Not many teams harbor serious world championship expectations, then proceed to lose almost every game — by increasingly large margins, no less. The 2010 Dallas Cowboys are one such squad, making FOXSports.com ponder the most egregious sports failures in recent decades. Here are our Top 10 sports team collapses. — Jeff Gordon
1981 Notre Dame football team
Initially, Gerry Faust seemed prepared to replace Fighting Irish coach Dan Devine. Faust enjoyed phenomenal success at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, a breeding ground for many Irish standouts. He had boundless energy and an unmatched passion for all things Notre Dame. “It's not just the players and the other coaches who are fired up about him,” linebacker John Rice observed before that season. “He has this whole campus going crazy. He came and spoke to the guys in our dorm, and you want to talk about some excited people! They just couldn't believe the man's enthusiasm.” The Fighting Irish beat LSU in Faust’s first game and moved to No. 1 in the polls. And then reality struck hard. Michigan beat Notre Dame the next week, and the Irish stumbled to a 5-6 finish, suffering their first losing season since 1963. The program never fully recovered under Faust.
1997-98 Vancouver Canucks
In 1994, the Canucks pushed the New York Rangers to the brink during the Stanley Cup finals. Looking to finally win it all, the team wooed Rangers star Mark Messier, then 36, to the Pacific Northwest. Messier departed New York for a three-year contract in Vancouver. “If I was going to make a move, I had to break it off completely,” Messier said at the time. “New environment, new city, new everything. Just start from scratch and try to build it up again.” This proved to be a lose-lose deal for Messier and the Canucks. Hiring former Rangers coach Mike Keenan to run things only made it worse; massive roster turnover ensued and Vancouver missed the playoffs with a 24-43-14 record.
1966 Italian World Cup soccer team
They were supposed to easily advance out of group play in England. Instead, the two-time World Cup champions lost to Russia and then fell to 1,000-to-1 long shot North Korea, which was a virtual unknown on the international scene. That 1-0 loss to North Korea (at left) — which had 19-year-old Lee Chan-Myung in goal — still ranks among the most startling international soccer upsets in history. Italy needed only to tie this match to move on. But with British fans cheering against them, they couldn’t find a way to score.
2001-02 North Carolina basketball team
The Tar Heels appeared to have their next great coach in Matt Doherty. He was a bright young disciple of Dean Smith. He guided North Carolina to a 26-7 finish after arriving from Notre Dame. He won the Associated Press National Coach of the Year award. But then 8-20 happened. The Tar Heels suffered their first losing record since 1962 — going just 4-12 in Atlantic Coast Conference play — and they missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 27 years. “I think the bar is set high, and I knew that going in,” Doherty said at the time. “We've got a great product, so we should attract the best players, so we should win a lot of basketball games.” After he followed that disappointing season with more roster upheaval and a mediocre 19-16 finish, Doherty was through in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels later won a national championship with his recruits.
2009 New York Mets
They brought high hopes into their new stadium, Citi Field. They came armed with a $150 million payroll. Outfielder Carlos Beltran declared the Mets were the “team to beat,” which was news to the Philadelphia Phillies. Alas, Beltran was just one of the high-priced Mets who got hurt as this team staggered toward a 70-92 finish. Shortstop Jose Reyes, first baseman Carlos Delgado and pitcher Johan Santana also went down. And owner Fred Wilpon lost a big chunk of his personal fortune to Bernie Madoff’s financial scam. The on-field season lowlight: Second baseman Luis Castillo failing to catch an Alex Rodriguez pop-up, allowing two runs to score (including Mark Teixeira from first) as the Yankees rallied to a 9-8 Subway Series victory.
2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team
The so-called “Dream Team” of major NBA stars expected to win gold easily and sell some sneakers in the process. After all, the United States brought a 109-2 Olympic record to Athens. But the squad, coached by Larry Brown, gave a nightmarish performance instead. It fell to Puerto Rico by 19 points in the opener. It later lost to Lithuania, foreshadowing its doom in the medal round. Argentina beat the Americans in the semifinals, 89-81, forcing the United States to settle for bronze medals. “You can't just show up at a basketball game and feel that because you have USA across your chest you're going to win the game,” U.S. guard Allen Iverson said. “It means a lot to other teams out here to get a medal as well.”
2005-06 New York Knicks
Larry Brown struck again! The Knicks put him in charge of a $120 million roster. He coached the team to a dismal 23-59 finish, feuding with point guard Stephon Marbury on one hand and clashing with team president Isiah Thomas on the other. Brown got canned with a whopping $41 million left on his contract. He accepted an $18.5 million settlement and went on his vagabond way. “I was given an unbelievable opportunity; it didn’t work out,” he later said. “I know why it didn’t work out. But it’s going to always be a personal thing. You remember when I said at my press conference how important it was for the league to have a good team in New York? I wanted to help that. If you ever do a good job as a coach in New York, you help our sport.” And if you do a terrible job, you set the sport back.
2008 University of Michigan football team
Rich Rodriguez propelled West Virginia into the national title hunt during his tenure there. So Michigan fans expected more of the same when he arrived in Ann Arbor. RichRod made sweeping changes in the program, installing his spread offense and instilling his football philosophy. The results were disastrous: a 3-9 finish, the worst in school history. The Wolverines finished 2-6 in the Big Ten. For the first time in 33 years, the Wolverines didn’t play in a bowl game. A 5-7 season followed. This furthered fan unrest, as did player defections and allegations of NCAA rules violations. “It’s almost been like a perfect storm,” Rodriguez told FOXSports.com earlier this year. “But there’s not been anything that we don’t feel that we can’t get through. If adversity makes you stronger, then we ought to be able to lift this building. I’m just tired of the adversity. I’d rather things go smoother, and I expect it to go smoother.”
1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team
Sure, Team USA enjoyed the tournament at Lake Placid, N.Y. The Americans upset the Soviet Union, 4-3, in the semifinals and went on to win gold. Perhaps you have seen "Miracle." The Russians still can't believe they lost. They seemed ready to win still another gold medal. This was one of the great juggernauts that sport had ever seen. They were loaded with long-tenured, high-skilled veterans like goaltender Vladislav Tretiak and forward Sergei Makarov. They drubbed the Americans, 10-3, in a pre-Olympic exhibition. “No matter what we tried, we could not get that 10-3 game out of the players' minds,” Soviet head coach Viktor Tikhonov said years later. “The players told me it would be no problem. It turned out to be a very big problem.”
2010 Dallas Cowboys
The team won a pair of NFC East titles under nice-guy coach Wade Phillips. The defense closed last season with back-to-back shutouts. The Cowboys finished 11-5 and won their first playoff game since 1996. Dallas set its sights on the Super Bowl that will be played in the massive new Cowboys Stadium. This goal seemed realistic, given the established talent returning from 2009. But Phillips got fired halfway into this season after the Cowboys bottomed out at 1-7. The loss of quarterback Tony Romo (broken clavicle) hurt their chances, but not as much as the team’s defensive collapse. Dallas lost five consecutive games, including three straight with 35 or more points allowed. A gruesome 45-7 loss in Green Bay finally sealed his fate.