Editor's Note:Wednesday's post on UW retroactively declaring themselves national champions for 1960 generated a considerable amount of email response. Paul Westerdawg, over at Georgia Sports Blog, emailed me a considerable number of resources regarding "mythical" national champions. It turns out that this practice is far more widespread than I ever thought. Therefore, I've decided to chronicle the history of national championships. Specifically, fake national championships:
College football is a very different beast than any other sport. In some sense, all national champions are "mythical." Any time that you have a championship voted on instead of played for, you open it up for debate and ridicule. We've seen it all. We've seen teams that go undefeated have no shot at a national championship, as teams with a loss take the title over them (Boise State and Florida last year, being an example). We've had years with multiple undefeated teams, in which only one can take home the championship. And we've seen teams who couldn't even manage to win their own conference take home the title. While a simple playoff system would solve all the controversy surrounding the issue, we're left with 138 years of college football history to piece together based on skewed opinions.
In spite of the idiocy surrounding the national championship, we've had a consensus system for determining a national champion since 1936. It is important to note that although the NCAA recognizes championships before 1936, none of those titles were won at the time. They were awarded retroactively, by organizations put together to select champions in some cases sixty years after the season played out. For example, the Helms Athletic Foundation, which awards championships as far back as 1882, did not exist until 1936. Several of these retroactive polls exist, and consensus title are awarded based on having a majority of polls vote in your favor. That being said, pre-1936 championships aren't really disputed, and are recognized by the NCAA. So, while it is certainly questionable as to whether a foundation formed in 1936 is the best group to decide the national champion for 1882, we won't really take issue with any school claiming a national title from this era. They may not be the most legitimate thing ever, but they are both recognized and the general consensus.
After 1936, there was a different set of rules. Titles would be awarded contemporaneously by the AP. And this would be done until 1950, when the coaches began a poll. In 1998, the coaches poll became contractually obligated to vote for the BCS champion as their champion. So, since 1936, it has been the consensus that the AP and the coaches are the only legitimate awarders of national championships. We all know that this hasn't been without flaws, even in recent seasons, but that was even more the case before 1968, when the AP awarded its national championship before the bowls were played. That said, the rules are the rules, and, per the NCAA, only championship awarded by these two organizations are considered "legitimate."
That said, as we saw last weekend with UW, that hasn't stopped schools from claiming what is not rightfully theirs. In 1960, Minnesota was awarded the AP national championship. Washington finished sixth in the AP poll. Mississippi, also considered a legitimate national champion that year, was awarded the title by the coaches. Washington went on to beat #1 Minnesota in the Rose Bowl and finished the season with one loss. They are claiming the national championship based on the fact that the Helms Athletic Foundation voted them number one. The NCAA only recognizes Helms championships from the pre-1936 retroactive era. Even if UW wanted to claim the title based on their win over Minnesota, they still have the issue of Ole Miss having the title. Also Navy, who beat UW and finished ahead of them in the polls. Should UW go ahead with preliminary thoughs of claiming 1984 and 1990 national titles, they would be doing so based on the rankings of The National Championship Foundation (1984) and something called FACT (1990). These organizations are so memorable that I'm able to find nothing about them on the Internet. In short, Washington is trying to manufacture a football tradition that they don't have. That said, they are hardly the only school to do so.
Alabama would like to have you believe that they own 12 national football championships. They are indeed among the most storied programs in the history of the sport. However, their 1934 "retroactive era" title is not recognized by the NCAA. They also claim a 1941 national championship. However, Minnesota finished #1 in the AP poll that year. Alabama finished 20th in the AP. However, Alabama claims that title based on selectors "Dunkel, Williamson, and Football Thesaurus." Way to go, Alabama. They are also nice enough to let you know that they could claim five more if they wanted t.
I could go on. Georgia Tech claims the 1952 national championship based on something called the "Berryman Poll". Michigan State won both real polls that year. Ohio State claims a 1970 national title based on the National Football Foundation (HT, Jamootz). Nebraska and Texas split the legitimate polls that year. Most schools don't choose to claim these ridiculous titles, but a small number try to build up their tradition by doing so. It is beyond lame and pathetic, but what else would you expect from schools like Washington and Alabama? (FYI, you can get information about who won these obscure polls here.) Note to LSU fans: don't whine to me about USC taking home the AP title in '03. The AP title has been a legitimate title since 1936. I'll call SC's title fraudulent when you give back your 1958 AP title.
Bottom line: be an educated consumer of information. Pre-1936 title are sketchy at best. Anything after that not awarded by either the AP or coaches (UPI, USA/CNN, or BCS depending on the year), are illegitimate, and not worth recognition, regardless of what the school would have you believe. Especially when they're trying to claim them 47 years later. And saying that "its a flawed system," as Don James was quoted, doesn't cut it. If the system wasn't flawed, Oregon would have been playing for a national championship in 2001. Yet, you don't see us using that excuse to fly a 2001 national championship banner over Autzen.
UW is still lame. Its just that they're not alone in being lame. Of course, the NCAA could clear all this up in the future by dong the right thing and instituting a playoff, but we know that they're too stupid to do that.