Fourth in a series on the "National Championship"
In our last piece, we established that “National Championships” are based entirely on claims – not only the claim of the appointing entity, but the claim of the University. What they have never been based on is the authority of the governing entity – the NCAA.
Since the title “National Champion” is based largely on the assertion of the one claiming it, it follows that many of the claims are somewhat dubious.
In this exercise, we will first examine the processes in place for “National Championship” claims over the years, and whether they produced credible claims. Then, we will examine the widely held belief that The University of Alabama has “12 National Championships”. In doing so, do not be confused that this writer believes the “National or NCAA” Championship even exists (see “There is no National Championship”). Rather, to the extent a University claims a “National Title”, what is the strength of the evidence supporting that claim?
For example, Miami claims the 2001 “National Championship”. Since in that year every single known selector chose Miami, that can be considered a pretty strong “claim”. In 1991, however, only 14 of 45 selectors placed Miami number one in their final poll/process. Washington, considered the “co-champ” that year, had far more selectors. Thus, 1991 is a pretty weak “claim” for the “U”.
Without further ado –
The Early Years
At sites like the College Football Data Warehouse, there are “recognized National Champions” going back to 1869. However, prior the 1930’s, most of the National Championship claims are retroactive. What happened was this – starting in the 1930’s, the interest in college football was such that entities began creating processes of deciding who was “number 1”. Some such processes were mathematical, and starting in 1936, the AP created the first poll. Whatever the situation, the important point to remember is this – prior to about 1930, teams were totally unaware that the “National Championship” even existed. The teams certainly were not playing for it.
Take the example of the Dickinson System, devised by Frank Dickinson, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois. The system rated college teams. Dickinson mentioned his mathematical system in class one day, and the Daily Illini wrote about his system in an article. A wealthy Chicagoan, Jack Rissman, decided he would like to use Dickinson’s system to select the top team in the Big Ten each year for a special trophy. When Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne heard about this, he invited both Dickinson and Rissman to South Bend, and said “Why don’t you make it a national trophy that Notre Dame will have a chance to win?” Rockne also persuaded the duo to predate the whole thing several years, so the 1924 Irish of Four Horseman fame could be the first official champion.*
Presto! The 1924 Fighting Irish were National Champions, several years after the fact. Notre Dame, in fact, still considers this “backdated” 1924 Championship via the Dickinson system as their first.
So, any claim of a “National Championship” prior to the AP’s first poll of 1936 is highly suspect. Most of them are backdated or retroactive. This includes 3 of Notre Dames 11 titles, and four of Alabama’s 12. With the majority of the pre-1936 titles being awarded to Princeton or Yale anyway, no one very much cares.
The Pre Bowl Years
From 1936 to the mid 1960’s, the AP (and later the UPI) awarded their number one rankings before the bowl games were played. Modern college football fans would probably be shocked to hear this, but that was the way it was done. After 1968 (and for a single year in 1965), the AP began releasing its final rankings after the bowl games (the UPI much later). However, there were a number of teams that were crowned AP champion prior to this time, but subsequently lost their bowl games. They are –
1943 Notre Dame – Actually, ND didn’t lose it’s bowl game this year – they didn’t play in one. However, they lost their final game to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center located in Chicago, 19-14. After the game, Coach Leahy said “You are still champions to me, boys”, and the AP agreed. Purdue at least went undefeated that year at 9-0, and is considered by some selectors as “National Champion”
1950 Oklahoma – an undefeated Sooner team lost the 1950 Sugar Bowl to Kentucky 13-7. Tennessee was also undefeated that year, and has the better claim.
1951 Tennessee – UT lost the Sugar Bowl to Maryland 28-13. They are considered co-champions by some, as the Vols got the AP nod before losing to Maryland. Maryland, however, was undefeated in 1951, and beat UT, so their claim is superior.
1953 Maryland – Maryland lost the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma 7-0. Notre Dame’s 9-0-1 team of that year has the superior claim.
1960 Minnesota – the Gophers lost the Rose Bowl 17-7 to Washington. Mississippi was undefeated in 1960, and should be the sole claimant.
1964 Alabama – the Tide got the AP number one prior to losing the Orange Bowl to Texas 21-17. Arkansas, undefeated that year, is the superior claim.
1965 Michigan State – the Spartans fell to UCLA in the Rose Bowl 14-12. Alabama was 9-1-1 this year. Perhaps this should be considered the “Year without a National Champion”.
The Modern Era
Since 1968 at least, most of the selecting entities have made their final decision after the bowl games. However, with multiple selectors, we have had, repeatedly, the awkward situation of “co-national champions”.
Rather than recite a list of the “split” championships of the modern era, which are well known to most readers, here is a list of champions since 1968 that were unanimous by all selectors –
1971 – Nebraska
1995 – Nebraska
2001 – Miami
2005 – Texas
And that is it. Those are the only 4 years that the strength of team named convinced all of the selectors of their merit. In every other single year, a least one selector chose someone other than the “recognized” National Champion. Now, some of those selectors may not themselves be widely recognized, and in some years, the “National Champion” had a very strong claim (like FSU in 1999 where they got all but 2 of the selectors).
But the debate is there. Until such time, that is, as the NCAA chooses to end it.
The Alabama Case
Alabama is “well known” for having won 12 “National Championships” during their storied past. Just Google “Alabama” and “12 National Championships”, and see how many hits you get. The 12 National Championships of Alabama are an established point of Crimson Tide lore.
But how accurate are those 12 titles? More correctly, how solid is Alabama’s claim to 12 titles?
Not very solid as it turns out.
Let us examine each claimed “National Championship” at Alabama (according to the school’s own media guide), the basis for the claims, and whether they are solid claims or not. Below is each of the claimed titles, the Tide’s record, the basis of the claim, and commentary.
1. 1925 – Record 10-0: Selectors – Football Annual, Helms.
Commentary – Alabama was one of two prominent undefeated teams this year (the other was Dartmouth at 8-0). It appears that all of the “selectors” for both schools are backdated, as no one was picking “National Champions” at this point. Helms, in particular, began retroactively picking “National Champions” beginning in 1941. I submit that any pre-1936 claims are dubious.
Conclusion: Iffy – claim was backdated.
2. 1926 – Record 9-0-1: Selectors –Helms.
Commentary – Four teams claim “National Titles” this year – Alabama, Stanford (10-0-1), Lafayette (9-0) and Navy (9-0-1). Once again, we are dealing with pre-1936 claims. We also know as a Helm’s claim it is backdated.
Conclusion: Dubious at best. 3 other schools have equally valid claims.
3. 1930 – Record 10-0: Selectors – Davis (tie)
Commentary – Once again, a pre-1936 claim. Plus, since Davis didn’t start publishing until 1934, the claim is backdated. Add in the fact that Davis also choose 10-0 Notre Dame (as a so-called tie), and that the vast majority of selectors that have backdated this year also choose Notre Dame, Alabama’s claim of one half of a selector is unconvincing.
Conclusion: Very dubious.
4. 1934 – Record 10-0: Selectors – Dunkel, Williamson, Football Thesaurus
Commentary – Minnesota (8-0) and Pittsburgh (8-1) also claim titles this year. Dunkel, which choose Alabama, actually was in existence by 1934. Dunkel was using a mathematical power rating to rank teams. The other two team’s titles appear backdated.
Conclusion: Reasonably solid for pre-1936.
5. 1941 – Record 9-2: Selectors – Football Thesaurus
Commentary – 2 loss Alabama should be ashamed to claim 1941 as a “National Title”. Both Minnesota (8-0) and Texas (8-1-1) had better records. The vast majority of selectors, both of the past and the back daters, have chosen Minnesota this year. In fact, in the present for the multitude of selectors ranking 1941, only the long defunct Football Thesaurus (also known as the Houlgate system) chose Alabama. What 2 loss team has ever been "National Champion"?
Conclusion: Ridiculous – ‘Bama should be ashamed.
6. 1961 – Record 11-0: Selectors – All but Football Writers
Commentary – The vast majority of selectors chose Alabama, but the Football Writers chose an 8-0-1 Ohio State.
Conclusion: Very solid.
7. 1964 – Record 10-1-0: Selectors – AP, UPI
Commentary – Arkansas ended 1964 at 11-0, winning their bowl game, while Alabama lost the Orange Bowl. This was one of the last years of the AP choosing before the bowl games. Arkansas should be recognized as the 1964 “National Champion”. (Interestingly, the Alabama media guide has incorrect information for 1964, and does not mention Arkansas at all, when they mention claimants from other years. The vast majority of modern selectors choose Arkansas.)
Conclusion: Highly dubious – the Tide lost their last game.
8. 1965 – Record 9-1-1: Selectors – AP, Football Writers.
Commentary – Michigan State went 10-1 in 1965, but lost the Rose Bowl. The majority of selectors still choose Michigan State.
Conclusion: Somewhat solid – 1965 should probably have no “National Title” claimant.
9. 1973 – Record 11-1-0: Selectors – UPI
Commentary – Notre Dame was 11-0 in 1973, and every selector (including the AP) but the UPI chose the Irish. Why the Irish? Because Notre Dame BEAT Alabama in the Sugar Bowl that year 24-23. However, the UPI poll had been taken BEFORE the Sugar Bowl was played. Once again, Alabama should be ashamed beyond belief to claim 1973 as a “National Championship”. Notre Dame also claims 1973, and they deserve to.
Conclusion: Ridiculous – they lost the Sugar Bowl to Notre Dame.
10. 1978 – Record 11-1-0: Selectors – All but UPI, Sporting News.
Commentary – USC went 11-1 in 1978, and was chosen by the UPI and Sporting News. Alabama’s one loss? To USC, in Birmingham, on September 23! USC, however, lost to less highly regarded Arizona State. This is a difficult year to sort out, as Alabama had “the better loss”, but they lost to the other claimant.
Conclusion: Somewhat solid, or as solid as any modern “split” title ever is.
11. 1979 – Record 12-0-0: Selectors – Virtually All
Commentary – The undefeated Crimson Tide of 1979 were probably the nation’s best team.
Conclusion: Very solid.
12. 1992 – Record 13-0-0: Selectors – Virtually All
Commentary – Stallings undefeated team routed Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl.
Conclusion: Very solid – the best claim Alabama has.
Summary – As you can see, Alabama has been very aggressive in claiming, and marketing, “National Titles”. By this analysis, Alabama’s “National Title” claims break down as follows –
Solid, reasonably solid or somewhat solid – 5 Titles
Solid, as far as “split titles” are solid – 1 Title
Dubious or Iffy – 4 Titles
Ridiculous, they ought to be ashamed – 2 Titles
Alabama, were they being honest, would claim no more than 6 national titles. If Alabama doesn’t mind counting backdated or dubious titles, they could claim perhaps 9 or 10. Two of their so called titles are patently ridiculous.
Now, before all the Tide fans of the world start moaning, consider if Florida was using the same claiming system for “National Titles” as Alabama. Florida would have not one title, or not even two – Florida would have 3.
Under the “Alabama system”, Florida’s resume would read as –
1. 1984 – Record 9-1-1: Selectors – The majority of selectors, including Dunkel, Sagarin, The Sporting News and The New York Times.
2. 1996 – Record 12-1: Selectors – Virtually All.
3. 1985 – Record 9-1-1: Selectors – Steve Eck.
Who the hell is Steve Eck, you ask? Well, Eck created a rating system in the 1980’s, and chose Florida as his 1985 “National Champions”.
I don’t know much about Eck. Heck, I don’t even care to know much. But if one selector is all it takes, Alabama has shown us (in 1930, 1941and 1973) that it is good enough.
The Florida Gators – 3 time “National Champions”, per the “Alabama system”.
And you can bet that were more colleges as aggressive as Alabama in claiming titles, there would be far more titles than years ever played college football.
* Credit: Notre Dame Media Guide
Next: The BCS doesn't work
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Fourth in a series on the "National Championship"