The 10 All-Time Worst Sports Illustrated Football Covers

Posted: 12/7/2010

This month, Mark Humphries shares his picks for the worst "what were they thinking?" Sports Illustrated covers.

If you've glanced at any of my previous articles, you've probably guessed that I'm a big fan of Sports Illustrated. It's true – I enjoy reading the magazine, and I think it has done a marvelous job in its 56 years of chronicling the significant events in American sports. Having said that, SI isn't perfect, and sometimes their mistakes and bad calls are displayed in that most difficult place to escape the judgment of posterity – the cover. I'm not talking about merely bad pre-season Super Bowl picks, or covers with college stars who bombed in the pros. I'm talking about covers so misguided, so laughably dated or artistically inept as to make them virtually uncollectible by even the most die-hard fan. When I think about such execrable covers, I'm thinking about the following. I haven't ranked them, because how do you really compare a boring and artless photo from the 1950s with the celebration of a steroid junkie from the 1980s? Each is uniquely awful, in its own way, so we'll take them in chronological order.

Universtiy of Oklahoma

1. University of Oklahoma Football Fans 11/01/54 If you collect crowd shots of a few hundred faceless people wearing gray jackets and hats, then this is the cover for you. What was SI thinking here? “Let's illustrate the fact that fans have to sit close to each other during college football games?” Didn't readers already know that?

Shirley MacLaine

2. “Shirley MacLaine Gallops 99 Yards Against Notre Dame” 7/20/64 I guess you had to be there.

Leroy Keyes

3. Leroy Keyes of Purdue University 9/9/68 Maybe this was SI's response to the Beatles' Revolver album cover, the magazine's proud proof that their graphic artists dropped acid just like the rock and roll artists. There are some cases where the drug-influenced look works pretty well, but this isn't one of them. Plus, Keyes was a dud in the pros.

Joe Namath

4. Joe Namath 6/16/69 “Namath Weeps” If you prefer to see your childhood football hero crying in a grainy black-and-white photo, then by all means get this issue. The somewhat ridiculous back-story involved Namath's investment in a New York bar named Bachelors III, said bar's attraction to people of “undesirable background,” an NFL commissioner looking to protect the integrity of the league and a retirement announcement by Broadway Joe. Of course, it all blew over, and in less than two months Namath was back in uniform and back on the cover of SI. But we're still left with this crappy cover.

Joe Dudek

5. Joe Dudek 12/2/85 “The Thinking Fan's Vote for the 1985 Heisman Trophy” This issue is the reason we never had an SI cover dedicated to the great Bo Jackson playing football. Bo was on his way to winning the Heisman in '85, but for some reason that everyone has since forgotten, SI decided to use its position as the leading voice in American sports to tell the Heisman voters that they really should be voting for a guy named Joe Dudek, who was scoring a lot of touchdowns for a college named Plymouth State. Nevermind that Dudek wouldn't have been able to crack the starting lineup had he played for Auburn or most of its SEC competitors.

Tony Mandarich

6. Tony Mandarich 4/24/89 “The Incredible Bulk” Tony Mandarich was the #2 pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, and SI called him “The Best Offensive Line Prospect Ever” on this cover. He turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments in Draft history and was cut from the Packers after only three seasons. In retrospect, Mandarich was an obvious harbinger of the steroid era, and an embarrassment for the magazine, which missed the “performance-enhancing drug” story for many years. SI breathlessly reported on how Big Tony could run the 40 in 4.65 and bench-press 225 pounds 39 times. They attributed his athletic feats to intense workouts and his 12,000-calorie-per-day diet, when they should have been looking inside his medicine cabinet and at his receding hairline and back acne (tell-tale signs of steroid use). What makes SI's error more inexcusable is that the magazine could have instead highlighted any of the following players, also chosen in the first five picks of the Draft: Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders – all Hall of Famers except Deion, who will be soon.

John Elway

7. John Elway 1/22/90 “We'll Show Up” Next month, I plan to present my picks for the Ten Best Super Bowl covers. Well, here's my pick for the worst Super Bowl preview issue: John Elway promising SI readers that his Denver Broncos would make SB24 a competitive event with the 49ers. “We'll Show Up” says Elway, but they didn't, losing 55-10 in what is still the biggest shellacking in Super Bowl history.

University of Miami

8. “Why the University of Miami Should Drop Football” 6/12/95 While I respect the editorial integrity needed to take a stand against the corrupt, violent and criminal Miami program, and to do so without pictures, in inch-high letters that fill the cover space, it also must be said that this makes for one really uncollectible magazine. Who wants this on their wall?

Tim Couch

9. Tim Couch & Akili Smith 4/19/99 “Pick of the Litter” With the scary-ugly menace of a masked Cleveland “Dawg Pound” fan in the background, this cover would be unattractive even if the two potential NFL #1 Draft picks featured had become superstars. But Couch and Smith didn't become superstars. They didn't even become acceptably average quarterbacks. In fact, they became two of the worst top-of-the-draft picks in recent memory. Couch, picked first by the Browns, compiled a 22-37 record in five seasons with Cleveland before stumbling out of the league in 2003. Smith, picked third, was much worse for the Cincinnati Bengals, who went 3-14 in his starts. They may have been “the pick of the litter,” but in the end they were both dogs.

Bill Belichick

10. Bill Belichick 12/31/07 “Perfect Season's Greetings” On how many levels does this cover miss? Let us count the ways: (1) The cover is crowded with too many words and images, (2) Bill Belichick, surly Patriots head coach, is an unattractive vision as a grumpy Santa Claus, and may frighten small children, and (3) Belichick's Patriots failed to complete their perfect season, thereby defeating the cover's premise.

Mark Humphries has been reading Sports Illustrated since 1977, when a neighbor began giving second-hand copies to the sports-obsessed 10-year-old. When the 1978 Swimsuit Issue arrived, the content was first screened by his mother. Mark survived the trauma of viewing Cheryl Tiegs in her famous fishnet suit and later became a subscriber and collector of SI. In 2002, following the lead of CGC in comics, he created and marketed the first capsule for graded magazines. Today, Mark's mother, Joan, manages an eBay store ("cgcmags") that offers the largest selection of Sports Illustrated newsstand copies (including many CGC-graded pieces). Mark is the former vice president, corporate development, of Collectors Universe Inc. He holds a BA in history and an MS in industrial engineering from Stanford University, and an MBA in finance from Wharton. Mark welcomes your comments and criticisms of his list at Click here to view Joan’s Mint Magazines.

This is a guest article. The thoughts and opinions in this piece are those of their author and are not necessarily the thoughts of the Certified Collectibles Group.

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