Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Dubious Claims of National Championship

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


Anonymous said...

Great analysis, I really enjoyed it!

Anonymous said...

Boise State the true 2006 National Champions by the above logic.

Henry Louis Gomez said...

How do you figure?

Anonymous said...

Interesting overview of the (mythical) national championship, and it sure is fun to debate
But I was wondering what source you have that proves the Dickinson system was backdated pior to 1936? In my research I have found Dickinson’s All-American list & reporters using the Dickerson polls in 1926, 1927 & 28. In fact, I have a Birmingham Age-herald from 1925 that has his All-America list, but it doesn’t have a poll. So he may have backdated for 24 & 25, although my guess, he had probably done his system several years before making it public in 1926. Also Dick Dunkel, created a rating system in 1927 and it was widely(nationally) published in 1929 (1929-current)
other pre-1936 polls/systems
Boand system 1930-1960 - pre-dated 1919-1929
Houlgate 1927-1958
Litkenhous 1934-1984
Williamson 1932-1963

The grandfather of them all was Caspar Whitney who did polls for Outing magazine between 1904 & 1907
And the early Spalding journals carried polls by various folks usually ranking them by regions not nationally. And of course Parke Davis, who pre-dated 1869-1933, but if you read his early volumes, mainly his 1911 book “Football - The American Intercollegiate Game, he gives his opinion on the best teams of that year and before. So interest has been around for years, and it exploded right after WWI
Anyway cool overview and this is what makes college football the greatest sport!
In my opinion!!
Roll tide

Unknown said...

Wow there are so many inaccuracies with this 'analysis' that it's hard to grasp a starting point.

First, I love when rivals try to spin that Bama's NC claims from 25, 26, 30 and 34 aren't valid because they were awarded retroactively. Hello, there was no major polls until 1936, so 99% of NC claims for seasons prior to 1936 were retroactive claims. Michigan claims EIGHT NCs awarded retroactively, and Notre Dame in the 1930s even went so far as to ask Frank Dickinson to use his system to name a NC starting with the 1924 season, then immediately claimed that NC!

So anytime you see someone say a NC claimed for 1935 or earlier isn't valid simply because it was awarded retroactively, you are talking to someone that doesn't understand college football history.

Second, these articles always seem to make the 'well if my school counted NCs like Bama does...' point, and then they list every NC that the school has ever been awarded by any source, as if that's what Bama does. It is not, Alabama has been awarded well over TWENTY NCs, but as of 2011 only claims 14. Which leads to the third point.....

These posts always attempt to discredit Bama's claimed NCs, but they never address the validity of the several NCs that Bama does NOT claim. Why didn't the author mention Bama's 1966 season? Bama finished #3 in the polls, with an 11-0-0 record and waxing #6 Nebraska by 27 in the Orange. So why didn't Bama win the NC that year? Because in the final regular season game, #1 Notre Dame met #2 Michigan State. With approximately 2 minutes left in a tie game, Michigan State punted to Notre Dame, who received the ball with 2 mins left, near midfield. What did the 'Fighting Irish' do? They ran out the clock. Ara Parsegian ran out the clock, hoping that if he ended up with a tie against #2 MSU, that ND would stay #1 in the next poll. Both ND and MSU stayed #1 and #2 in the next poll, and BOTH schools refused to go to a bowl, and both ended the season in the same spot. Bama finished as the only undefeated and untied team in the nation.

What about the 1945 season? Army finished 9-0 and #1 in the AP poll, but Bama finished 10-0 and #2. According to the author's earlier logic about winning more games helping your NC claim, Bama should claim this year as well.

The point is, such posts as this aren't written from the point of view of being educational, they are typically written from the point of view of a rival fan that's trying to discredit Alabama's NCs. If you want to be truthful, then go ahead and say the 41 NC claim is bogus(It certainly is), but don't be so silly as to spin that NCs claimed before 1936 aren't valid simply because they were awarded retroactively, and don't totally ignore NCs that Bama COULD claim, but does not.

Just wanted to educate the author and his readers, and bring some actual facts to the discussion.

Henry Louis Gomez said...


If you're accusing us of anti-Bama bias, you are wrong. Both Mergz (who wrote the article) and I (the editor of this blog) think the whole idea of national championship in college football thus far has been a sham. Bama is given as an example of an egregious "claimant" of national championships, they by no means are the only ones.

The point is that national championships shouldn't be claimed. How can one retroactively claim a national championship in a sport that wasn't even national at the time? By your own admission, everybody does it. Does that make it legitimate?

College football was a regional game for decades. All of these attempts to crown champions retroactively or by popularity are a joke and that's what this series of posts is about.

Until and unless there is a more realistic system designed to crown a champion we think all of the claims are worth a warm bucket of spit, and that INCLUDES two BCS championships the Gators have won in the last decade.

Henry Louis Gomez said...

By the way, John. Did you read the whole series or just this one piece. If you read the whole series you'll see how we actually "claim" a title for Florida to show how ridiculous the whole practice is. Do Mergz or I really believe UF has been historically shorted one championship? I don't. There simply was no national championship at the time.