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A Brief History of Second Place

By Bill Peterson · July 20th, 2005 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Obviously, whenever the championship of any athletic season comes around, the competitors always give it their best. After all, no one remembers who finished second.

The runner-up lives with a bad rap, enough sometimes to make him give up. But a new appreciation of the runner-up is revealed once we check on the all-time most frequent second-place finishers in the history of popular American team sports.

The focus here is on coaches, just as a start in consideration of space. But the discovery to be made probably would be reproduced by looking at the most frequent second-place finishers in the major golf and tennis championships. That is, people who finish second the most probably win a few, too. Even Greg Norman, eight-time runner-up in major golf championships, is a two-time winner of the British Open.

The exception on the team side is to be found in the NBA, where the head coach with the most championship series losses never won it, though his name still is spoken with reverence in basketball circles. We're talking about Fred Schaus, a lad from Newark, Ohio, who took the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals four times, losing in every case.

Following high school in Newark, Schaus attended Naval training and then went to West Virginia University in 1946. He would take three different turns at WVU, as a player in the 1940s, as a coach in the 1950s and as athletic director in the 1980s, serving with distinction every time.

Schaus won the Ohio state high school championship as a player with Newark in 1943 and the NBA title as general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972. But in three turns as a coach and in his three tours at WVU, he never won the big one.

During Schaus' WVU coaching tenure, 1955-60, he put the Mountaineers in the national rankings 60 straight weeks.

He won 44 straight regular-season league games in the old Southern Conference, an NCAA record, and took 42 straight games at home. He also beat Adolph Rupp twice in Lexington.

Schaus' 1958 team finished 26-2 with the top ranking in the Associated Press poll, but an injury to guard Don Vincent wiped out the postseason. His 1959 team, starring Jerry West, went to the NCAA championship game and lost to California, 71-70.

Schaus moved on to the NBA in 1961, coaching the Los Angeles Lakers through 1967. Four times his teams went to the NBA Finals, led by West and Elgin Baylor. But he constantly ran into the teeth of a Boston Celtics dynasty in the midst of eight straight NBA titles. Twice, the Lakers lost in seven games.

From the college basketball ranks, the all-time runner-up is Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, which only shows that when you go to the NCAA Championship Game seven times you'll lose a few. Krzysewski has lost four.

Because college football still doesn't put on a real championship, the standard will be the AP poll. And for the most No. 2 finishes in college football history, we wind up with a tie between four fellows who couldn't coach their way out of a parked car -- Woody Hayes, Joe Paterno, Duffy Daugherty and John Robinson. All finished second in the poll three times.

Of course, No. 2 in college football is a pretty tough pill. Paterno's three No. 2 teams at Penn State in 1968, 1969 and 1994 finished a combined 34-0. He finished 11-1 in 1982 and took the AP title, later to win it with a 12-0 effort in 1986. A little less absurdly, Hayes' three Ohio State runner-up teams in 1957, 1961 and 1973 were a combined 26-1-2. Hays won the AP poll in 1954 and 1968.

For pro football's all-time second banana, we go back to the early days. Steve Owen coached the New York Giants 24 years, 1930-1953. He originated two-platoon football and the umbrella defense with four deep backs. But he also lost six NFL championship games, winning two. Close behind Owen with five championship losses each are two legends -- Tom Landry and Sid Gillman. Landry lost two NFL Championship Games before the merger and three Super Bowls after it, while Gillman lost one NFL Championship Game and four AFL title tilts.

Don Shula might be added with an asterisk. He lost an NFL Championship Game before the merger and three Super Bowls after it, but he also lost Super Bowl III before it. He gets credit for winning the NFL Championship. In a like vein, Minnesota's Bud Grant lost four Super Bowls, but one was right before the merger, when the Vikings won the NFL Championship. All these fellows won at some point. Landry and Shula each took two Super Bowls; Gillman won a pre-merger AFL championship.

With its inter-league "world" championship going back more than 100 years, Major League Baseball's runner-up also is a champion. So it's pretty hard to slam John McGraw for losing the World Series six times with the New York Giants from 1905-24. McGraw also won it three times during that stretch.

Few managers have been to the World Series enough to lose six of them, but the others have fared better. Joe McCarthy won seven of nine and Casey Stengel won seven of 10. Connie Mack won five of eight, Walter Alston won four of seven and Miller Huggins won three of six. The closest to McGraw's six World Series losses is Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, who has lost four of five. The only active manager to lose three is St. Louis skipper Tony LaRussa, who won it in 1989.

The all-time runner-up in pro sports is an NHL coach. In other words, yeah, a Canadian. But the NHL operated as a six-team league for decades, so your chances of going to the Stanley Cup finals were roughly one in three every year, and a coach who hung around could make a lot of appearances.

Such was the fate of Dick Irvin. From 1932 through 1955, Irvin coached 15 teams to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing 11. But he won four Cups and is widely credited for reviving the sagging Montreal franchise with eight finals appearances from 1944 through 1955. Irvin died in 1957. His son, Dick Irvin Jr., became a popular hockey commentator on Canadian television.

The moral of the story: You have to be pretty good to finish second, especially to finish second a lot. If you do that enough times, you probably win sooner or later.



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