The first thing you need to know about these rankings are that they are purely subjective. I am not trying to objectively evaluate how well an athlete is liked by the general sports population. Instead, I am simply providing my rankings and analysis for the players and sportsmen I personally like the most. Also, please note that the time of this entry is my “favorite sportsmen of all-time” not “favorite athletes”. The reason for this discrepancy is that I wanted this list to include announcers, columnist, owners, and coaches who cannot be considered athletes but still play a major role in how a game is played and/or analyzed. Sometimes it’s the people who don’t directly decide the outcome of a game who are the easiest for me to fall in love with. Moreover, you will see on this list that there is a disproportionate focus on athletes from individual sports. The reason for that is simple: when I watch team sports, I tend to focus on the teams involved and not really build a particular amount of affection (or hatred) towards a particular player. There are exceptions to this rule of course, but with individual sports, I feel that it is a lot easier to build a strong bond with the athletes competing. Furthermore, unlike most of the lists I have published in the past, this one is written in ascending order to preserve the suspense in my countdown to # 1. I hope you enjoy the list, and please note that the corresponding column breaking down my “most hated sportsmen of all-time” will be published on this blog tomorrow.
50. Dan Wetzel– Starting out with a “non-athlete” that many pro sports fans probably haven’t ever heard of. Wetzel is a Yahoo college sports columnist, who wrote the ground-breaking book Death to the BCS. He is on this list because he, like myself, is one of the most passionate college football playoff advocates around. You will also find out later that Wetzel is not the only Yahoo sports columnist to crack these rankings.
49. Mark Cuban– I really like unique characters in sports and there may be no one quite as unique as Mr. Cuban.
48. Bonnie Blair– Blair was favorite Olympian as a child, who sent me an autographed picture in response to my fan mail in 1994. Bonnie is the only female athlete on this list who is not a tennis player.
47. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.- I don’t like him as much as his dad (see # 31 on this list), but “Little E” is my favorite active NASCAR driver.
46. Steve Spurrier– He is the most successful head coach of my second favorite college football team, and unlike a lot of people I actually liked him way back when he coached at Florida as well. Just an entertaining character who can flat-out coach.
45. Dustin Johnson– One of the few star athletes from my home state of South Carolina and one of the few golfers in the world who actually looks like an athlete. Johnson is currently my favorite active golfer, which is why his major championship choke jobs have really been especially heartbreaking for me.
44. Martina Navratilova– Besides being the only athlete on this list who I had to double-check the spelling of their name, Martina revolutionized women’s tennis around the world. She became a favorite of mine throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, when she continued to win at the professional level into her later 30’s and 40’s. In fact, she ended her career in 2006 with a remarkable U.S. Open mixed doubles championship at the age of 50.
43. Ted Williams– One of the great “tell it like is” characters in sports history. One of my favorite athletes of the early-to-mid 20th century.
42. Ricky Williams– Here’s another star athlete named Williams who like Ted is really a unique personality is his sport. That’s about the end of the similarities though between Ted Williams and Ricky Williams As you can see though, I really like unique sports characters who give the game personality and life. Ricky may be the first and only true Rastafarian football player of the modern day. It also helps that the best ESPN 30 for 30 in the entire series chronicles Williams’ adult life in vivid detail (see Run Ricky Run).
41. Randolph Childress– The first of two athletes from my beloved alma mater, Wake Forest, to make my rankings. Childress’ epic performance in the 1995 ACC Tournament might be the school’s greatest basketball moment of all-time. The other Wake athlete will be coming up shortly.
40. Caroline Wozniacki– My closest foreign relatives live in Denmark, so I grew up cheering for the Danes in many international sporting events. Wozniacki is the country’s first real international sports superstar, so she’s naturally become of my favorite athletes in the world. If only she could win a grand slam at some point…
39. Brian Piccolo– Still an icon at Wake Forest thanks to the movie “Brian’s Song” and the tragic way his life ended.
38. “Pistol” Pete Maravich– We are now entering the nickname portion of the list as four of the next five sportsmen featured all possess iconic nicknames. “Pistol Pete” has to be one of the most entertaining basketball players of all-time.
37. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson– I gained a deep-seated respect and admiration for “Shoeless Joe” in 10th grade when I wrote a paper in my English class about how Jackson and athlete # 21 on this list (see below) deserve to admitted in to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
36. Lou Holtz (aka Dr. Lou)- Holtz initiated the South Carolina football rebuilding process when he took over as coach in 1999 and laid the building blocks for the school’s current success. His self-deprecating humor has made him one of the most entertaining and likable coaches/analysts in all of sports.
35. Joe “Willie” Namath– I am a guy who loves picking bold upsets, and Namath made the world’s most famous and successful upset prognostication when he guaranteed the Jets would upset the Colts in Super Bowl III.
34. Marquis Grissom– Yeah I know this particular entry may seem pretty random, as I bet several readers out there have no idea who this guy is. But keep in mind that I grew up as a Montreal Expos fan, and Grissom was my favorite player on those early 90’s Expos squads.
33. Paul “Bear” Bryant- Few sportsmen have ever become as closely associated with an article of clothing as the Bear has with the houndstooth hat. In addition, I have a lot of respect and admiration for the all-time classic “tough as nails” coaches and players out there (see #’s 21, 18, 15, 8, 4, and 3 on this list), and the Bear is typically regarded to be the toughest football coach of all-time. My mother also attended the University of Alabama, so I have historically been a Bama football fan.
32. Monica Seles– Sometimes you can’t really explain why you like an athlete, and I’m going to play that card right now. Most people preferred Graf to Seles in the early 90’s, but I always was a fan of Monica.
31. Dale Earnhardt– I am not a big NASCAR fan, but as a kid who grew up in the 1990’s, it was neat to bear witness to three athletes during that era becoming the most successful in their sport’s respective histories. Michael Jordan was one; Wayne Gretzky was another; and the third was Dale Earnhardt. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are the only athletes since then who have even approached the status of greatest of all-time, and neither of them are nearly as likable as these three 90’s icons. Earnhardt’s tragic death has added even more mystique to his legendary career.
30. Chris Petersen– The Boise State Broncos represent all that is right in the world of sports, and Coach Peterson is the ultimate reason for that.
29. Jim Nantz– We are now entering the sports announcing segment of the list. Nantz and sportsmen # 28 (see below) are the two most legendary voices of our generation.
28. Bob Costas– See comment above. I’m giving Costas the slight edge on Nantz just because of his witty humor.
27. Tim Couch– Couch is also a sports announcer now, but he’s on this list because of his college football heroics. I realize he was a complete NFL bust, but he was the lone football icon of my Kentucky childhood. Couch and Shaun Alexander are also the two biggest superstars I saw play in high school.
26. Wayne Gretzky– I always find it compelling when a player becomes the greatest all-time in the history of his sport without being naturally gifted at it. Gretzky is the ultimate example of this phenomenon. He wasn’t big and was never extremely fast. Gretzky just played the game perfectly. He also possesses one of my favorite stats in sports history. We all know that The Great One is the all-time leader in goals, but did you know that if he had not scored a single goal in the NHL, he would still be the all-time points leader based on his assists alone. Unbelievable! It’s hard to argue that anyone has such a dominant hold as the greatest in the history of the sport as Gretzky does in hockey. I’m pretty sure when we all pass away, “The Great One” will still be considered the greatest hockey player ever.
25. Grindstone– The first of three non-humans to make this list. As a natural born Kentuckian, horse racing is a passion of mine and Grindstone is the first Derby winner I picked correctly.
24. John Daly– As long as a controversial character possesses a bit of charm, then I usually find him easy to like. That is definitely a trend you find throughout this list including Mr. Daly.
23. Red Drew– He’s the only famous sportsmen in my family, so I have to include the former Mississippi and Alabama coach on the top half of this list. Coach Drew is my wife’s great-grandfather.
22. Bill Rafferty– Jim Nantz and Bob Costas may be the best sports announcers of our generation, but Rafferty is certainly the best analyst. He’s funny, smart, and always full of memorable one-liners ranging from “onions” to “send it in Jerome”!
21. Pete Rose– As stated above in entry # 37, I wrote a great argumentative paper on why Rose and Jackson belong in the baseball hall of fame. On top of being an amazing player, Rose played the game harder than anybody before or since.
20. Street Sense– Grindstone may have been my first derby winner, but Street Sense was the first derby horse I actually won money off of.
19. Greg Norman– The Shark choked away many, many major championships throughout his career, but he still managed to win a couple of British Opens along the way. He was just an extremely likable figure who played the game with unmatched courage and flair.
18. Mike Tyson– Iron Mike is probably the most controversial of any athlete on my list, but I have always viewed him as somewhat of a tragic hero. He’s a guy whose life has been a remarkable roller coaster ride, but he has survived it all and come out better because of it.
17. Maria Sharapova– The first tennis player on this list, Martina Navratilova, revolutionized women’s tennis by making it legitimate. Thirty years later, Maria came along and revolutionized it again by making it glamorous and sexy. Together, their influence is the main reason why tennis is the only sport where the women’s game is as popular as the man’s.
16. Keith Jackson– The greatest sports announcer of all-time, pure and simple. He’s everything you look for in a broadcaster: smart, witty, and sharp with a powerful deep tone to his voice. He was an idol of mine during my childhood years when I desired to become a sports announcer.
15. Bob Knight– Most Kentucky fans despise Bob Knight, but I love the man and everything he stands for. Sure, he had a horrible temper but he was an open and honest humanitarian who revolutionized the game in so many ways. No coach has ever been tougher, no coach has ever been funnier, and no coach has ever been smarter.
14. Tom Brady– As some of you know, my two favorite teams growing up were the Montreal Expos and New England Patriots. Both teams were awful at the time, but one went on to become a great sports dynasty while the other got shipped off to Washington D.C. The Patriot’s first Super Bowl victory was one of the greatest sports moments of my life, and Brady was the guy who led them there.
13. Jimmer Fredette– I have been a massive Jimmer fan ever since he went out and dropped 45 on San Diego State early in his senior year. He is truly one of the most dominant, unique, and entertaining college basketball players of the past 25 years. The Sacramento Kings have even become my favorite NBA team ever since they drafted him; however, I am not sure how well he is going to fit in there long term.
12. Chris Fowler– Fowler may not be the greatest sports announcer/studio host of all-time, but he is definitely my all-time favorite. My attachment to him began in the early 1990’s when I started watching College Gameday long before it became the national sensation it is today. He doesn’t get a chance to offer his opinions much, but when he does, it’s always spot on. I have particularly loved his consistent support and advocacy for mid-major teams like Boise State and TCU, who are frequently bashed by other college football analysts on the network. What really sets Fowler apart though is his work in the game of tennis. My favorite sports are college football, college basketball, and professional tennis in that order, and Fowler has become one of the top dogs in both sports # 1 and 3.
11. Jack Nicklaus– The Golden Bear was before my time, but there’s a lot to like about Jack. He’s humble, tough, and honest, which are three qualities not often found in golfers. He was also the author of the one of the greatest Cinderella stories in sports history, which is a tough role for someone considered “the greatest of all-time” to assume. His remarkable comeback victory in the 1986 Masters at the age of 45 is simply stuff of legend. Don’t let the pundits fool you…Tiger has a long way to go before he passes Jack as the greatest golfer of all-time.
10. Tim Henman– You can probably tell from this list that I am a huge tennis fan, and Wimbledon is by far my favorite tennis tournament each year. The thing I love most about the tourney is not the grass or the tradition but is Great Britain’s obsession with having one of their own finally hoist the championship trophy. In fact, seeing a Brit win Wimbledon is one of the four sporting goals of my life. Henman was the one who lit that passion inside of me when he made his remarkable runs to the Wimbledon quarterfinals/semifinals every year except one between 1996 and 2004. He was not the most exciting character in the game, but it was always fun to see him use his old school serve and volley game to knock off much bigger and stronger players every year
9. Pat Forde– It may surprise some of you that a sports columnist could be ranked this high on my list, but Pat Forde is my favorite sportswriter of all-time. He’s funny, informative, insightful, and most importantly I agree with 99.9% of the views he expresses. In fact, in my 10+ years of religiously reading Forde’s columns there have only been a handful of issues I have disagreed with him about and the only one I can think of off-hand is his support of the all-SEC BCS title game this season. Whether it’s bashing the BCS, supporting Boise State, or ripping Rick Dutrow, Pat Forde has always been the wisest and wittiest talking head in the world of sports.
8. Mike Leach– There’s so much I love about this man and the life he’s lived. Like I said before, I have a deep-seated admiration for colorful and unconventional characters in the world of sports, and Leach is definitely a character both on and off the field. His pass-happy offense has revolutionized modern college football and his witty humor and love for pirates has always entertained the masses. Only Bob Knight possesses a similar combination of wit, unconventionality intelligence, and toughness, but because Mike Leach is a lawyer like me, I’ll give him the edge and name him as my favorite coach of all-time.
7. Babe Ruth– I hate the Yankees and don’t really like the Red Sox either, but I still absolutely love George Herman Ruth. He’s the Paul Bunyan of sports in that his accomplishments have probably been embellished over the years, but the statistics he posted are so extraordinary that it makes all of the stories told him about him believable. Yes, this guy actually did hit more home runs than all but one Major League team in 1920. And yes this guy is an all-time top 50 pitcher to go along with his amazing slugging accolades. There will never be another baseball player as good as Babe Ruth…ever.
6. Secretariat– The most underrated athlete of all-time, pure and simple. People had forgotten just how good this guy was, and it took a recent Diane Lane move to remind people. His performance in the 1973 Belmont Stakes is the most spine-tingling, awe-inspiring moment in sports history…ever.
5. Andre Agassi– My passion for tennis originated with none other than Andre Agassi. He was the first real unique and likable character that the sport ever saw, and his 1999 French Open victory ranks as one of my favorite sports moments of all-time.
4. Larry Bird– He’s provided inspiration for slow, white, vertically challenged set shooters like myself for over thirty years now. Yeah I realize that it definitely helps to be 6’9” but no one worked harder than Bird and his accomplishments in both college at Indiana State and in the NBA are truly extraordinary.
3. Muhammad Ali– This may seem like a puzzling selection on my part, since I strongly disagree his political and religious ideologies. But Ali is from my home state, he invented trash-talking, and he provided the world with some of the greatest moments and events in sports history. Like I have said throughout this column. I love controversial sports characters who possess a certain degree of likability, and Ali certainly has to rank at the top of that list.
2. Andy Murray– Murray is without a doubt my favorite current athlete in the world today. His inclusion on this list has much to do with my # 10 favorite athlete of all-time Tim Henman. Tiger Tim gave the British public hope that one of their own could finally win Wimbledon, but Murray was the one who followed through with the 2013 Wimbledon Championship. Aside from being the guy who ended the country’s 76 year men’s championship drought, I love Murray’s attitude, personality, and the way he plays the game. His style is actually most similar to mine as any top player in my generation. He’s a beacon of consistency who likes to hit lobs, junk balls, and big first serves. His weaknesses are also similar to mine: second serves and playing down to his competition.
1. Michael Jordan– He’s the ultimate sports hero of my generation, pure and simple. They will be telling MJ stories for the next 90 years, just like they have been telling Babe Ruth stories for the last 90. His statistics aren’t nearly as impressive as other all-time greatest like Nicklaus, Ruth, and Gretzky, but his sheer refusal to lose big games makes him the greatest competitor to ever live.