It has been a year of change for Chicago’s sports teams, with three prominent coaches — including a can’t-miss Hall of Famer — replaced. Two teams that toyed with dynasty talk got jarring wake-up calls. And one major underdog took a big bite out of the NCAA Tournament, putting a 99-year-old basketball-loving nun in the spotlight in the process. Here are our picks for Chicago’s top sports stories of 2018:
Bears quickly rebuild
The Bears got to work quickly, firing coach John Fox on New Year’s Day and hiring Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy as his replacement. Nagy’s arrival triggered a stunning ripple effect.
The Bears traded for outside linebacker Khalil Mack and made him the highest-paid defender in NFL history. With the addition of Mack and inside linebacker Roquan Smith, whom the Bears drafted eighth overall in the 2018 draft, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio put together one of the most feared defenses in the league.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky also has taken a major step forward in his first full season as a starter under Nagy’s guidance.
After three consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC North, the Bears secured their first playoff berth since 2010 by beating the Packers in Week 15 to claim the division title.
Bulls bounce Fred
One word best describes the Bulls in 2018: chaotic.
The Bulls drafted Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson in the first round of the draft; and then decided to seemingly waste $20 million on Jabari Parker — signing him in July, despite his statement he’s not paid to play defense.
The Bulls rebuild continues to sputter, beset by injuries to key players, including Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis.
Fred Hoiberg believed he would have the chance to coach a healthy team before the Bulls’ front office evaluated him. But the Bulls fired Hoiberg in December and replaced him with Jim Boylen.
Since Boylen took over, the Bulls barely avoided a small mutiny and have implemented a “leadership committee,” led by Zach LaVine.
Blackhawks in transition
The Blackhawks’ dominance seemingly has come to an end.
The Hawks missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade with star goalie Corey Crawford out for 10 months with a concussion.
In an offseason full of uncertainty, the Hawks did little to address any of their defensive issues.
Entering the 2018-19 season, coach Joel Quenneville knew his time was limited, but it came as a shock when general manager Stan Bowman decided to fire him just 15 games into the season. The Hawks replaced the future Hall of Famer with 33-year-old Jeremy Colliton.
Cubs gone wild
The Cubs’ 2018 season came to a sudden halt in a wild-card loss to the Colorado Rockies. The quick exit made their 95-win season disappointing and left manager Joe Maddon’s status in question.
The Cubs’ offense struggled down the stretch in part because Kris Bryant spent time on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. In the final two months of the season, the Cubs scored three or fewer runs in 29 of 56 games.
The Cubs also had two free-agent pitching whiffs in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. The Cubs lost Darvish, whom they signed in February to a six-year, $126 million deal, in May because of a shoulder injury that ultimately ended his season. Chatwood was demoted to the bullpen.
But the most substantive storyline revolving the Cubs came off the field as Addison Russell faced domestic-violence allegations from his ex-wife. The troubled shortstop is in the midst of a 40-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy.
Sox betting on Ricky
The White Sox had another roller-coaster season in 2018.
Jose Abreu was an All-Star, Adam Engel a Gold Glove finalist and top pitching prospect Michael Kopech showed promise in four major-league starts, but fans must wait until 2020 to see him on the mound again as he underwent Tommy John surgery.
After a 100-loss season in which the team set a major-league strikeout record (1,594), the Sox, who haven’t had a winning season since 2012, showed trust in manager Rick Renteria by giving him a contract extension.
With Renteria on board for the long haul and a stacked farm system developing young talent, executive vice president Ken Williams believes the time is now for the Sox to be aggressive.
Loyola meets March Madness
For the first time since 1963, Loyola not only reached the NCAA Tournament but managed a miraculous run to the Final Four.
The Ramblers became the ultimate Cinderella story in this year’s March Madness, hitting three consecutive last-second shots to advance in the first three rounds. The country also fell in love with Loyola’s basketball chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt.
Loyola’s magical run ended in San Antonio with a loss to Michigan.
The Ramblers’ postseason success earned coach Porter Moser a multi-year contract extension this summer and a competitive pay raise.
At the beginning of the 2018-19 season, Loyola said it didn’t want to be thought of as a “one-hit wonder,” but the Ramblers have yet to recreate any of their magic from last season.
NU goes big time
It was a big year for Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Less than eight months after Clayton Thorson tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the quarterback returned to the Wildcats despite his initial plans of declaring for the 2018 NFL Draft.
With Thorson in control, the Wildcats earned their first Big Ten West title.
While Northwestern couldn’t finish business and beat Ohio State in Indianapolis, the Wildcats did set a program record with eight consecutive road wins dating to last season.
One of the main questions entering the season was how the Wildcats would replace running back Justin Jackson. Luckily for them, freshman Isaiah Bowser stepped up, rushing for 796 yards on 174 carries and scoring six touchdowns along the way.
Notre Dame’s big season
Notre Dame went 12-0 in the regular season and earned a berth in the College Football Playoff.
It’s hard to say if the Irish would be in this position without coach Brian Kelly deciding to start junior quarterback Ian Book over senior Brandon Wimbush in Week 4.
Book, who has a quarterback rating of 162.5, has been outstanding for Notre Dame, passing for 19 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
The Irish’s undefeated season comes just two seasons after they finished 4-8. Kelly overhauled his staff, adding offensive coordinator Chip Long and promoting Clark Lea to defensive coordinator.
Kelly’s success earned him his second Associated Press College Football Coach of the Year honor.
Irish women national champs
After losing in the NCAA Tournament championship game four of the last seven seasons, Notre Dame women’s basketball team finally got the taste of what it’s like to be national champions in April.
Led by coach Muffet McGraw, the Irish narrowly survived their semifinal matchup against the University of Connecticut. They beat the Huskies by two points in overtime to advance to the championship game.
Notre Dame won its second women’s basketball national championship in another close battle, defeating Mississippi State 61-58.
For the 2018-19 season, the Irish have been ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll all season and are on course for their 26th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
IHSA gets controversial
After a close vote in December, Illinois High School Association member schools passed two controversial proposals that give the IHSA more power.
The IHSA will institute a districting system for football that will begin in the 2021 season, meaning longtime rivalries likely will end as conferences will be eliminated. The IHSA will determine playoff classes and break each class into eight- or nine-team districts based on enrollment and geography. Districts will be set for two years.
Also, the IHSA will now be in charge of determining whether transfers can enroll into Chicago Public Schools regardless of the sport.