I am a ferocious fan of underdogs. If there is a Vegas moneyline on a game that gives the favorite implied odds of better than, say, 70% to win, I’ll root for the other team almost without exception. That might not seem all that unusual – plenty of neutrals pull for underdogs.
But me, I’m pretty much obsessed with them.
I don’t care who the players are on each team. I don’t care what type of person your head coach is. I usually don’t even care how your franchise is run. It’s a flaw of mine. As a human, I probably should’ve been rooting for Clayton Kershaw to exorcise his October demons in the World Series last year. I should’ve been overjoyed when LeBron added another chapter to his titanic legacy against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. But I wasn’t. For me, there is nothing more compelling than all of the data scientists and talking heads saying, yeah, this team is firmly expected to win the game, and then the other team somehow outdueling them for sixty minutes. That feeling is only intensified further when the underdog somehow wins four games out of seven.
I could fill a book by writing about the myriad of different stipulations that come into play that can adjust or reinforce my basic stance about who I want to win. But this piece needs some focus, so let’s talk about the most recent men’s Final Four, which presented quite a quandary for me. In college sports, I generally root for the team that is an underdog in the long-term, program-building sense of the word, rather than the underdog as Vegas defines it.
Let’s say one college athletics program is undoubtedly more attractive to recruits than their opponents. They are located closer to elite high school talent, they have better facilities, they may have a bigger fanbase or better academics or even enhanced student-athlete quality of life relative to the other team. Well, if you’re telling me that the other team overcame many or all of those inherent disadvantages to win the game, I consider that a heck of a story.
What I’m getting at is, I don’t really know how to deal with Gonzaga. I should love Gonzaga! They’re a small Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington playing in the West Coast Conference, for goodness sake. And somehow Mark Few, in one of the absolute most stunning coaching jobs we’ve ever seen at any level of athletics, has the Bulldogs humming as one of the top teams in college basketball year in, year out, with what we thought was the best college team of all time on his hands this past year. Meanwhile, their counterparts in the national semifinal, UCLA, are the type of team I love to root against. They have the tradition, the allure of Los Angeles, the beautiful campus, and yet this year’s Bruins team couldn’t deliver anything more than an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But they went on their magical run, playing with panache and courage, and came up against the juggernaut that is Gonzaga as fourteen-point underdogs.
I was legitimately vacillating between who I was rooting for in that all-time contest during the game itself. Both teams were competing so admirably and at such a high level. It was the ultimate test of picking between a massive Vegas underdog and a massive long-term underdog.
I had the same feelings of helplessness during the ensuing national championship between Gonzaga and Baylor. See, if UCLA, like Baylor, was a one-seed and a mere four-point underdog against Gonzaga, I’m rooting for the Bulldogs all day. But UCLA was somehow playing David, not Goliath, in the semifinal. Baylor, however, is not a team I typically root against. They’re certainly a smaller, less tradition-rich school by Big 12 standards, located in an unsexy spot in Waco, Texas. And Scott Drew is one of the only coaches that can hold a candle to Few when it comes to incredible program-building jobs – I recommend reading up on his journey with the Bears. After Baylor’s spellbinding performance to win the championship, I was glad the game was over so I wouldn’t hurt my brain further. But I was also thrilled for them. Waco versus Spokane, a program that built from tragedy against a program that was built from nothing – now those are two worthy champions. Forget Duke, forget North Carolina – as a fan, the Final Four was a nightmare only because I was forced to pick between dream champions.