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Monday, October 6, 2003
The List: Gutsiest calls in sports

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, with his Sooners leading Alabama by only three in the third quarter, dares it: Facing fourth-and-11 on OU's 31, he calls a fake punt. Punter Blake Ferguson connects with reserve defensive back Michael Thompson for 22 yards and a first down, and the Sooners go on to score a TD and win the game.

Gutsy? You bet. If that play failed, Alabama would have had momentum and great field position. They already had a hometown crowd going crazy. It could have been the biggest upset of the year. But it wasn't. Credit Stoops.

Houston coach Dom Capers, with his Texans trailing by a field goal, has time to run one play. With the ball on the Jags 6-inch line, he has two choices: Kick an almost-automatic field goal and see what happens in OT, or call an all-or-nothing play to go for the TD and the win. Texans QB David Carr runs it in, and Houston wins 24-20. Credit Capers.

Among the gutsiest calls of all time? You bet. But they don't quite make our list. Gutsier calls have come when much more was on the line than regular-season wins or losses.

1. Tom Osborne goes for two
Nebraska came into the 1984 Orange Bowl ranked No. 1, with coach Tom Osborne going for his first national title. The opponent: No. 4 Miami. Down 31-17 midway through the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers made a great comeback, with Jeff Smith scoring twice, including a TD on a fourth-down, 24-yard run with 48 ticks to go.

If Nebraska goes for the almost-automatic extra point, they tie the game and hold onto the national title. But Osborne makes the call: go for two (this was in the days before overtime). Miami knocks down Turner Gill's pass attempt, and Nebraska loses, 31-30. A few days later, both AP and UPI vote Miami No. 1 in their season-ending polls. Nebraska sinks to second in both polls.

"We wanted an undefeated season and a clear-cut championship," said Osborne. "I don't think we should go for the tie in that case. It never entered my head. I guess I'm not very smart."

Bart Starr
Bart Starr's plunge beat the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl and the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl.

2. Bart Starr's quarterback sneak
With the Packers trailing the Cowboys 17-14 in the 1967 NFL championship game at Lambeau Field (game-time temperature: 13 degrees below zero), Packers QB Bart Starr took his offense 67 yards to the Dallas 1-yard line with 16 seconds remaining. It was third down, and the Packers didn't have any timeouts left. Green Bay had three choices: 1) Immediately attempt a field goal and hope to send the game into OT; 2) Call an outside pass play, which would give Starr the chance to throw the ball away with time for one more play, if necessary; and 3) None of the above.

Starr and Packers coach Vince Lombardi chose Option Three, surprising the Cowboys with a QB sneak. Starr sliced through a hole created by center Ken Bowman and guard Jerry Kramer for the winning TD. If he had failed, the Packers wouldn't have had time to set up for a fourth-down field goal. "We didn't want a tie," said Lombardi. "We had compassion for those spectators. We wanted to send them home right then."

3. Mayo Smith plays Mickey Stanley at shortstop
In the year of the pitcher in 1968, the AL champion Tigers needed every edge they could get facing the Cardinals (read: Bob Gibson) in the World Series. So manager Mayo Smith tried an experiment: With four healthy, heavy-hitting outfielders available, he decided to use them all. Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and Al Kaline patrolled the big turf. And Mickey Stanley replaced light-hitting Ray Oyler at shortstop.

Before the end of the 1968 regular season, Stanley hadn't played a major-league game at short. And in 1968, an error could be especially costly, as runs were at a premium. But the strategy worked. Stanley didn't commit a single error during the WS. Horton, Kaline, and Northrup combined for 5 HR and 19 RBI in the Series, with Northrup hitting the game-and-series-winning triple in Game 7 off Gibson.

4. Connie Mack calls on Howard Ehmke in the World Series
Before Game 1 of the 1929 World Series, Athletics manager Connie Mack didn't even hint at who he'd send to the mound at Wrigley Field to face the Cubs. The Cubbies (and everyone else) expected to see George Earnshaw (24-8), Lefty Grove (20-6), or Rube Walberg (18-11). But Mack confounded everyone, sending out Howard Ehmke, a 35-year-old who'd started only eight games and pitched only 55 innings all season.

But Ehmke had been following the Cubs around for a few weeks before the series, and knew exactly what to do. He pitched a complete game, striking out 13, walking only one, and allowing only one (unearned) run in the bottom of the ninth as the A's won, 3-1.

Ehmke threw only 10 innings in the 1930 season, his last. He ended his career with a 166-166 record.

5. Bill Parcells calls for a fake punt
The Giants trailed the 49ers 13-9 in the 1990 NFC championship game in San Francisco. In the middle of the fourth quarter, the Giants were stuck with a fourth-and-2 situation, and chose to punt from their own 46. Or so the 49ers thought.

Giants linebacker Gary Reasons was the "up" man in the punt formation, and had an audible in his pocket. Head coach Bill Parcells had given Reasons the go-ahead to call for the ball if he saw an opening in the defense. He did, counting only 10 49ers on the field. Reasons took the short snap and rambled 30 yards straight ahead to set up Matt Bahr's fourth field goal, cutting the score to 13-12. The Giants went on to win on Bahr's fifth field goal of the game as time expired.

"We had looked for it," Parcells said of the opening that Reasons exploited. "I had told Gary to look for it on our first couple of punts."

John Stallworth
It never worked in practice, but Bradshaw and Stallworth connected when it counted.

6. The Steelers hook and go on to Super Bowl win
Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the L.A. Rams, 19-17 in Super Bowl XIV, and had the ball on their own 27. It was third-and-8, and only 12 minutes remained in the game. The play call: 60 prevent, slot, hook and go. The target: John Stallworth. Stallworth hooked at about the 42, then caught a perfect toss (one Washington Post writer described the ball as "thrown with the accuracy of a squirrel shooter") from Terry Bradshaw at the Rams 34 and went the rest of the way to put the Steelers ahead for good.

The play was especially designed for the Rams, but neither Bradshaw nor Stallworth was sure about it. "I didn't like the play," Bradshaw said. "We tried it eight times in practice last week and it didn't work." Said Stallworth, "It's hard to have confidence in a play that never works. But I think it didn't work [during practice] because the field was soggy. Terry Bradshaw was throwing the ball long and I couldn't get to it."

Stallworth got to it once more in the fourth quarter, gaining 45 yards on the exact same play.

7. A guard plays center, and Magic happens


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the key man for the Lakers in the 1980 NBA Finals against Dr. J's 76ers. But during Game 5, L.A. faced a big problem: Kareem sprained his left ankle during a 108-103 Lakers home win. The series would return to Philly for Game 6. And coach Paul Westhead made the decision: Kareem would stay in L.A. to heal -- perhaps well enough to play Game 7, if necessary -- while his mates went on alone to the East Coast.

The Lakers had a thin bench. Who would take Jabbar's place at center? "I think everyone thought I was a little tipsy when I first said Magic [Johnson] was going to play center," said Westhead. "But I knew what he could do. He's Houdini. What he did tonight was no accident."

What the rookie did was score 42 points, grab 15 rebounds, dish seven assists, pluck three steals, and block a shot. "I don't even know if Kareem could have done things Magic did tonight," said Erving. "The kid's a player."

8. Tar Heels rely on frosh in final seconds
In the 1982 NCAA championship game at the Superdome, North Carolina trailed Georgetown 62-61 with 32 seconds left. During a time out, Tar Heels coach Dean Smith diagrammed a play using Carolina's two-zone offense. First choice: James Worthy, inside. Second choice: freshman Michael Jordan, outside. Carolina's senior guard, Jimmy Black looked for Worthy, saw him covered, and swung the pass to Jordan, who hit a 16-footer. With only 15 seconds left on the clock, the shot put UNC ahead for good, 63-62. And Smith had his first title.

9. Scioscia relies on K-Rod in 2002 playoffs
You hear a lot of talk about how much experience counts in the postseason, but Angels manager Mike Scioscia didn't manage the Angels to their first World Series title by listening to a lot of talk. Case in point: Scioscia's decision to give a precious postseason roster spot to 20-year-old reliever Francisco Rodriguez, a September call-up who'd only pitched 5 2/3 innings in the regular season.

Francisco Rodriguez
How many managers would have had the guts to use the rookie in the postseason?

It wasn't as if the Angels were desperate for relief help -- they had the best bullpen in the AL that season. "When it came down to it, we saw that Frankie had the makeup and wasn't going to be taken out of his game."

K-Rod was not just on the roste roster -- Scioscia used him in key situations throughout and the rooke was nothing short of spectacular, the best pitcher in the postseason. He appeared in 11 games, going 5-1 with a 1.93 ERA and striking out 28 in 18 2/3 innings.

10. Geezer coach plays pinch goalie in Stanley Cup
Game 2, 1928 Stanley Cup, in Montreal. The Maroons and Rangers drew 14,000-plus fans for what turned out to be a great game. The gutsy call came in the second period: Nelson Stewart's slap shot strikes Ranger goalie Lorne Chabot in the left eye, knocking Chabot unconscious. The goalie, bleeding heavily, was taken to the hospital.

The Rangers didn't have a backup goalie. New York coach Lester Patrick asked for permission to use Ottawa goalie Alex Connell, a spectator, as a substitute. Montreal refused, probably because Connell was one of the best goalies in the game. The Rangers had 10 minutes to find someone else to tend the net.

Patrick picked himself. He'd been a good defender during his playing days, but the 44-year-old had almost no goaltending experience.

You couldn't tell from the way he played the rest of the game. He fended off many tough attacks by the Maroons, but allowed only one goal. The Rangers won in sudden-death overtime, 2-1, to tie the series. The Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup behind New York American goalie Joe Miller.