Willie Burton, Dave Jamerson, Harold Miner, Khalid Reeves, Charles Smith and Tim James. You try surpassing Michael Jordan with talent like that.

It took the franchise six years to have a winning season, nine to pass the 50-win plateau and capture its division, and the full 17 to field a team that matched the caliber of its dancers.

10. New Orleans Saints earn a first-round playoff bye

New Orleans Saints
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesMarcus Colston and the Saints celebrate against New York.
In 40 seasons of hard-luck life, this is the first time the Saints will watch the opening round of the postseason yet still be in it. They're one playoff victory away from their first-ever NFC Championship Game, and two away from Never-Never Land: the Super Bowl.

You could understand it if the Big Easy is uneasy about all this success, waiting for the trap door to open beneath it. This is a franchise with 27 losing seasons, five .500 records and just eight winning seasons to its name. It took 13 years just to reach 8-8, then the Saints promptly backslid to 1-15 and fans started wearing bags on their heads to games. New Orleans is 115 games below .500 all-time.

But look at 'em now. Hosting an NFC semifinal game in a building that was a national symbol of tragedy a year ago. Talk about a comeback.

9. Oregon State wins the College World Series

Oregon State Beavers
Josh Merwin/US PresswireOregon State Beavers celebrated a 3-2 win over North Carolina.
It wasn't just that the Beavers won the CWS for the first time. Or that they entered this year's Omaha extravaganza without having won a single CWS game.

The real lost cause championed here was the fact that a northern team won the title in a sport dominated by warm-weather schools. Oregon State was the northernmost school to win the CWS in 42 years. Only Minnesota, which won in 1956, '60 and '64, hails from higher latitude than the Beavers. This was a triumph for every collegian who pulls on his long underwear before batting practice in March.

8. Missouri Valley Conference crashes the college basketball elite

Bradley
Bradley rolled to the Sweet 16, where it lost to Memphis.
Few things were sweeter than watching CBS analyst Billy Packer eat his elitist words last spring. After attacking NCAA Tournament selection committee chairman Craig Littlepage on Selection Sunday for inviting four teams from the Valley and two from the Colonial Athletic Association, Packer then had to watch those teams bust the bracket with major upsets.

We'll get to CAA member George Mason later. First, consider that the Valley got two teams (Wichita State and Bradley, seeded 7th and 13th, respectively) to the Sweet Sixteen. And the momentum from that run has carried over to this season. Wichita State has beaten both LSU and Syracuse, and spent time ranked in the top 10; Missouri State gave Wisconsin its only loss to date; Northern Iowa and Drake both have swept in-state big boys Iowa and Iowa State; Southern Illinois is 2-2 against opponents from BCS leagues; Bradley routed Big East opponents DePaul and Rutgers; and Indiana State is the only team to beat Butler.

If four (or more) Valley teams make the Big Dance in '07, they should catch less flak from the protectors of the establishment.

7. Carolina Hurricanes win Stanley Cup

Cam Ward
Elsa/Getty ImagesCam Ward and Carolina won an entertaining Stanley Cup final.
Yes, the Cup has been won by teams from even warmer climes than Raleigh (Tampa and Dallas, to be precise). But those are pro-sports towns where hockey seems more natural -- just another part of the cosmopolitan landscape.

This was hockey glory in the midst of NASCAR and college hoops country. Don Cherry meets Jeff Foxworthy. Squid on ice meets pulled pork on a bun.

And for the folks who go back to the Hartford Whalers days with the franchise, the Cup triumph ended a 33-year title drought. In its first year in existence, Hartford won the inaugural WHA championship in 1973. After that? Nothing until last June.

6. Rutgers wins 10 games, temporarily crashes the top 10

Rutgers Stadium
Rutgers Stadium became the place to be in '06.
Since starting this entire thing with a game against Princeton in 1869, the Scarlet Knights had contributed absolutely nothing toward the enhancement of college football -- until this season. One of the most reliable losers in the game's history won its first nine games, capped off by a stunning second-half comeback against unbeaten Louisville -- a victory some say was the game of the year in '06.

Of course, 9-0 and ranked in the top 10 for the first time ever was too good to last. The Knights lost two of their last three to wind up in the Texas Bowl  but nobody saw 10 wins coming from this program anytime this millennium.

5. Australia scores, wins in the World Cup

Italy celebrates
Sure, Italy won the World Cup. Bigger news: The Aussies scored.
Forget winning a match. Before June, the Aussies had never even scored a World Cup goal. Their one World Cup appearance, in 1974, ended with nothing but zeroes in three games.

Eighty-four minutes into their 2006 opening game against Japan, they still hadn't scored. But once Tim Cahill broke the drought, Australia didn't stop until it had beaten Japan, earned a draw with Croatia and pushed eventual champion Italy into the final minute. Not bad for a swimming country.

4. Detroit Tigers make the World Series

Detroit Tigers Fans
Nati Harnik/AP PhotoPride was indeed back for Tigers' fans in Detroit.
It wasn't just the 22-year absence from the Fall Classic that defined the Tigers as a lost cause. It was the depths of their ineptitude during that drought.

Prior to 2006, they'd reeled off 12 straight losing seasons and 15 of the last 17. Four of those were 100-loss seasons, including a 119-defeat toxic dump in 2003. Total games out of first place during 1992-2005: 389½

So the 24-game turnaround in the win-loss column from '05 to '06 was fairly miraculous. And even though the Tigers plotzed in the World Series against the Cardinals, they kept one streak alive: Every time Detroit has ever made the postseason, it has either won it all or lost to the team that did.

3. Wake Forest wins the ACC, earns Orange Bowl bid

Wake Forest
Jimmy DeFlippo/US PresswireAn ACC title was an unexpected gift at Wake Forest.
Rutgers was the Cinderella story of college football into mid-November before running out of material. Wake Forest finished the deal.

The Demon Deacons were overmatched on the gridiron when the ACC was a basketball league. When it expanded to 12 teams and brought in football heavies Miami and Virginia Tech, the little school in Winston-Salem, N.C., seemingly had no chance. The Deacs were picked to finish last in their division this season.

Instead, they overcame injuries to their starting quarterback and tailback (Jim Grobe, say hello to the national Coach of the Year trophy). They won 11 games, despite scoring just 29 offensive touchdowns, despite having no one rush for 500 yards, despite having no one catch passes for 600 yards. They went 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They did more in a single season than Wake Forest had done in its measly football history.

2. L.A. Clippers don't suck

Clippers
Suddenly, it became cool in L.A. to be a Clippers fan.
This was a severe blow to sports writers, late-night talk show hosts and anyone else in search of handy sports-related cheap shots and easy gags. Suddenly, the most predictable punch-line team in all of professional sports went legitimate. Suddenly, the Clippers were good.

The one franchise that stood in serially inept refutation of the parity-driven, cyclical nature of pro sports finally had its moment. The Clips won 47 games -- the most by the franchise since 1975, when they were the Buffalo Braves. They advanced to the playoffs and won a series for the first time since '76.

This was the only time anyone under 30 had ever seen the Clippers do something well. And even those of us over 30 --who had seen them turn the NBA draft lottery into an annual exercise in masochism -- had a hard time dealing with it. If you couldn't count on the Clippers to stink, what assurance was there that the sun would still rise in the East?

1. George Mason makes the Final Four

George Mason
George Mason's ride to the Final Four was a slam-dunk in '06.
Why does this rate ahead of the Clipper Miracle? Because the deck is stacked in favor of the weak in pro sports  they're given every chance (via draft and salary cap) to improve themselves and rebound. In college, the deck is forever stacked in favor of the powerful.

When the 11th-seeded Patriots shocked pre-tournament favorite Connecticut and advanced to Indianapolis, it was a defiant triumph that (at least temporarily) slowed an inexorable land grab over the last two decades by the rich and powerful teams from the BCS conferences. Plenty of longtime college hoops watchers figured the days of a true Cinderella's advancing to the Final Four were over, pretty well done for after Penn and Indiana State both played on the last weekend of 1979.

Mason proved it still could be done, as the lowest-seeded Final Four team in 20 years and the first from a true mid-major league in 27 years. And now every underdog in the land can dream beyond 40 or 80 minutes of March glory. They can dream of pushing the fairy tale all the way into April.

Maybe impossible really is nothing.

Maybe Marty Schottenheimer can win the big one. Maybe the Arizona Cardinals can make the playoffs. Maybe Vanderbilt can go bowling. Maybe Northwestern can make the Big Dance. And if you really feel like pushing the envelope of optimism, maybe the Cubs can win the World Series.

If sports taught us anything this year, it's this: No lost cause is lost forever.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.