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SI 60: A look at the best from each decade since Sports Illustrated's inception

SI 60: A look at the best from each decade since Sports Illustrated's inception Photo: Heinz Kluetmeier/SI

Sports Illustrated printed its first issue in August 1954 and the subsequent six decades have provided myriad opportunities for the magazine to showcase heroes and winners as well as drama and controversy. The following “Best of the Decade” list is based on an August-July calendar that starts and/or ends in the years 1954, ’64, ’74, ’84, ’94, 2004 and 2014. Muhammad Ali does not appear on any of the best athletes list because his best years span parts of three SI decades. He won the heavyweight championship at the end of SI’s first decade in February 1964, was stripped of his crown during the magazine’s second decade in 1967 and finally regained the title at the start of SI’s third decade in October 1974.

August 1954-July 1964

Best athlete, Bill Russell: Seven NBA titles, five MVP awards, two NCAA championships, an Olympic gold medal. Track and Field News ranked Russell No. 7 among world high jumpers in 1956.

Also on the decade’s Mount Rushmore: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, John Unitas.

Best team, Boston Celtics: Russell, Bob Cousy and Sam Jones produced seven NBA championships, eight NBA Finals appearances and a playoff series record of 16-3 during the decade.

Best coach, Red Auerbach, Celtics: The architect of the Celtics dynasty traded for Russell and served as coach and general manager for franchise’s first nine NBA championships.

Best female athlete, Wilma Rudolph: Her 4x100 relay bronze at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics was merely a warmup as “the Black Gazelle” became first U.S. woman to win three Olympic gold medals in track at the 1960 Rome Games in the 100 and 200 meters and 4x100. She was the first black woman to win the Sullivan Award in 1961 and a two-time AP Female Athlete of the Year.

Best college team, USC baseball: Under coach Rod Dedeaux, the Trojans reached six College World Series and won three national championships with one runner-up finish. Players included future major leaguers Ron Fairly and Don Buford.

Best college coach, Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma football: He guided OU to a record 47 consecutive wins and the 1955 and ’56 national championships. The Sooners also went unbeaten in 1954, compiled a record of 58-6-1 between 1954-59 and won seven conference titles during the decade.

Big game: Baltimore Colts 23, N.Y. Giants 17  (overtime), 1958 NFL Championship Game. Often considered the “Big Bang” that ignited the NFL’s explosive growth.

Biggest upset: Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), a 7-1 underdog, stunned Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship, Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami Beach. The Ali legend was ready to roll.

Controversy: After combining for nearly 150 years of baseball in New York, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants departed for California following the 1957 season amid cries of civic betrayal. For the first time since 1882, the National League was without a team in New York until the expansion Mets set up shop in the Polo Grounds in 1962.

Tough to beat: Wilt Chamberlain’s 50.4 points per game in 1961-62.

August 1964-July 1974

Best athlete, Jack Nicklaus: He won nine of his record 18 major championships during the decade, was PGA Player of the Year three times and the leading money winner six times. 

Also on Rushmore: Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby Orr, Hank Aaron.

Best team, Montreal Canadiens: Six Stanley Cups under four different coaches.

Best coach, Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers: Led the Packers to three consecutive world championships (1965-67), only three-peat of NFL’s playoff era, including the first two Super Bowls. The Super Bowl trophy was named in Lombardi’s honor following his death in 1970.

Best female athlete, Billie Jean King: Pioneer for gender equality won 10 Grand Slam singles titles (including all four majors) and added 11 championships in doubles and 10 in mixed doubles. Her most famous victory was “Battle of the Sexes” win over Bobby Riggs in 1973. Two-time AP Female Athlete of the Year.

Best college team, UCLA basketball: Eight NCAA titles, nine Final Fours, a men’s basketball record 88 consecutive wins. Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton were the principal drivers of the dynasty but the Bruins won three titles without either giant in the lineup.

Best college coach, John Wooden, UCLA basketball: The Wizard won eight of his 10 NCAA championships during this decade. Overall decade record of 277-19 (.936 winning percentage), including 40-1 in the NCAA tournament. “Be quick but don’t hurry.”

Big game, Green Bay, 21, Dallas 17, 1967 NFL Championship Game: It is called the Ice Bowl for being contested in a game time temperature of minus-13 at Lambeau Field. After surrendering a 14-0 lead, the Packers marched 68 yards across a frozen field in the final 4½ minutes. Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak with 15 seconds remaining provided the winning points in Vince Lombardi’s final game as Packers coach in Green Bay.

Biggest upset: Seventeen-point underdog New York Jets defeated the 15-1 Baltimore Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III, Jan 12, 1969.

Controversy: Final seconds of the Soviet Union-United States men’s basketball final at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Officials gave the USSR repeated chances to win the game -- which the Soviets finally did, 51-50.

Tough to beat: UCLA’s seven straight NCAA basketball titles. Richard Petty’s 27 NASCAR victories in 1967 -- in 48 races -- still looks like a misprint.

August 1974-July 1984

Best athlete, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Three MVP awards, two NBA championships, four NBA Finals, six-time leader in NBA Player Efficiency Rating.

Also on Rushmore: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Edwin Moses.

Best team, Pittsburgh Steelers: Four Super Bowl titles, five AFC title games, eight playoff berths. Roster featured nine Hall of Fame players, including Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris.

Best coach, Chuck Noll, Steelers: He converted the Steelers from a woebegone franchise that had never won a division title to one of the NFL’s legendary dynasties; posted 13-4 playoff record during the decade, including 4-0 in Super Bowls.

Best female athlete, Chris Evert: She won 13 of her 18 career Grand Slam titles during the decade (to 10 for Martina Navratilova) including six U.S. Opens, a record in tennis’ open era. Four-time AP Female Athlete of the Year.

Best college team, Indiana basketball: Under the stern leadership of coach Bob Knight, IU won two national championships in eight NCAA appearances and the 1979 NIT. The 1976 Hoosiers (32-0) are the last unbeaten team in Division I basketball. Top players included Scott May, Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner and Isiah Thomas.

Best college coach, Herb Brooks, Minnesota hockey: Led the Golden Gophers to two NCAA titles and a runner-up finish before guiding a team of U.S. college players to a stunning gold medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

Big game: Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, Red Sox 7, Reds 6, 12 innings. Cincinnati won the championship the following night but the dramatics of Game 6 that ended with Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning home run are woven deeply into baseball’s tapestry.

Biggest upset: U.S. 4, Soviet Union 3, 1980 Winter Olympics hockey medal round.

Controversy: Boycotts in three successive Olympic Games (African nations in 1976, Western countries in ’80 and the Soviet bloc in ’84) dimmed the luminance of the world’s premiere multisport competition. 

Tough to beat: Wayne Gretzky’s 92 goals in a season, 1981-82. No NHL player has scored 70 goals in one season since 1993. Another iceman, Eric Heiden, became the only Olympic speed skater to sweep all five races, from 500 to 10,000 meters, at the 1980 Winter Games.

August 1984-July 1994

Best athlete, Michael Jordan: Three NBA championships, three MVP awards, three-time AP Male Athlete of the Year, seven consecutive NBA scoring crowns, two Olympic gold medals. He was nearly as good following his brief 1993-95 retirement.

Also on Rushmore: Carl Lewis, Joe Montana, Wayne Gretzky.

Best team, San Francisco 49ers: Coaches Bill Walsh and George Seifert led the Niners to three Super Bowl championships, six NFC title games and nine playoff appearances. Won at least 10 games every season of the decade. Hall of Famers  Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice  (starting in 1985) were key contributors.

Best coach, Pat Riley: He won three NBA titles and reached four NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers between 1985-89, and reached another NBA Finals with the 1994 New York Knicks. His teams were 26-7 in playoff series during the decade.

Best female athlete, Jackie Joyner-Kersee: She won two Olympic gold medals and a silver in the heptathlon, and gold and bronze in the long jump. Two-time world champion in the heptathlon and long jump. Set still-standing heptathlon world record of 7,291 points at the 1988 Seoul Olympics; also played basketball at UCLA.

Best college team, North Carolina women’s soccer: Nine NCAA titles in 10 years and one second place. The Tar Heels outscored opponents in championship games 35-5. Mia Hamm played for title teams in 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1993.

Best college coach, Mike Krzyzewski, Duke basketball: Coach K led the Blue Devils to two NCAA titles, five championship games and seven Final Fours during the decade with a tournament record of 39-8.

Big game: Duke 104, Kentucky 103 (overtime), 1992 NCAA East Regional final. Two of college basketball’s most decorated programs played a game for the ages at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. There were five lead changes in the final 31.5 seconds of overtime before Christian Laettner’s 17-foot jump shot at the buzzer won it for Duke. The teams combined to hit nearly 61 percent of their shots. The Blue Devils easily defended their national championship nine days later.

Biggest upset: Buster Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, shocked unbeaten Mike Tyson for the heavyweight crown, Feb. 11, 1990, in Tokyo. Neither Tyson nor Douglas was the same fighter afterward.

Controversy: Ben Johnson of Canada ran a world-record 9.79 for 100 meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics but lost the gold medal -- and the record -- when he tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid. The gold was awarded to second-place finisher Carl Lewis. Johnson’s disqualification triggered the start of a cops-and-robbers era between drug officials and drug cheaters.

Tough to beat: Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters, with No. 7 on May 1, 1991.

August 1994-July 2004

Best athlete, Tiger Woods: Eight major championships, three-time AP Male Athlete of the Year, six PGA Player of the Year awards, five-time PGA Tour money leader. First golfer since Ben Hogan to win three majors the same year (2000).

Also on Rushmore: Pete Sampras, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Johnson.

Best team, New York Yankees: Four World Series titles, six AL pennants, nine playoff appearances in nine non-strike seasons. The 1998 team won an MLB best 125 games (regular season, postseason combined). The Yanks won a record 14 straight World Series games and 11 straight postseason series behind Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre.

Best coach, Phil Jackson: Six NBA championships, three with Bulls, three with Lakers. The 1995-96 Bulls of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman won an NBA record 72 games. For the decade, Jackson’s teams were 29-3 in playoff series.

Best female athlete, Annika Sorenstam: The six-time LPGA Tour Player of the Year won seven of her 10 major championships during the decade. A five-time leading money winner and only golfer to break 60 in an LPGA event with a 59 at the 2001 Standard Register PING; won a career-best 11 tournaments in 2002.

Best college team, Nebraska football: The Cornhuskers won or shared three national championships (1994, 1995, 1997) and played for a fourth in 2001. Compiled 108-21 record for the decade. In seven of 10 seasons, Nebraska lost two or fewer games. The 1995 squad outscored its 13 opponents by 38.7 points per game.

Best college coach, Geno Auriemma, Connecticut women’s basketball: Led a Huskies program with no tradition to five national championships during the decade and seven Final Fours. The 1995 and 2001 NCAA champs were unbeaten. His record for the decade was 340-22, a .939 winning percentage. Top players included Rebecca Lobo and Diana Taurasi.

Big game: Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2 OT) 2002 BCS title game at the Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 3, 2003. The Buckeyes were 11-point underdogs to the defending national champions but kept pace, aided by a Hurricanes’ pass interference penalty that sustained OSU’s TD drive in the first overtime. Ohio State’s victory ended Miami’s winning streak at 34 and gave the Buckeyes their first national title in 34 years.

Biggest upset: Sixth-seeded 1995 Houston Rockets (47 wins) captured their second straight NBA championship. No other team seeded lower than third has won an NBA title since league expanded playoffs to 16 teams in 1984. No team with fewer than 50 wins had won an NBA crown in non-lockout/strike season since the 1978 Washington Bullets.

Controversy: Baseball suffered a double whammy. A players’ strike canceled the 1994 World Series and the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs poisoned the record book, particularly for home runs.

Tough to beat: Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive game streak, which ended Sept. 20, 1998.

August 2004-July 2014

Best athlete, Michael Phelps: History’s most decorated Olympian won a record 24 medals, 18 gold, in swimming events that included butterfly, freestyle, medley and relays. His eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games (five individual, three relays) are a record for a single Olympics. Phelps added 21 world championships during the decade.

Also on Rushmore: Usain Bolt, LeBron James, Roger Federer.

Best team, San Antonio Spurs: Three NBA titles, four NBA Finals; won at least 50 games every season and compiled a postseason series record of 21-7. Only once seeded lower than third in the playoffs. International roster featured Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

Best coach, Gregg Popovich: Earned third, fourth and fifth NBA championships in the decade, becoming only fifth NBA coach to win at least five titles; improved to third all-time in career playoff wins.

Best female athlete, Serena Williams: Eleven Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in singles; seven Grand Slam crowns and two Olympic golds in doubles. Two-time AP Female Athlete of the Year.

Best college team: Alabama football. After a slow start to the decade, the Crimson Tide won three national championships (2009, '11 and '12) in four years and appeared in five BCS bowls.  

Best college coach: Nick Saban, Alabama football. Saban already had shared a national championship at LSU (2003) but his career hit a higher gear in Tuscaloosa. After going 7-6 in his first season, Saban is 72-9 and has added three more national championships to his resume and restored Alabama to heights not seen since Bear Bryant.

Big game: 2008 Wimbledon men’s singles final. Rafael Nadal’s five-set victory over five-time champion Roger Federer is considered one of tennis’ greatest matches. At 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7, the match took nearly five hours and there was an 80-minute rain delay. Federer saved two match points in the fourth set before Nadal prevailed in the growing darkness.

Biggest upset: Giants 17, Patriots 14, Super Bowl XLII, Feb. 3, 2008. The 12-point underdog Giants ended New England’s dream for the NFL’s first 19-0 season on Eli Manning’s five-yard TD toss to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining.

Controversy: Auburn, despite a 12-0 regular season record and an SEC crown, was not invited to the 2004 BCS championship game at the Orange Bowl. The same fate later befell unbeaten Boise State (2006, 2009), Utah (2008) and TCU (2010). The much-criticized BCS was sacked after the 2013 college football season in favor of a four-team playoff.

Tough to beat: Jimmie Johnson’s five straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. No other driver has won more than three straight.

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