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February 17, 2014

A 'championship' by any other word

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AUBURN | Auburn University currently claims two college football national championships. The University of Alabama claims to have won fifteen.

Both Notre Dame and the Michigan claim 11 national championships while Tennessee claims six and Mississippi claims three. Before you can discuss the merits of these claims and whether Auburn should claim additional titles, you must first explore an important question: What is a national championship?

To answer that question, you have to review college football history going back to the turn of the 20th century when the game became popular on a national scale. When only a small number of schools had teams, the winner of the Harvard-Yale game generally was considered the champion of college football.

Beginning in the 1890's, several sporting magazines and newspapers began ranking the Eastern teams. Regional champions often were named by newspapers and after 1900 certain southern newspapers would name a team the "Champion of the South," a title Auburn was given several times during the first two decades of the century.

Some in this state might say that the first national champions were the winners of the New Year's Day Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif., which pitted the Pacific Coast Conference champion against an Eastern team.

However, that's not the case.

In his book, "The Rose Bowl, 1902 - 1929," Charles Hibner explains that the bowl committee's contract with the PCC prohibited it from being referred to as a "national championship game" and further describes how in that early era the Eastern team that accepted the invitation often was the committee's second or third choice. Moreover, there were other notable bowl games during this early era that also matched teams from the East and West -- the Los Angeles Christmas Bowl, the San Diego East-West Bowl and Dallas's Dixie Classic -- but which did not survive.

While the early Rose Bowl games have historical importance, they were not a national championship game. There was no real recognition of a team as a national champion until in 1926 when Frank Dickinson, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, developed a mathematical formula for rating teams. Using Dickson's system, Jack Rissman, a Chicago manufacturer looking for publicity, created the Rissman Trophy and awarded the 1926 national championship to Stanford.

Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne then requested Dickinson name a champion for 1924 and 1925, which resulted in Notre Dame being named national champion for 1924. This made Notre Dame the first team to claim a "retroactive" national championship.

Soon after Dickinson published his rankings, a rush of competing systems developed. For example, Dick Dunkel published rankings beginning in 1929, former coach Parke Davis started naming a champion for each year beginning in 1932 (including retroactively to 1889) and the Helms Foundation named champions beginning in 1936 (including retroactively to 1892).

There were quickly many competing national championship "selectors" and often several teams were named national champion.

In 1929, former Auburn coach John Heisman argued that a true national champion could only be decided on the gridiron. He proposed the country be divided into four sections and that a champion of each section be chosen -- with the champion of the East playing the South and the Midwest playing the West. The two winning teams would then play for the national championship.

This plan, of course, never was put into action, though it is similar to the four-team championship playoff adopted for the 2014 season.

An alternative to the rating systems appeared in 1936 when the Associated Press developed a poll based on votes of sportswriters and broadcasters. The United Press International developed a competing poll in 1950 based on the votes of coaches. Though great importance has been given to the A.P. Poll and what is now the Coaches Poll, it has never been established that these human polls were more accurate than selectors using mathematical formulas. They were simply hyped by sports media.

Moreover, the poll results sometimes were controversial given allegations of favoritism, years in which the polls differed and because for many years champions were named before bowl game losses.

The perceived inadequacies of the human polls led to a resurgence in mathematical rating systems beginning in the 1970's, when emerging computer technology allowed for much more sophisticated statistical models. Richard Billingsley, whose computer formula was included in the BCS rankings, began publishing the Billingsley Report and named national champions going back to 1869. Jeff Sagarin published the Sagarin Ratings and named national champions back to 1919.

In an attempt to resolve problems inherent with teams being unable to play each other during the postseason due to alliances between bowls and conferences, the Bowl Championship Series was established in 1998 to pair the two top-rated teams.

Yet this did not solve the problem.

In 2003, LSU was the BCS champion while the A.P. Poll named USC. One year later, an undefeated Auburn team was left out of the BCS game. Finally, college football has come full circle, adopting in 2014 a version of the four-team playoff Heisman envisioned those many years ago.

So what does this review of history tell us about the idea of a national championship? Simply put, a national championship is in the eye of the beholder. The NCAA does not name a Division I football champion. Instead, there have been many selectors naming champions, both contemporary and retroactive, based on simplistic mathematical formulas, sophisticated computer models and even human popularity polls.

None of them can demonstrate objective accuracy and thus are each flawed in their own way. Moreover, the further back in time one goes, the more difficult it becomes to determine which of multiple teams was best in any year because there were few intersectional games and it's difficult to compare teams from different regions without common opponents.

Thus, for the pre-playoff period of college football from the 1800's through 2013, I believe it's best to refer to a team as a national champion rather than the national champion, reflecting the undeniable fact that almost every season has more than one team with a legitimate claim to the title of national champion.

Skotnicki holds a pair of degrees from Auburn University and currently resides in Birmingham, where he practices law. His book may be purchased at Amazon.com, J&M Bookstore in Auburn, Little Professor Book Center in Homewood, Ala., or by visiting his site at www.auburnsunclaimed.com. His Twitter handle is @MSkotnicki



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