Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
Washington D.C. is undeniably in love with its Redskins, the one issue bipartisan agreement can be worked out in the nation’s capital. And over the past thirty years Georgetown basketball has become a popular commodity. The early part of the 1980s brought a high point to D.C, as each team won a championship, the Redskins went to two Super Bowls and the Hoyas made three Final Fours. The Notebook looks back on the period of 1982-85 that provided such highs for the fans of Washington D.C. sports.
The foundation was set the first two years of the decade. Georgetown, led by 6’10” John Thompson on the sidelines, reached the East Regional final in 1980 and only lost by one point to Iowa. One year later, the Redskins brought in a new coach named Joe Gibbs. After an 0-5 start, the ‘Skins stabilized and split their next six and then ripped off five straight wins to end the year at 8-8. They went into 1982 with momentum and Georgetown basketball was on the rise and had just signed a stud freshman center, 7’0” Patrick Ewing. The stage was set for great things in the capital.
In the spring of 1982, Georgetown rolled to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, being shipped out west. The Hoyas were a little bit under the radar, as ACC powers and fellow top seeds North Carolina and Virginia got most of the ink, but basketball observers knew that Thompson’s smothering defense and deep bench worked brilliantly around Ewing, while guard Eric “Sleepy” Floyd could hit from the outside and prevent defenses from collapsing on the freshman center. The NCAA field was 48 teams in 1982, so after a first-round bye, the Hoyas dispatched Wyoming and headed to Provo for the regionals.
Georgetown was renowned not only for great defense, but an inability to shoot the ball. They gave lie to that reputation in Provo, hitting 64 percent from the floor in a win a 58-40 win over Fresno State and then nailing 74 percent of their shots in a 69-45 rout of second-seeded Oregon State. Floyd was voted the regional’s outstanding player, scoring 38 points in the two games, while the Hoyas’ combined rebounding advantage was 48-27. Thompson was the first African-American coach to reach the Final Four.
The Final Four was in New Orleans, but Thompson opted to house his team in Biloxi, MS and bus them in. It was the nation’s first exposure to what would be called “Hoya Paranoia”, regarding Thompson’s closed door relationship with the press. Someone else might call it just wanting the media off your back. Saturday’s semi-final game was a tough battle with a Louisville team that had won the national championship two years earlier. Floyd was held to 3-for-11 shooting and Ewing only scored eight points, but defense and rebounding carried the day in a 50-46 win. The 1982 NCAA final was one of the best ever played, as Thompson went toe-to-toe with his friend Dean Smith, the Carolina coach after his first national championship. Ewing scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Floyd popped in 18. But a Tar Heel team that had future NBA forwards James Worthy and Sam Perkins, and a freshman guard named Michael Jordan wasn’t as easy to stop offensively. Thompson tried a gambit of having Ewing block every shot coming his way in the early part of the game, but the five goaltending calls did nothing to psyche UNC out. Worthy scored 28 points and Carolina led 63-62 late. Georgetown guard Fred Brown brought the ball over halfcourt looking to hold for the last shot. He inexplicably threw the ball directly to Worthy, was able to run out the clock. The lasting image for Georgetown is Thompson hugging the inconsolable Brown. Georgetown had come up short, but the Ewing era was just beginning.
MR. GIBBS GOES TO WASHINGTON
The NFL season of 1982 was overshadowed by labor difficulties and after a 2-0 start, the Redskins saw the season temporarily shut down with a players’ strike. Play would not resume until November 21 with plans for a truncated nine-game schedule and divisional distinctions abandoned for playoff purposes. Washington kept rolling, on their way to an 8-1 record. The dominant year enjoyed by kicker Mark Moseley actually got him the league MVP award. Suffice it to say, no kicker has done it since.
It was a 16-team playoff bracket, with eight teams per conference qualifying and the Redskins opened up at home with the #8 seed Detroit Lions. Cornerback Jeris White put them on top early by intercepting an Eric Hipple pass and taking it 77 yards to the house. It was a vivid example of the role defense would play for the Redskins in this postseason. While Joe Theisman engineered an efficient passing game, hitting a package of receivers called “The Fun Bunch”, for their choreographed end zone celebrations, and big John Riggins ran behind the “Hogs” offensive line, the legendary unit that was mostly in their early 20s at this point, the defense continually shut down top running backs and made big plays. The early interception was one of two White picks in this game, Lion running back Billy Sims was held to 19 yards and the final score was 31-7.
Minnesota was next up and the ‘Skins offense struck quickly. A short TD pass from Theisman to tight end Don Warren along with a short run by Riggins made it 14-0. After the teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter, the scoring was done. Riggins rolled up 185 yards, while the Vikings had no ground game to speak of.
The arch-rival Cowboys handed the Redskins their only defeat in the regular season and at 6-3 and seeded #2, Dallas came to old RFK hungry to show who was still boss in this rivalry. They got an early field goal, but Theisman quickly countered with a touchdown pass to little Charlie Brown, Riggins plunged over from a yard out and it was 14-3 at half. Not only that, but Washington had knocked Dallas starting quarterback Danny White out of the game and the visitors would turn to Gary Hogeboom for a rally.
Hogeboom came closer than many might have thought. He threw two touchdown passes in the third quarter, but they were sandwiched around another scoring run by Riggins, so the ‘Skins still led 21-17. A field goal stretched the lead to seven. Dallas got the ball back deep in its own territory in the fourth quarter with a chance to go the distance and tie it up. Defensive end Dexter Manley and defensive tackle Daryl Grant bore down on Hogeboom, whose pass was tipped up in the air. It landed in the hands of Grant who took a few short steps to the end zone. The game was all but over and it ended 31-17. Washington had their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1972 when they had the misfortune to run into the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
Ironically the Dolphins were waiting again this time, although they weren’t quite as fearsome. The running game was suspect and David Woodley didn’t scare at anyone at quarterback. The Fish did play defense though and veteran coach Don Shula was still at the controls, as he’d been back in ’72. When Woodley threw an out pattern to Jimmy Cefalo who turned it into a 76-yard touchdown pass Miami had the early lead. After the teams swapped field goals and Theisman found another one of his diminutive wide receivers, Alvin Garrett for a tying touchdown, Miami’s Fulton Walker returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
If you’re going to give up special teams touchdowns and let simple short passes turn into long scores and still win a football game, you better find ways to dominate everywhere else and that’s what Washington did. The defense, having shut down Sims and Dallas’ Tony Dorsett, was overwhelming a mediocre Miami running game. Woodley would complete only four passes for the entire game. In the meantime, Riggins and the Hogs were controlling the game up front. Miami still clung to a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter when the play for which this game is remembered finally swung the tide.
Washington faced 4th-and-1 on the Miami 43-yard line. Gibbs decided to go for it. Everyone in the Rose Bowl knew the ball was going to Riggins. He powered off left tackle, aqua and orange jerseys hanging all over him. Riggins broke through the pile and pulled away, outrunning the rest of the Miami defense to the end zone. With the ‘Skins defense in lockdown mode a 20-17 lead seemed insurmountable, but when the ‘Skins offense got the ball back, Theisman led them down the field and on third and goal hit Brown in the corner of the end zone for the score that sealed the deal. For the first time in their history, Washington was Super Bowl champs.
A SECOND SUPER BOWL TRIP
Georgetown didn’t have a dominant year in 1983, ending up as a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and losing in the second round to #4 seed Memphis and their own top center in Keith Lee. The Redskins had no such hangover issues and they went 14-2, in a season that sent a clear message that ’82 wasn’t just about a fluke team cashing on the instability of a strike year. Washington’s only losses came by a single point on Monday Night Football, a 31-30 heartbreaker at home to Dallas in the opener and a 48-47 shootout in Green Bay. A much-hyped Week 15 game in Dallas to determine both the NFC East and the #1 seed turned into a Washington rout, with the only real intrigue being the Cowboys’ efforts to bring up the Fun Bunch dance after a touchdown.
The Los Angeles Rams upset Dallas in the wild-card game and came to D.C. for the divisional playoffs. It was the early kick on Saturday at 12:30 PM ET and before anyone was settled in, Washington had a 17-0 lead, including a touchdown pass to future Hall of Famer receiver Art Monk who had to sit out the previous year’s postseason with an injury. Theisman was locked in, completing 18 of 23 passes for 302 yards and the final was 51-7. It set up an NFC Championship date with San Francisco.
In retrospect, we can see the 1983 NFC Championship Game as a temporary end to Redskin dominance. The previous five postseason wins had been all solidly decisive. This one was close and fraught with controversy. After a scoreless first quarter, Riggins ran in from four yards out and in the third quarter he added another, and when Theisman hit Brown for a 70-yard strike it looked like another easy Washington win. But with Joe Montana at the helm for Frisco, it was never over and throwing for 347 yards, Montana threw a pair of short TD passes and one long one to his deep threat Freddie Solomon and the game was tied 21-21. Washington rallied for a field goal on the strength of a pair of dubious pass interference calls where Theisman threw passes clearly not catchable, and a Moseley won it with a 25-yard kick. It set up a Super Bowl date with the Los Angeles Raiders, the #1 seed in the AFC as Washington tried to complete a sweep of the city of Los Angeles in the postseason.
If the NFC Championship Game dented the aura of invincibility, the Super Bowl finished it off. The Raiders blocked a punt for an early touchdown and built up a 14-3 lead. With the ‘Skins having the ball deep in their own end, it looked like that’s how it would go to the half. Gibbs reached into his playbook and found a play that had worked to perfection in a regular season win over the Raiders, a swing pass to little halfback Joe Washington. There were so little time in the half, the only way the play could work would be if Washington broke it for a touchdown. Instead it came the other way. Theisman didn’t see linebacker Jack Squirek, who stepped in front of the pass and waltzed into the end zone. At 21-3, this one was all but over by halftime. While Washington did get a Riggins touchdown out of the intermission, Marcus Allen ran for two touchdowns, including an epic 74-yard romp where he completely reversed himself and covered the width of the field. The final was 38-9. Allen’s 191 rush yards ended the stout Washington run defense in the playoffs. The six sacks suffered by Theisman were a sore spot for the proud Hogs.
1984 marked the last gasp for the Theisman era of Redskin football. The ‘Skins were a good team, but at 7-5 were in danger of missing the playoffs. Gibbs did his usual virtuoso job in delivering big results in December, as Washington swept four straight, including two-point wins over the then-St. Louis Cardinals and Dallas, who each finished at 9-7. It was enough for a third straight NFC East title and the two-seed in the NFC playoffs. The ‘Skins still seemed several steps behind the two #1 seeds in this year’s playoffs, Miami and San Francisco, each of whom had beaten Washington to start the season. As it turned out, Washington didn’t get a second chance. Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears were on the rise and a year away from a dominating Super Bowl year. They came in to RFK Stadium and won 23-17.
It wasn’t the end of the Redskins by any means. But it did set up a brief “step-back” period. They were a good team in 1985, going 10-6 and missing the playoffs and were a solid wild-card in 1986. But the team that would win the Super Bowl in 1987 would look considerably different, as Theisman, Riggins and the Fun Bunch (with the notable exception of Monk) would be done. But they were part of the teams that made Redskin football relevant again in the early 1980s.
As Redskin football stepped back, Hoya basketball came thundering forward in 1984. With Ewing in his junior year, the team looked like it had in 1982, with a very deep team surrounding him. They played defense and hit the boards were back as the #1 seed in the West by NCAA Tournament time. In the age before the shot clock was used in tournament play (while it was used in the regular season in 1983, it didn’t become standard for NCAA Tournament games until 1986), underdog teams could slow the pace down dramatically and that’s what SMU did in a second-round game. After a first-round bye, Georgetown barely survived the Mustangs in a 37-36 final, but they were on their way to Pauley Pavilion, home of UCLA, for the West Regional.
In Los Angeles, customary Hoya dominance returned. In their two wins over UNLV and Dayton they won the rebounding battle by a combined 76-48 and won both games by double-digit margins. It wasn’t only Ewing on the glass, but forward Bill Martin, who pulled down ten boards in the win over Dayton in the final. The Georgetown defense shut down the Flyers’ top scorer in Roosevelt Chapman and once again the Beast of the East was the Best in the West.
The Final Four was in Seattle, where Ewing had anticipated battles against top centers in Kentucky’s Sam Bowie and then a potential final game matchup with Houston’s Akeem Olajuwon. Saturday’s game against Kentucky shocked the entire country. Everyone knew the Hoyas could D it up with anyone, but no one expected them to hold Kentucky to 11 second half points and 3-of-23 shooting after the half, as a 29-22 Wildcat lead at intermission turned into a 53-40 Georgetown victory. Bowie was the only Wildcat player who could get a rebound and even with a poor game from Ewing, point guard Michael Jackson picked up the slack. Houston barely survived Virginia to make the Monday night championship game, but their offense could match up with Georgetown’s defense. Cougar point guard Alvin Franklin successfully broke down the Hoya D off the dribble and scored 21 points. Michael Young scored 18, although at 8-of-21 shooting, Thompson was probably willing to concede that. Ewing only scored 10, while Olajuwon scored 15, but the depth around Ewing was vastly superior and Houston couldn’t guard people on the perimeter the way Georgetown could. Swingmen Reggie Williams and David Wingate scored 19 and 16 points respectively and bald-headed enforcer Michael Graham delivered 14. Georgetown led by ten at the half and went on to win 84-75. Thompson was again a pioneer, the first African-American coach to win a national championship. Ewing had won his battle with Olajuwon and even though the Houston center would get his revenge in the 1994 NBA Finals when he was with the Rockets while Ewing was with the Knicks, that was a long way off and not relevant to anyone in the D.C. area.
JUST SHORT OF HISTORY
Like the Redskins, Georgetown fielded a great team the year after its championship season and a repeat title looked like destiny. The Big East was the center of the basketball world, as Georgetown and St. John’s were the top two teams in the country throughout the year and with a split of regular season games, plus a victory in the conference tournament final, the Hoyas got the #1 seed in the East, while it was the Redmen going West this time.
1985 was the first year the NCAA Tournament went to 64 teams and Georgetown opened up by making life miserable for eastern Pennsylvania, beating Lehigh and Temple and earning a spot in the regionals held up in Providence. Defense ruled the day again, as they faced top backcourt scorers in Loyola-Chicago’s Alfredrick Hughes and Georgia Tech’s Mark Price, a future NBA mainstay for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hughes was held to eight points, Price shot 3-for-16, and while the Hoyas got strong challenges in both games, they were able to get their third Final Four trip in Ewing’s four-year tenure.
The Final Four was in Lexington’s Rupp Arena and a familiar foe in St. John’s was waiting. It was an excellent Redmen team, led by future NBA guard Chris Mullin and center Bill Wennington, who would go on to a good pro career in Chicago. It was the best team ever fielded by Lou Carnesecca, but they couldn’t match up with Georgetown. Mullin only got eight shot attempts, Williams scored 20 for Georgetown and it was a 77-59 rout. An all-Big East championship game was next, with Villanova the opponent.
Villanova’s 66-64 upset win is now one of college basketball’s great Cinderella stories and everyone correctly remembers how they shot the lights out, at 79 percent from the field. Overlooked in this analysis is that ‘Nova had a huge edge at the free throw line, outscoring Georgetown 22-6 from the stripe and while there weren’t a lot of rebounds to go around, ‘Nova fought their rival pretty evenly, losing only 17-14.
It was a disappointing end to the Ewing era and Georgetown would not return to the Final Four until 2007, by which point Thompson’s son was the coach. But it couldn’t change the body of work the Hoyas put together over four years. Or the work the Redskins had done during roughly the same timeframe. Together, the two teams made Washington D.C. a great place to follow the NFL and college hoops in the early 1980s.