Friday, November 09, 2007

You Can Have Your History

So the Billy Gillispie era at Kentucky basketball didn’t get off to quite the start Wildcat fans hoped for. You always have to be wary of those Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs (their actual name), especially at Rupp.

In the amusing coaching search conducted by Kentucky last year that landed Gillispie, a common refrain of delusional Kentucky fans was UK basketball needed to “get back to where they deserve to be.”

I’ve got a bit of advice for you Wildcat basketball fans – in a competitive endeavor like sports, you end up exactly where you deserve to be. You are what you are.

That applies to you too Notre Dame football.

Part of the aura of sports in America is the histories surrounding the traditionally premier programs. As we grow up sporting fans, we are fed the legends by a number of sources, but primarily from two – our parents and the sports media. Like our mature selves, these groups both have biases based on experience. However, their experiences are, for the most part, irrelevant to the present.

Take Beano Cook, Notre Dame-o-phile extraordinaire. Beano was born in 1931, so in his lifetime experience Notre Dame is the 6th most winning program. More importantly, during his formative sports years (the first 20 from 31’ to 50’), Notre Dame was the most winning program in the country at 142-33-12. (Of course, Princeton did win the title in 1993, when Mr. Cook was 2 years old. It didn’t seem to have much an impression on him at that point.)

Thus we are saddled with the continuing early bias of a commentator like Cook towards the presently virtually irrelevant status of the Irish. When it comes to misguided forecasting, this gem from Cook dated May 1, 2006 may hold no equals (from Insider) –

Meyer faces tougher title road than Weis

May 1, 2006 - Beano Cook

The story goes that one reason Urban Meyer decided to accept the head football coaching job at Florida, instead of Notre Dame, was the myth that it would be easier for the Gators to win the national title than the Fighting Irish.

And that, as it turns out, is what it is -- a myth.

At this stage, it seems easier to raise the national championship flag in South Bend than in Gainesville.

It's truly unbelievable that Notre Dame has not won a national title since 1988.

While Cook is largely praiseworthy of the Gators in the article, his Notre Dame bias shows strongly.

As Cook points out in the article, Notre Dame is now 20 years removed from its last “national” title. Truly unbelievable, he says.

Well, there was a time when Army won “national” titles too, four of them in fact. Yet, no one cites the “truly unbelievable” fact that Army has not won a national title since 1946. Nor the fact that the most “recognized” national titles belong Princeton and Yale, ahead of Notre Dame.

Princeton, Army and yes, even Notre Dame (right now), are not relevant to the national scene. Times change. Teams change. Only old sports commentators remain the same.

What are the relevant teams? Well like Mr. Cook, that depends on your timeframe. If you are roughly 40 (my era), your personal impression of college football dominance has likely been formed over the past 30 years (since you were 10). The top 5 teams (by winning percentage) for a 40 year old are –

40 Year Old’s Top Teams (past 30 years)*

1 Nebraska
2 Florida State
3 Miami-Florida
4 Michigan
5 Ohio State

This explains in large part why Nebraska’s current season, or Michigan’s loss to Appalachian State, are so shocking to us. Many of the top sport casters and commentators are around this era. They simply cannot fathom a Nebraska team so uncompetitive. Likewise, the current malaise surrounding FSU and Miami seems so out of place.

To my generation, Florida as a dominant team is a reasonably recent affair, as they rank 12th overall during this time frame. I can clearly recall when the Gators were terrible (0-10-1 in 79’).

Also to my 40 something generation, Notre Dame has a winning percentage that places them 17th. A solid team, but not dominant by any means.

Generational positioning can also influence your view of conferences and rivals. For my group of Gator fans, Florida has won 23% (7 of 30) of the possible SEC Championships (that they let us keep, anyway), and the Florida-Georgia record (1977-2007) is 18-13 in Florida’s favor. We remember well the Bulldogs of the 80’s.

The generation just younger than mine sees it a little different –

30 Year Old’s Top Teams (past 20 years)*

1 Florida State
2 Miami-Florida
3 Nebraska
4 Michigan
5 Tennessee
6 Florida

To this group that exited college in the late 90’s, the dominance of the Florida teams was assumed, including the Gators. And while Notre Dame ranks 11th in winning percentage (not including this year), their sole “national title” to this group came when they were 11 years old in 1988. FSU, Miami, Nebraska and Florida are the multiple “national” title winners to this age group.

Also, a word on Alabama at this point. Although ‘Bama scored a “national” title in 1992, to today’s 30 year olds they are a below top tier program, ranked 23rd in winning percentage since 1987. Sure all those “national titles” look good on monuments, but most are not very current.

For Gator fans of this generation, Florida has won 35% (7 of 20) possible SEC titles. Georgia has truly been on the wrong side of this Florida generation’s, with the Gators holding a 15-6 record.

What about today’s 20 year olds, or those currently in college? This group that is just cementing their notions of college football programs and their place in the national order. Which teams will they hold in high regard when they become the sportswriters and commentators (or bloggers) of tomorrow?

Well, here is their list

20 Year Old’s Top Teams (past 10 years)*

1 Texas
2t Boise State
2t Ohio State
4 Michigan
5 Miami-Florida
6 Georgia
7 Florida State
8 Virginia Tech
9t Florida
9t Tennessee

No Nebraska here (they are 11th), nor Oklahoma (12th). Even USC is 13th, and very much the come-lately team to them.

As for the stalwarts of their grandparents?

Notre Dame – 31st
Penn State – 32nd
Alabama – 48th

In the “sporting” lifetimes (10 years) of twenty year olds, the following teams all have better winning percentages than the Irish, the Nittany Lions, or the Crimson Tide –

Marshall – 14th
Toledo – 18th
Louisville – 20th
TCU – 22nd
Utah – 23rd
Miami of Ohio – 24th
Southern Miss – 25th
South Florida – 29th
Colorado State – 30th

They probably wonder what the fuss is about for teams like Notre Dame, Penn State and Alabama. National titles, such that they occurred even in their lifetimes, came when they were 1 (ND in 88’) or 7 (‘Bama 92’). Those teams are about as relevant to them as Michigan State (winner of the 1966 “national” title when I was just born) currently is to my generation.

For Florida fans of this generation, last year’s “national” title aside, their SEC prominence has actually slipped to 20% of possible SEC titles. But they are still a nice 8-3 over Georgia.

History is all and well, and knowing where you came from (sporting wise) is important. It is also all a matter of perspective. I’ll take the here and now over anything my team might have done decades ago.

Because after awhile, celebrating your grandparents victories must grow stale.

* All data through end of 2006 season.


The Fake Gimel said...

The Runnin' Bulldogs were who we THOUGHT THEY WERE! AND WE LET THEM OFF THE HOOK!

Wait, that doesn't really apply; they were never on the hook the whole game.

I don't understand your advice to Kentucky basketball fans. You say that the "delusional Kentucky fans" think Kentucky needs to "get back to where they deserve to be". Then yous state that the program "end[s] up exactly where you deserve to be. You are what you are." Then you go on to talk about traditional football schools and how the generational perception affect what we fans find as powerhouse programs. Powerhouse FOOTBALL programs. I'm almost positive that its just football wins, since I don't see UCLA, Kansas, UNC, IU, or any of the other basketball programs up there.

In the last 10 years, the basketball Wildcats have averaged 26 wins per season. I'm sure that's near the top of most programs for that time period. In the last 20 years -- including the years UK was on probation and had NCAA tournament games erased -- they still averaged nearly 26 wins per season (25.85 - 517 wins). Plus 3 NCAA Tournament championships. (Source:

Since you don't talk about college basketball in your stats, I'm confused at your "you are what you are" declaration at the top of the column. Do you mean to imply that Kentucky basketball, like Notre Dame football, is not perceived by younger generations as a powerhouse? Are you saying the Kentucky fans are delusional because Kentucky's recent record indicates that they ARE "where they deserve to be?" Its not really clear.

Henry Gomez said...

I may be wrong but I think Mergz was trying to say that UK basketball was just fine under Tubby Smith. In the quest to get the program "where it's supposed to be" they perhaps lost sight of what they were. A very good program, as you indicate.