ESPN’s team of college writers and reporters has seen some things. In a world where collegiate athletics are on indefinite hiatus, denying us not only March Madness and spring football but also iconic events such as baseball’s College World Series and softball’s Women’s College World Series, our group was enlisted to reflect on the top players, teams and performances that have marked its members’ many decades of collective coverage. All college sports were on the table, but much like their MLB colleagues, our writers were bound by one rule — they had to have seen the moments they were recounting in person.
Up next in our weeklong series — the inspiring comebacks our group witnessed during their many years in the business.
Ryan McGee: The Miracle at South Bend. On Nov. 9, 1991, my college roommate and I spent all the money we had to drive from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Notre Dame for a showdown between the No. 5 Irish and No. 13 Vols. In the closing seconds of the first half, we were regretting that decision. Notre Dame led 31-7 and it didn’t feel that close. But Tennessee blocked a field goal and ran it back for a TD at the end of the half. At the end of the game, Notre Dame trailed 35-34 as it lined up to kick a chip-shot, game-winning field goal, but Jeremy Lincoln blocked it with his butt as time expired. From our awful seats in the end zone we thought the kick was good and buried our faces in despair. Then we saw the Vols celebrating. I still have a chunk of grass from that game in a jar on my desk, and when Lou Holtz worked at ESPN, I had dinner with him and pulled out my ticket stub. He snatched it out of my hand and signed it, “What a day. Lou Holtz.”
Heather Dinich: It was 2006 when No. 11 seed George Mason shocked No. 1 Connecticut 86-84 in overtime to earn a trip to the Final Four. The regional at the Verizon Center in D.C. was like a home game for me because I live in Maryland, but it was even more of a home-court advantage for Mason, which is located about 20 miles from the arena.
In the press room before the game, former Washington Post reporter Eric Prisbell asked who I thought would win. I said Mason. He was dubious. As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, though, I had been following the Patriots’ magical ride under Jim Larranaga closely, and knew one of their assistants, James Johnson, because I had covered Penn State when he was there, too. There was just something special about that team, the intangibles that make Cinderella stories possible in hoops. It was every ingredient that defines an upset, as Connecticut was the more talented, more athletic, taller team without a doubt. But the scrappy Patriots reversed a 12-point first-half deficit for a truly improbable comeback.
Ivan Maisel: East Carolina led Marshall 38-8 at halftime of the 2001 GMAC Bowl. I sat in the small press box at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, checking my watch every few minutes, hoping it would move faster. I had come to see Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich whom, at practice the day before the game, I had watched throw the ball 70 yards. Leftwich made the second half move a little faster. He led the Thundering Herd to the doorstep of winning in regulation; a missed extra point with seven seconds to play left the game tied 51-51. Marshall won it 64-61 in the second overtime. Leftwich finished 41-for-70 for 576 yards and four touchdowns.
Mark Schlabach: In a 2005 NCAA tournament regional final, I watched No. 1 seed Illinois rally from 15 points down in the final four minutes to stun Arizona 90-89 in overtime and claim a spot in the Final Four for the first time since 1989. The Illini’s trio of stars — Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams — were electrifying in the comeback. After the Wildcats went ahead 75-60 with four minutes to go, Illinois went on a 20-5 run. Williams hit a 3-pointer with 38 seconds to go to tie the score and send it into overtime. The Illini beat Louisville 72-57 in the national semifinals before losing to North Carolina 75-70 in the national championship game in St. Louis.
Adam Rittenberg: I also was at the venerable dumpy Allstate Arena to watch Arizona-Illinois in 2005, but I had a better seat than Schlabach. I sat next to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther, and about 20 feet in front of Bill Murray, who wore an orange sport coat. Guenther spent the game red-faced and pounding the media table as Illinois made its incredible comeback. He looked completely exhausted afterward. I covered Illinois all season. The Illini were dominant, going undefeated until their regular-season finale at Ohio State. So to see them find a way behind Williams was so impressive. Not sure I’ve heard many buildings louder than Allstate on that day.
Andrea Adelson: I was in my first job out of college at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1999, working as a general assignment reporter, when I was told I would be covering the Orange Bowl between Michigan and Alabama. That plumb assignment turned into so much more that night. Alabama led 28-14 in the third quarter as Michigan struggled for most of the night on offense, and I felt comfortable enough to start writing my game story because I had to file as soon as the game ended. But then we got the first glimpse of the Tom Brady we all know today.
Michigan started to come back, and I furiously deleted everything on my computer screen to start all over. Brady threw three touchdown passes over 12 minutes to get Michigan back in the game, which eventually went into overtime. Michigan won 35-34 after Alabama missed an extra point. We didn’t know it at the time, but the legend of Tom Brady was born and I was there to see it.
Mechelle Voepel: Improbably, I saw one of the biggest comebacks in Women’s Final Four history in the first semifinal in 2005 … which was then topped by the second semifinal. Baylor rallied from down 15 points to LSU to win the opener at Indianapolis. That was followed by Michigan State rallying from down 16 to beat Tennessee. That tied the NCAA record for biggest comeback in the Women’s Final Four, along with Notre Dame in the 2001 semifinals vs. UConn. In the battle of the “ralliers” in the 2005 final, Baylor won its first NCAA title.
Joe Lunardi: I was at the Palestra on Feb. 9, 1999, when Princeton’s Brian Earl opened the scoring with a 3-pointer, then Penn scored 29 unanswered points to take a 29-3 lead. The Quakers led 33-9 at halftime and 40-13 early in the second half. But Princeton closed the game on a 37-9 run to register a stunning 50-49 victory and move into first place in the Ivy League. That kind of swing would be remarkable in any game, but it’s even wilder when you think about the winning team scoring only 50 points.
Jeff Borzello: It might not have had the importance of some more notable comebacks, but the 2012 First Four in Dayton, Ohio, had two of the biggest comebacks I’ve ever seen in person. First, Western Kentucky erased a 16-point deficit in the final five minutes to beat Mississippi Valley State — a comeback that would be topped later that night when BYU came back from down by 25 to beat Iona. BYU’s comeback was the biggest NCAA tournament comeback in history at the time. One of the big storylines from that night was Barack Obama and David Cameron attending, and I don’t remember what time they left the arena, but I know they weren’t around to see BYU’s comeback. I’m sure they weren’t the only ones, either.
Myron Medcalf: I’ll echo what Borzello said about the 2012 First Four in Dayton, where the Secret Service searched all of our bags before we entered the building. The BYU-Iona and Mississippi Valley State-Western Kentucky comebacks were unprecedented. I remember when President Obama got up at halftime of the first game to do a TV interview and the entire section couldn’t move until he returned to his seat. And I don’t remember who he was, but an MVSU player kept taking shots and looking at Obama. That was his moment. BYU, down 15 at halftime, outscored Iona 38-17 in the second half. Western Kentucky overcame a 16-point deficit down the stretch to win. It was a wild night in Dayton.
On September 10, 2011 the Manti Te’o-led Irish took Denard Robinson and the Wolverines down to the wire.
Tom VanHaaren: In 2011 I was covering Michigan for ESPN, on assignment at the Notre Dame-Michigan game along with Michael Rothstein and Chantel Jennings. It was a hyped game, at night, with Michigan wearing the alternate uniforms with giant block Ms in the middle. Michigan had trailed the entire game, was down 24-7 entering the fourth quarter, but rallied late and scored a touchdown with 1:12 remaining to go up 28-24. Notre Dame then drove 61 yards in 43 seconds to score and retake the lead. Michigan got the ball with 30 seconds left. The Wolverines drove 80 yards in 28 seconds, including a 16-yard pass in the end zone to Roy Roundtree to take the lead for the final time and win the game 35-31. I have never seen the Big House like it was that night.