where the writers are







Why USC?

            In a book titled College Football’s All-Time Top 25 Traditions, why is USC ranked number one? Why not Notre Dame? If the general public were polled, the Fighting Irish would almost surely be number one. In a vote of college football writers and broadcasters, they probably would garner the top spot. The fact is that if USC’s alumni were asked to vote on this, Notre Dame would get a very substantial number of votes, if not the majority.

            Then of course, there is Alabama . . . Oklahoma . . . Michigan . . . the old stand-byes of college football. Whose to say that ‘Bama, the school of Bear Bryant, the greatest college football coach ever, a program that has personified excellence since the 1920s, is not the best of the best?


Bowl win-loss records Teams that have won national championships since World War I


1. Southern California                        29-16

2. Alabama                                    30-21-3

3. Penn State                                    25-12-2

4. Oklahoma                                    24-15-1

5. Georgia Tech                                    22-13

6. Florida State                                     21-13-2

7. Georgia                                     23-16-3

8. Tennessee                                     24-22

9. Mississippi                                     19-12 (through 2004) 

10. Auburn                                     18-13-2 

11. Miami                                    19-14

12. Texas                                     23-21-2

13. Syracuse                                     12-9-1 (through 2004)

14. Nebraska                                    22-22

15. Washington                         15-14-1

16. Louisiana State                         19-18-1

17. Clemson                                    14-14 (through 2004) 

18. UCLA                                     13-14-1

19. Michigan                                     18-20

19. Ohio State                                    18-20

20. Florida                                     16-18

22. Texas A&M                         13-15 (through 2004) 

22. Notre Dame                         *13-15

24. California                                    8-8-1                       

25. Colorado                                     12-14 (through 2004) 

26. Stanford                                      9-10-1

27. Maryland                                      8-10-2 (through 2004) 

28. Illinois                                      6-8 (through 2004)

29. Minnesota                                      5-7

30. Michigan State                        7-10

31. Pittsburgh                                    10-14

32. Army                                    2-2 

33. Texas Christian                                7-13-1 (through 2004)  

34. Brigham Young                        7-15-1 (through 2004) 

35. Arkansas                                     11-21-3 


*Holds NCAA record, most consecutive bowl losses (9), 1994-2006


Others - bowl percentage (more than 10 games through 2005)


Utah                                                .727

Toledo                                                .700

Boston College                                    .647


            How can you argue against Oklahoma? Their 47-game winning streak, a decade (the 1950s) that defies logic, a godlike coach (Bud Wilkinson); more otherworldly streaks in the 1970s and 1980s; Heismans, Outland Trophies, Butkus and Lombardi winners . . . it goes on and on.

            Then you have Michigan. The Wolverines have the most collegiate victories of  all time, the best winning percentage of all time, have been ranked in the Associated Press polls the most of all time; how do you argue against that?

            Surely any book that argues in favor of the University of Southern California must be biased. Maybe, but it still comes down to the same thing at the end of the day. USC is number one! Is it biased if, after engaging in the most exhaustive possible research, turning over every rock of football history, exploring each aspect of every great tradition over the course of 100, 120, 130 years; applying logic, common sense and knowledge; if after all that the facts lead to Southern California, is it biased not to call it as it is: Southern California: number one!


Read this book cover to cover. Go over every fact, ever statistic: national championships, legitimate national championships, Heisman trophies, all-time records, bowl records, All-Americans, Outland, Lombardi, Butkus winners, poll rankings, poll streaks, winning streaks, College Hall of Famers, Pro Hall of Famers, first round draft picks, number one draft picks, pro draft choices, pro players, Super Bowl players . . .

            Then add to that an exhaustive detailing of the greatest teams by single season, by two seasons, by three seasons, by five seasons, by individual decades, by multiple decades, ten to fifteen seasons, twenty to twenty-five seasons . . .

            . . . By streaks, by runs over twenty games, thirty games, forty games, seventy games, 110 games, 150 games, 190 games . . .

            By greatest dynasties, by “close but no cigar” close calls . . .

            Weigh all of this against what President Ronald “The Gipper” Reagan used to call the “sweep of history,” carefully comparing eras: leather helmets, no face masks, segregation versus integration; national schedules, inter-sectional games, the TV era, the BCS, big money, recruiting; steroids, modern diet, training and coaching; drafting of underclassmen, specialization, competition, scholarship limits . . .

            So, here is the deal. Ranking USC number one may be biased. The dear reader may disagree with it and offer completely valid arguments on behalf of another tradition. That being said, one thing that can not be said is that the rankings were arrived at without the most thorough, complete and total research that could have been done. That would not be a valid argument!

            In the end, after all the statistics, the weighing of the evidence, after all the logic and common sense has been used up, after all the eras are compared, the “theories of relativity” are applied, two factors stand out above all the rest, and arguing against it is non-sensical:


·      Winning national championships is the primary motivating goal of the teams, and therefore the primary determining factor in the rankings.

·      More value is placed on achievements of the modern era than the by-gone one.




Let us start with national championships. Before any of that, back when kids start playing pee wee football, then Pop Warner football, then JV ball, high school ball, college ball; all through this period of time, if the kid is a red-blooded American and not playing in some Communist “feelgood” league run by New York City outcome-based education pimps, then the purpose was to win; to win games, then win the league, then win the play-offs. The coaches stressed it, the players strived for it, and if the parents did not believe in it then the kids played soccer. If they played football they played to win, because as Vince Lombardi once said, “ winning’s not everything, it’s the only thing.”

            High school rolled around. They played for the Pacific League title, the Oklahoma district and then state championship, the Texas AAAAA title at the Astrodome or UT; the prep titles of Nebraska or South Dakota or Arizona. Win state. Go for it. Be perfect. We’re number one!

            USA Today was invented. People hardly read it, called it “McNewspaper.” Then they started national rankings of high school baseball, basketball, football . . . Sales soared. Whose number one?

            Student Sports magazine, rivals.com, you name it, they all have their lists, their rankings. Whose number one? The national champion of high school football? One California school, De La Salle, became a nationwide name because they won 151 straight games and four national championships in the modern age of the USA Today rankings. An anonymous school in Long Beach, Poly High, is not anonymous anymore. Sports fans from coast to coast know about the battle for national supremacy between De La Salle, Poly, Mater Dei, Moeller, Punahou, Carroll, Jenks, Everett, Clovis West, Mission Viejo, Massillon; all playing for the national championship. Games are scheduled, road trips made, stadiums jammed with fans as the top teams vie for the number one ranking from September to December every year.

            So it goes. The junior colleges play for their national championship. Division III, II, NAIA; they all have their version of it. They all play for it. It is what counts at the end for everybody.

            So, when factoring in all the criteria needed to determine college football tradition, national championships – that most elusive of all prizes, perhaps in all of sports when it comes right down to it – is the primary motivation. Few if any discussions in sports take up more time, space, energy and politicking than the yearly jockeying for the number one spot; in the pre-season, during the season, when the BCS comes out, and of course in those all-important last weeks. Then, finally in January. It has been fought over more than Israel, sought after as the Holy Grail. More angst and joy has gone into attaining it or being denied it than any single event.


Consensus All-Americans (through 2004 unless otherwise indicated) From teams that have won national championships since World War I


1. Notre Dame                                                96 (through 2006)

                                                            176 first team, 76 second team (through 2006)

2. Southern California                                    78 (through 2006)

                                                            143 first team (through 2006)                       

3. Michigan                                                73 (through 2005)

                                                            121 first team (through 2005)                                   

4. Ohio State                                                71

                                                            171 first team (through 2005)

5. Oklahoma                                                63 (through 2005)

                                                            141 (through 2005)

6. Nebraska                                                53 (through 2005)

                                                            106 first team (through 2005)

7. Pittsburgh                                                48

8. Texas                                                42

                                                            118 all services (through 2005)

9. Alabama                                                38 (through 2006)

                                                            104; 92 first team, honored 103 (through 2005)

10. Miami                                                37

                                                            81 all services (through 2005)

11. Tennessee                                                36

11. Army                                                36

13. Penn State                                                 34

14. UCLA                                                 33

15. Minnesota                                                32

16. Colorado                                                28

17. Stanford                                                26

17. Georgia                                                26

17. California                                                26

17. Michigan State                                    26

21. Florida State                                    25

21. Auburn                                                25

23. Florida                                                23

24. Louisiana State                                    22

24. Illinois                                                22

26. Georgia Tech                                    20

26. Washington                                                20

26. Texas A&M                                                20  

29. Arkansas                                                19 

29. Syracuse                                                19

31. Clemson                                                16

32. Texas Christian                                    13

33. Brigham Young                                    12

33. Maryland                                                12

34. Mississippi                                                9


            The BCS controversy of <ED: USE ’03 AND ‘ ON THESE YEARS FOR STYLE> ‘03. The “Catholic vote” of ’66, or was that the integration vote? “Nixon’s vote” in ’69. Vote against Joe Pa. Vote for him. The AP’s pre-bowl vote of ‘64, the UPI’s pre-bowl vote of ‘73. The sentimental-Bear-Bryant vote, the make-up-for-Michigan-not-getting-it-last-time vote. The split titles, the co-national championships, those considered to be “legitimate in historical retrospect.”

            Either way you cut it, it is what they play for, sweat for, die for. So, winning national championships trumps all other factors; all-time wins, All-Americans, bowl records, winning streaks . . .

            Furthermore, all national championships were not created equal. Penn’s national title of 1895, Chicago’s 1905 triumph, Washington going all the way in 1913, are not as impressive as Notre Dame’s 1947 championship, USC’s 1962 return to glory, Florida’s walk through fire in 2006. There are several factors to consider in giving weight and credence to these various seasons.




An unbeaten, untied season trumps a once-beaten or once-tied year. Victory in a bowl game is generally, although not always, worthier than a team that did not play in a bowl. This was a factor until 1966, the last year a national champion (Notre Dame) won the title without going to a bowl. It caused havoc, especially in Alabama, but that is another story. Bowl games were virtually non-existent until January 1, 1916, when Washington State beat Brown, 14-0 in the Rose Bowl. The first Rose Bowl, a 49-0 Michigan whitewashing of West Coast upstart Stanford on January 1, 1902, convinced the nation that football was an Eastern or Midwestern affair; and the Tournament of Roses committee that they would be better served by chariot races, at least until 1916.

            Until World War II, national championships and bowl victories were not always synonymous with each other. The best team in the country, Notre Dame, chose not to play in them because they traveled so much during the regular season. After the 1924 Irish won the national championship on the strength of victory (again over Stanford) in the third year of the new Rose Bowl stadium, they won a series of titles sans bowl games. So did Michigan and Minnesota. But Southern California, Alabama, Texas Christian, Pittsburgh and other programs did join the party, largely on the strength of impressive victories first in the Rose Bowl, and then in the late 1930s, Southern New Year’s Day spectacles at the Cotton Bowl (Dallas), Orange Bowl (Miami) and Sugar Bowl (New Orleans).


Bowl Championship Series national championships (1998-2006)


Southern California                        1, 2004 (2 BCS/2004-05; 1-1)

Oklahoma                                    1, 2000 (3 BCS/2000-03-04; 1-2)

Florida State                                    1, 1999 (3 BCS/1998-99-2000; 1-2)

Ohio State                                    1, 2002 (2 BCS/2002-06; 1-1)

Miami                                                1, 2001 (2 BCS/2001-02; 1-1)

Florida                                                1, 2006

Texas                                                1, 2005

Tennessee                                    1, 1998

Louisiana State                                    1, 2003 (*split/Southern California – AP)


*Southern California was ranked number one in all polls – Associated Press and USA

TODAY/BCS – prior to the bowl games. After defeating Michigan in the Rose Bowl USC was crowned national champions by the AP. The USA TODAY/BCS poll was bound by prior contract to award the national championship to Louisiana State.  


            The Big 10 had a “no-repeat” rule, preventing their champions from going to the Rose Bowl two consecutive years. It hurt the conference. In 1966, if Michigan State had gone to the Rose Bowl and beaten USC, who Notre Dame had beaten a month earlier, they may have overtaken the Irish. They had tied them in November. If the conference lifted the “no-repeat” rule and the AP waited until January to vote (as they did just one year earlier), the Spartans may well have been the national champions of 1966. They certainly had no chance to impress anybody sitting around East Lansing watching Purdue strap it on against Southern Cal. Other conferences, seeing the damage done to the Big 10 over the years, had already rescinded their “no-repeat” rules.

            Then there are the “national championships” won after bowl losses. If ever there has been a bone of contention, it was this conundrum, which like the elephant in the corner hovered over collegiate football for decades. For absolutely no good reason ever proposed, neither the Associated Press, the United Press International, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, not to mention the American Civil Liberties Union, ever changed the policy; at least not until such egregious injustices were done that time has not healed them. Hopefully this book will shed truth and justice on the abominable awarding of “national championships” to Oklahoma in 1950, Tennessee in 1951, Maryland in 1953, Minnesota in 1960, Alabama in 1964; and at least the UPI version which puts forth the notion that the 1965 Michigan State Spartans, 1970 Texas Longhorns and 1973 Alabama Crimson Tide (again) were . . . “national champions.”

            Each of these teams was voted number one by polls in “final votes” prior to bowl losses; some by close margins, some by larger margins, but all punctuated by the stinging rebuke of defeat.

            Now, according to the kind of logic that when uttered, shows itself as stupidity simply by its self-existence, there were those who argued that the bowls were exhibitions, a reward for a good effort with no consequence on the season. In 1962, USC wrapped up the national championship with a 10-0 regular season record. According to many Trojans, coach John McKay varied his approach to the upcoming Rose Bowl with Wisconsin.

            “It was considered a reward,” said receiver Hal Bedsole. “ We didn’t even use all our allotted practice days.”

            While this may have been true, anybody who knew McKay knew that he wanted to beat Wisconsin every bit as much as he wanted to beat Notre Dame or UCLA. He was a master psychologist. In his mind, the season was a long one, the players were drained from hard work beginning with August pre-season camp, and the lighter pre-bowl approach was not meant to convey a laizzes faire attitude. Rather it was designed to reinvigorate his troops mentally and physically for a big game that was in all ways different from the regular grind.

            Then there was Wisconsin: unbeaten, untied, ranked number two. The game was immediately installed as a “national championship game.” The Badgers came to Pasadena with every intention of beating the Trojans and returning to Madison number one. There was nary consideration given to the AP or UPI polls being closed. The game was for the national championship. They knew it. The Big 10 saw it that way, saw it as a chance to revive conference glory which had been slipping recently.


Associated Press - back-to-back national champions.


Minnesota                                    1940-41

Army                                                1944-45

Notre Dame                                    1946-47

Oklahoma                                    1955-56

Alabama                                    *1964-65

Nebraska                                    1970-71

Oklahoma                                    @1974-75

Alabama                                    1978-79

Nebraska                                    1994-95

Southern California                          2003-04


*Lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl, but the AP’s final poll was conducted prior

to the bowl games. In 1965 the AP voted after the bowl games, giving Alabama – winner of the Orange Bowl over Nebraska – the “national championship” over Michigan State, ranked number one entering their Rose Bowl loss to UCLA. The AP reverted back to pre-bowl final polling between 1966-69, but in 1970 began to poll after the bowls. This has been their practice ever since. Michigan State was awarded the 1965 “national championship” by United Press International. They reversed the practice of final pre-bowl polling after the 1973 season, when Alabama was again named “national champions” despite losing the Sugar Bowl to AP national champion Notre Dame.


@On NCAA probation, did not play a bowl game. Oklahoma split the national championship with Southern California (UPI), winners over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. 


In 1940, Minnesota split with Stanford, who was awarded the national championship by various other ranking services that are recognized as legitimate until the end of World War II.


In 1970, Nebraska split with Texas, declared “national champion” by the UPI’s vote

prior to their Cotton Bowl loss to Notre Dame.


In 1978, Alabama won the AP and Southern California the UPI national championship.

Both teams had one-loss records and won their bowl games, but in their head-to-head regular season match-up at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, Southern California defeated Alabama.


            Sports columnist Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times, and the media in general made it abundantly clear that a loss to Wisconsin meant the loss of the national championship. The concept that a Trojan defeat was okay because they still had that consolation AP plaque was utterly ludicrous. The game was played, and of course McKay’s lighter approached worked exactly as he hoped it would. By the fourth quarter Troy led, 42-14. But Badger quarterback Ron VanderKelen’s amazing comeback effort almost wiped the lead away. What USC saw slipping away when Wisconsin closed to within 42-37 was not just an “exhibition game,” but the national title. When they held and won, it was theirs. Had the Trojans lost, would they have counted 1962 as their “fifth national championship,” proudly displaying the plaque in Heritage Hall along with those commemorating 1928, 1931, 1932, 1939, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1978, 2003 and 2004? Maybe. It is possible.

            It is not likely.

            Perhaps because they have won more than anybody, they have no need to. That is why they would have done the honorable thing, putting the plaque in a closet, not touting it in press releases and media guides.

            Then there is Alabama. In 1964, Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide dominated the collegiate landscape. They went to the Orange Bowl, where Darrell Royal and his defending national champion Texas Longhorns awaited Bryant, Joe Namath and ‘Bama. It was a splendid game, one for the ages, played at night before a huge nationwide audience. They considered it an “exhibition game” about as much as the Germans thought of the Blitzkrieg as a training exercise. Namath, denied the Heisman by a mid-season injury, returned with a gimpy knee and rallied Alabama, but in the end they were beaten 21-17.

            The idea, the very concept, that Bear Bryant (“Nobody ever wanted to win more ‘n’ Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant,” said his biographer, Allen Barra), went into a game against Darrell Royal thinking it to be a glorified practice game, that the hard work was already done, that nobody need worry ‘cause the plaque was ticketed for Tuscaloosa, well, they did not know the Bear.

            An exhibition game? The East-West Shrine Game is an exhibition. The Hula Bowl is an exhibition. The Pro Bowl is an exhibition. The Orange Bowl is not an exhibition game!

When the game was over and the damage done, Texas knew they had not simply beaten the national champion, they had knocked them out of contention. Cotton Bowl winner Arkansas, a 10-7 victor over Nebraska earlier that day, was the rightful national champion of 1964. The old “systems” that had existed prior to the AP poll, thought to have died at the end of World War II, were trotted out and held up, at least for the 1964 season, as representative of that year’s national title holder. Billingsley, Football Research, the Football Writers Association, Helms, Poling, NCF; all made the Razorbacks the national champions.


Three consecutive national championships


California                                     1920-22

Minnesota                                    1934-36


Since World War I, only California and Minnesota have won three consecutive national championships. California earned a consensus title by a majority of legitimate ranking services, although Notre Dame was recognized by some. In 1934, the systems split between Minnesota and Alabama. In 1936, Minnesota won the first Associated Press poll.


The AP and the UPI had their contracts, their “rules” or whatever, but Alabama had no validity. They barely owned up to it for years, but when they thought the world had forgotten about the travesty trotted the old banner from out of the basement as if it had been proudly displayed all along. It was like waiting until nobody remembered, then trying to say Gettysburg had been a victory after all.

            The very next year, Michigan State was a juggernaut, seemingly on an undisputed road to the national championship. The UPI still voted prior to the bowls, but because of the 1964 snafu the AP decided to wait. Alabama appeared to be the luckiest team in the world when this set of circumstances served to award them a legitimate 1965 title using logic learned precisely because their 1964 championship was not up to snuff.

The Spartans traveled to Hollywood, but coach Duffy Daugherty put the team in a monastery out near Santa Barbara or some such mountain retreat, ostensibly to keep his boys away from the beaches, the bikinis and the bars. Monster defensive lineman Bubba Smith never slept a wink, what with wolves howling outside his window, wind kicking the shutters open, and mountain mists wafting through the room like a Lon Chaney movie.


Number one ranking - Associated Press - pre-season to final post-bowl poll


Southern California                        1 (2004)

Florida State                                    1 (1999)


            The “gutty little Bruins” of UCLA, who lived, indeed thrived, in and amongst the bikinis, the beaches and the bars of nearby Santa Monica, upended Michigan State, providing Bryant’s one-loss, one-tie Crimson Tide with an improbable, but legitimate, AP title. Virtually nobody knows that Michigan State has something called the “1965 UPI national championship plaque” somewhere in East Lansing. They are probably too ashamed to display it.

            Politics played a part in the 1966 vote, which went to Notre Dame with a tie in the “Game of the Century” versus Michigan State. Irish coach Ara Parseghian calculated the odds when his team got the ball deep in their own territory with a little over a minute left against the Spartans. He figured he had the national championship vote locked up even with a tie if he could beat USC in Los Angeles. Then he could sit on his laurels, as school policy still dictated that they not go “bowling.” His lack of courage in running the ball instead of trying a drive to set up a game-winning field goal impressed few, but Ara was right. Notre Dame lambasted USC, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The AP and UPI did vote the Irish number one, but it fired up John McKay and the Trojans so much that Southern Cal lost to Notre Dame only two times in the succeeding sixteen years.


Number one ranking - Associated Press - first regular season to final post-bowl poll


Southern California                        1 (1972)

Nebraska                                    1 (1971)

Notre Dame                                    1 (1943)


            There were surely very few Jewish fans in Alabama, 1966, but that did not stop Tide supporters from demonstrating enormous chutzpah over the 1966 vote. They figured their unbeaten, untied performance, replete with a 34-7 drubbing of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, was worthy of a national title. Maybe they were right, but it was not a cut ‘n’ dried situation. First, the very rules they now decried had given them titles in each of the previous two seasons. If the AP and UPI rules they said deprived them had been implemented as they wanted them now implemented, they would not have won in 1964. The AP after-bowl vote fairly gave them the 1965 title, but nobody from ‘Bama complained that they benefited from its sudden change. Besides, the argument against Notre Dame was a weak one. While Ara’s conservative play-calling was indeed weak-kneed (coming the same year the “gunslinger” John McKay went for two in noble defeat versus Purdue in the Rose Bowl), Notre Dame could not truly be penalized for its “no-bowl” policy, although in truth it was starting to wear thin. But the tie had come on the road with Michigan State, the worthiest possible opponent.

            Jim Murray wrote scathing columns denouncing Alabama’s all-white program, the segregationist Southeastern Conference, and a decidedly regional schedule that paled in comparison with the national road shows of Notre Dame, USC, Michigan State and others of the era.

            Alabama had filled an open date on its 1966 schedule with Louisiana Tech, which impressed nobody and ultimately may have cost them the title. Issues of Notre Dame’s Catholic fan base, sentiment against Governor George Wallace and a state standing firmly against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma may have hurt the Tide also.


Consecutive weeks - number one poll rankings - Associated Press (1936-2006)


1. Southern California             33 (2003-06)

2. Miami                         20 (2001-02)

3. Notre Dame                         19 (1988-89)

4. Southern California             17 (1972-73)

5. Florida State                        16 (1999-2000)

6. Nebraska                        15 (1970-71)

6. Army                         15 (1944-45)

8. Nebraska                        14 (1983)

8. Oklahoma                        14 (1985-85)

10.  Louisiana State            13 (1958-59)


            In 1968 Penn State was unbeaten, untied and won the Orange Bowl, but nobody ever veered from the notion that the winner of the Rose Bowl between unbeatens Southern Cal and Ohio State would determine the title. The AP awarded the Buckeyes after their 27-16 win. The UPI got lucky because they had picked Ohio State ahead of time.

            Penn State’s situation was identical in 1969, but again the national championship was decided at the Cotton Bowl. When all-white Texas beat Notre Dame to take the crown, few made note of the fact that the Longhorns had not suffered a political rebuke in the manner of the 1966 Crimson Tide. President Richard Nixon, who had risen to the White House on the strength of his “Southern strategy” the year before, played to his base by declaring Darrell Royal’s team number one, as if Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions did not exist.

            Had Texas lost to the Irish, the fallout would have been tremendous. Penn State would have claimed the AP title, but once-beaten Notre Dame would have claimed it on the strength of beating the champ. Undefeated USC, fresh off a Rose Bowl clout of Michigan, would have wanted to make their presence known. The UPI again got lucky.

            Not so in 1970. The scenario was similar. Heading into New Year’s Day, number one Texas rode a 30-game winning streak and the consensus that victory over Notre Dame would assure them the AP title (the UPI plaque was still locked away before the bowls). But unbeaten, untied Ohio State, thought to be Woody Hayes’s greatest team, figured that if the Irish knocked off Texas and they could upend heavy underdog Stanford in the Rose Bowl, their seniors would have a second title in three years. The Irish were spoilers; a last-game loss at USC had ended their hopes.

            When they turned things around on Texas, 24-11, you-know-what hit the fan. Knowing the score of the Cotton Bowl ahead of time, Ohio State went out and blew a halftime lead in a shocking loss to Jim Plunkett and Stanford. Nebraska, off the radar most of the season after a tie with USC, beat LSU in the Orange Bowl. That was not all. Arizona State won the Peach Bowl and was 11-0-0, America’s only perfect team.

            Few were wholly satisfied with the outcome: AP to the Cornhuskers, UPI with another tired BS title for the beaten ‘Horns, A-State given as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.

            In 1972, John McKay expressed some annoyance that the AP did not award their title to his unbeaten Trojans prior to their Rose Bowl game with Ohio State. He was not unaware of the unfairness of the 1964 (AP, UPI), 1965 (UPI) and 1970 (UPI) votes. His team would not benefit from those strange circumstances in case they lost. Faced with having to win in order to claim the title outright, Troy did just that, 42-17.

Alabama wanted revenge on New Year’s Eve of 1973. After USC’s black fullback, Sam “Bam” Cunningham provided an object lesson in “what a football player looks like” three years earlier, Bryant now had a plethora of talented black stars fueling his best team ever. All that stood in his way at the Sugar Bowl? You guessed it: Notre Dame. When the Irish won a thriller on Bob Thomas’s 19-yard field goal, 24-23, it ran ‘Bama’s Bowl winless streak to seven straight. The loss knocked them out of the AP picture. It would have ended their national title hopes altogether except the UPI had gone down on the same sinking ship. Their pre-bowl vote was a millstone hanging around their necks. This was too much.

            Ask Alabama’s Wilbur Jackson, John Mitchell or Sylvester Croom if they felt like national champions when they departed the Sugar Bowl turf in sweaty defeat that night; well, do not ask them, their response would not be friendly.

            “Don’t worry about nothin’,” Bear Bryant told his team in the dressing room afterwards. “You’re still the UPI national champions” Not!! Bear Bryant did not want to say nothin’ ‘bout the UPI “national championship.”

            Draped in disgrace, the UPI finally reversed its field beginning with the 1974 season. The age of illegitimate champions finally ended. The idea that a team could lose its bowl game and still be crowned a winner was literally un-American, and rejected by America. If this was the case, well then the 1954 Cleveland Indians and the 1969 Baltimore Orioles were the true champions of Major League baseball those years. Willie Mays, “The Catch” and his New York Giants; Tom Seaver’s “Amazin’ Mets,”; hey man, those World Series were just exhibition games, these upstarts not the real champs . . .

            The 13-1 Baltimore Colts of 1968? World champions, right? “Broadway Joe” Namath’s New York Jets were only 11-3 in an “inferior” league, so their 16-7 Super Bowl win did not really make them champs, did it?


Top 20/25 Associated Press - all poll rankings (1936-2006)


1. Michigan                                     724 (through 2005)

2. Ohio State                                    699 (through 2005)

3. Notre Dame                                    688 (through 2005)

4. Nebraska                                    619 (through 2005)

5. Oklahoma                                    625 (through 2005)

6. Southern California                        619 (through 2005)

7. Alabama                                    605 (through 2005)

8. Texas                                    603 (through 2005)

9. Penn State                                    531 (through 2005)

10. Tennessee                                     528 (through 2005)

11. UCLA                                    466 (through 2005)


            USC ought to just forget the 2006 Rose Bowl loss to Texas. ESPN declared them the “greatest college football team of all time” prior to the contest anyway. Just pencil it in as their “twelfth national championship” and ignore the facts, like OU (1950), ‘Bama (1964, 1973) and Ohio State (1970) do in their media guides. That Rose Bowl game with Vince Young; it was just an exhibition, right?

            The Boston Celtics won nine straight NBA championships between 1958 and 1966, then two more in 1968 and 1969. In a number of those years, the Los Angeles Lakers had the better regular season record, but succumbed to Boston in the finals. Nobody ever awarded them any championships based on a pre-play-off vote.

            Tell the 1983 North Carolina State and 1985 Villanova basketball teams that they are not the real national champions of those respective years because the wire services did not vote them number one prior to the “Final Four.” There is no trophy at UNLV declaring the Runnin’ Rebels the 1991 winners just because everybody voted them number one before Duke beat them in the title game.

            So it goes in college football; the most popular college sport, some would say the sport that creates the greatest fervor of all athletic endeavors in America. The national title is the most hotly contested, elusive prize at the end of each season, and for years they did not wait until the end of the season to award that prize. They still do not “play it out” like the “Final Four,” the College World Series, the NBA’s “second season.”


The AP got it right most of the time, but not all the time. The UPI’s track record borders on abysmal. However, awards are not always fairly given. Surely a look at the inconceivable “winners” of Oscars, Nobel Peace Prizes, even Pulitzers, reveal a rogue’s gallery of clowns, terrorists, tyrants and ne’er-do-wells, whose names need not be repeated herein but whose identities are well known. The list of Heisman Trophies is also filled with names that, upon historical retrospection, are not deserving.


The systems


Dickinson System (1926). University of Illinois professor of economics Frank Dickinson’s formula was the best known and most widely respected of the early systems. It was endorsed by Knute Rockne and eventually bore his name (Dickinson/Rockne). History accords more legitimacy to the Dickinson system than any other. Produced the Rissman Trophy, awarded to the annual national champion until 1930, when it was changed to the Knute Rockne Trophy (1931-40). Awarded 1939 national championship to USC while AP voted for Texas A&M.


Houlgate System (1927). Deke Houlgate of Los Angeles was syndicated in newspapers as well as the annual Football Thesaurus Index (1946-58).


Dunkel System (1929). A power index ratings system.


Boand System (1930). AKA the “Azzi Rated System,” developed by William Boand.


Williamson System (1932). Paul Williamson was a Sugar Bowl committeeman.


Parker H. Davis (1934). Published by Spalding’s Football Guide; produced pre-dated national champions (1889-1933).


Litkenhous System (1934). Based on a system devised by professors of chemical engineering at Vanderbilt.


Poling System (1935). Ratings conducted by Richard Poling.


Berryman (1940). Based on a quality-point rating formula devised by Clyde Berryman.


DeVold System (1945). Harry DeVold’s system appeared in Football News beginning in 1962.


Football Writers Association of America (1954). Five-man committee awards the Grantland Rice Trophy.


Sagarin Ratings (1956). MIT math graduate Jeff Sagarin’s system, still running in USA Today.


Football News (1958). Weekly poll of staff writers.


National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame (1959). Committee votes on champion; originally named after General Douglas MacArthur; merged with the UPI (1991) and USA Today (1993).


Herman Matthews Grid Ratings (1966). Published by Scripps-Howard News Services.


Foundation for the Analysis of Competitions and Tournaments (1968). David Rothman’s computer formula.


Billinsgley Report (1970). Used to pre-date national champions from 1869-1970; gained respect by declaring Arkansas the legitimate 1964 national champion after Alabama’s bowl loss.


The Sporting News (1975). A staff vote.


New York Times (1979). Math ratings system.


National Championship Foundation (1980). Mike Riter’s annual report pre-dates national champions (1869-1970).


First Interstate Bank Athletic Foundation (1982). Originally the respected Helms Athletic Foundation awarded national titles going back to 1883; later changed to the Citizen Savings Athletic Foundation until the First Interstate name change (1982).


College Football Researchers Association (1982). Ratings, polls pre-dating champions (1919-81).


Eck Ratings System (1987). Mathematical point system.


Colley Matrix (1992). Math formula published in the Atlanta-Journal Constitutional.


Wolfe (1992). Power ratings matrix.


Massey College Football Ratings (1995). Math professor Herman Mattews’s formula. 


Anderson & Hester (1997). Mathematical rankings published in the Seattle Times.


Additional: Alderson, International News Service, Sports Illustrated.


Often due to the inequities of the system over the years – but sometimes providing a satisfying alternative – is the utterly unique concept of the co-national championship in college football. A study of the game’s history going back to 1900 reveals numerous seasons in which one team is crowned by legitimacy with a national title, sometimes even a “consensus” championship, but some “other” school lays claim to one of the championships. In many cases these have been awarded ten to twenty-five years after the fact, when Knute Rockne urged Professor Frank Dickinson to backdate the winners.

            Coach Fielding Yost 1901’s Michigan’s “point a minute” Wolverines are considered to be the greatest team ever assembled up until that year. Their 49-0 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl demonstrated their strength. Still there was enough “Eastern bias” to give Harvard some consideration, although not enough to make them co-champs.

            Michigan repeated as the 1902 national champion. Their media guide states that they repeated in 1903 and 1904. They (and apparently T-shirts sold in their bookstore or outside Michigan Stadium) are wrong. There were systems calling the Wolverines champions in those seasons, but in 1903 Princeton was accorded the title by historians (with Minnesota earning some consideration). Minnesota won it in 1904. In 1905 Chicago and Stanford were co-national champions.

            In the late 1900s, something began to happen which changed the face of college football forever. The nineteenth century hegemony of the “Ivy League” (actually a group of independents; the league was not made formal until 1956) had been punctured by the Big 10 (led by Michigan, Minnesota and Chicago).

            Stanford’s 1902 Rose Bowl blowout at the hands of Michigan led the experts to conclude that football in the West was inferior. But Stanford regularly played rival California. An uneven rivalry started up between Stanford, California and another private school in Los Angeles, Southern California. Stanford’s 1905 national championship gave gravitas to the West, but it was not in California where the best football was played over the next decade.

            For various reasons, the Pacific Northwest came out of no where. Between 1908 until towards the end of World War I, they produced the very best football in America. In 1909, Washington won the national championship. They had begun the greatest run in history; thirty-nine straight victories, sixty-three consecutive games without a defeat. Yale received some consideration for the 1909 title, but Washington’s 63-game unbeaten skein is impossible for the historians to ignore.

            In 1913, coach Gil Dobie’s Huskies again captured the national championship. By this time, the South and the Southwest were making their presence known. Auburn already had established the tradition of a “war eagle” landing on their field prior to games This was in recognition of a Confederate soldier during the Civil War who was left for dead but kept company by a baby eagle. The soldier recovered and kept the eagle as his pet. He later taught at Auburn. The eagle would sit with him at football games and was taught to fly into his arms in a pre-game ritual while fans sounded off, “Warrrr eagle!!”

            Aside from Washington, Auburn received some national title recognition in 1913, as did Texas in 1914 (Army was the consensus winner) and Oklahoma in 1915. But it was the Pacific Northwest again showing itself as the true national champions of 1915. Oklahoma probably would have been viewed as number one except that unbeaten Washington State won the resumed Rose Bowl, 14-0 over Brown. The next year, Pittsburgh was denied the title while Eastern football took a further backseat when Oregon shut out Penn, 14-0 in the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl was already proving to be of great benefit to Western reputations, when a combination of their victories over Eastern schools, and bowl-less records by Eastern schools, knocked them down a peg.

            World War I was a major demarcation point in American history. The conflict began in Europe in August 1914, engulfing Russia, central Europe and the Middle East. In April 1917 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson committed America to the fight. The 1917 college football season was not greatly affected, but the 1918 season was. Colleges were turned into recruiting and officer training centers. Collegians were drafted and volunteered in large numbers. The war ended on November 11, 1918, but by 1919 football was back in swing. The events of the war; the nature of collegiate football prior to it and the growth in so many ways after it; all of these factors add up to the logical conclusion that in judging the history of the sport, one must create separate categories dividing events into those of the pre-war era, and those of the post-war era (starting in 1919).

            In 1919, Harvard beat Oregon, 7-6 in a Rose Bowl game that was, in effect, a battle for East-West supremacy. It was in some ways a “last hurrah” for the East, at least the traditional “Ivy League.” Various ratings services later gave much consideration to Illinois and Texas A&M as national champions of 1919, but the “bowl game factor” favors Harvard. The collegiate landscape was now widespread: Harvard in the East, Oregon in the West, Illinois of the Big 10, Texas A&M in the Southwest.

            But it was Notre Dame who asserted themselves now and forever beginning in 1919. A tiny Catholic school founded in the small town of South Bend, Indiana in 1842, they started playing football in 1887 but were overshadowed by the Big 10. In 1913, Notre Dame faced Army, considered an Eastern powerhouse. It was in that game that the Irish lined up using a modern formation featuring a quarterback (Gus Dorais), an end (Knute Rockne) and the strategic use of the forward pass. Until then football was a ground game. The forward pass was not unheard of, but generally it was a desperate measure, not part of a team’s essential game strategy.

            But Dorais and Rockne had spent the previous summer working as lifeguards. In their spare time they worked on pass formations and plays. They “broke them out” against Army in a 35-13 victory, stunning the nation. The 7-0 Irish were on the map, and may very well have won their first national championship that season, although the systems found other teams ranked ahead of them.

            Rockne became Notre Dame’s coach in 1918. His 1919 squad was 9-0 and could have been number one. His 1920 squad was 10-0 and also received “other” recognition, along with Princeton and Harvard. In 1924 Rockne’s “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame” soundly defeated coach Glenn “Pop” Warner’s Stanford Indians (led by Ernie Nevers), 27-10 in the Rose Bowl. It was that season – Notre Dame’s unbeaten record, Grantland Rice’s poetic descriptions of their victory over Army at the Polo Grounds, and victory in the new Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena – which propelled the Dickinson System and others to eventually declare national championships in earnest.

            It was the mid-1920s. College football was an entirely different game. American history and post-modernism had much to do with it. The game grew as the country had, spreading from the East to the West. For obvious reasons it was born in the East, in the tri-state region (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut). The Midwest was next (the Big 10, Notre Dame). Football was not highly regarded in the South, but in fact it was seen as a “substitute” of sorts for post-Civil War angst. Its military similarities and requirements of courageous machismo fit the Southern mindset like a glove.

            Then there was the West. The University of California was founded in Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco, in 1868. Their first football game was played in 1882. The University of Southern California, the oldest private school in the West, opened its doors near downtown Los Angeles in 1880, playing football for the first time in 1888. Then there was Stanford, literally a product of Westward expansion in the form of the trans-continental railroad.

The “Gold Rush” hit in 1849. California was awarded statehood in 1850. Shortly thereafter, the new technologies of railroad travel were perfected. The “race” was on to connect the nation via a coast-to-coast railroad. Two companies built tracks, almost “side-by-side” with each other, traversing the Midwest, the Rockies, the Sierra Mountains, down into the Sacramento Valley and on to San Francisco. It was pure private enterprise. The railroads were not government entities, but their main political backer was Illinois Senator Abraham Lincoln.

A look at the map creates the puzzling notion that the railroad would have been easier to construct not over two huge mountain ranges, but rather through the South; Texas, on into Arizona, Nevada, then the Southern California desert, easily connecting to Los Angeles where it could be expanded to San Francisco and the Northwest, as well as southward to San Diego and Mexico.

It was not built in this manner because Lincoln, an Abolitionist, knew that if it were built through the South slaves would construct it. He refused to let America’s greatest accomplishment be the work of slaves. The decision to build the railroad over the Rockies and the Sierras had a profound impact on California. It meant that it would connect not to Los Angeles but to San Francisco.

Therefore, the greater population growth, already spurred by the fact that gold had been discovered in the north, occurred in San Francisco with Sacramento (ninety miles to the east) accorded state capital status. Los Angeles was a sleepy pueblo, little noticed as a political or economic entity. USC was founded but did not attract much attention. A social dynamic also came into being. San Francisco was the preferred destination of Northerners from Boston and New York, who supported the Union in the Civil War and voted for President Lincoln.

Southern California represented just that: the place where supporters of the Confederacy came to gather. One example was the Patton family; Southern Civil War heroes who helped found Pasadena and San Marino near Los Angeles. Their progeny, George Smith Patton, would be America’s greatest World War II general.

San Francisco and northern California were more secular-progressive and liberal. Los Angeles and Southern California was more Christian and conservative. Leland Stanford, one of the so-called “Robber Barons” who built the railroads and turned the San Francisco Bay Area into a boomtown, founded Stanford in Palo Alto, in between San Francisco and San Jose, in 1885. They began playing football in 1891.

Stanford and California immediately became rivals, playing the famed “Big Game” every year. All football focus in the West centered on these two schools. Stanford went to the 1902 Rose Bowl but was smoked by Michigan. They recovered and developed enough reputation to be considered the national champions of 1905.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s dictates that the game be made safer in reaction to numerous deaths resulted in Stanford, along with many other colleges, playing rugby between 1906-1917. This created an opportunity for Southern California. USC first played Stanford in 1905. With Stanford playing rugby, USC started playing California. The Pacific Coast Conference was formed in 1916, with USC eventually joining in 1922.

Just as the trans-continental railroad made its big splash in northern California, another – almost equally amazing – engineering feat allowed the Southland to catch up. In the early part of the twentieth century, Los Angeles “city fathers” decided that they were tired of playing “second fiddle” to San Francisco and Sacramento. They wanted to create a first class city, but since L.A. is essentially a desert, they lacked water to support a large population. Therefore, an aqueduct was devised by city engineer William Mulholland, diverting fresh drinking water from the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierras, to L.A. Later, the building of Hoover Ham and diversion of water from the Colorado River and then, in recent years to the ironic disgust of northern Californians, further diversions from the north to the south, allowed Los Angeles to expand, and expand . . . and expand!

As it was said in Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come.” Population growth in Southern California was steady, and with it USC became a nationally recognized institution. When the U.S. entered into World War I, many servicemen passed through on their way to and from training, creating further area growth.

But California was only part of the powerful, growing West. With the Indian Wars having been won, with natural barriers overcome by engineering, and with transportation creating a mobile nation, the Pacific Northwest became a college football juggernaut. The best teams of the pre-war era came from there: Oregon, Washington State, and of course Washington, the “Team of the Decade” (1910s).

It was an odd conundrum of sorts that the “Seattle connection” transformed USC into a national football powerhouse. In 1919, USC hired a Seattle high school coach named Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson. The proviso was that he would bring with him all his prep stars from Seattle, who otherwise would have been ticketed for the University of Washington or Washington State. The Trojans’ first All-American, Brice Taylor, was one of these Seattle players. He also represented new social sensibilities in the West: Taylor was black, part Cherokee Indian, and played without a left hand!

Henderson was statistically USC’s greatest coach, but was fired after the 1924 season despite having won almost ninety percent of his games. He could not beat the University of California. Indeed, it was California, not Notre Dame, who dominated the game in the early 1920s. Known as the “Wonder Teams,” they were the first modern dynasty and responsible for much of the game’s popularity. Unbeaten in fifty games between 1920 and 1925, the Golden Bears were led by All-American Brick Muller and won three straight consensus national championships (1920-1922). In January of 1921 they defeated Ohio State, 28-0 in the Rose Bowl. That game persuaded the Big 10 to avoid Pasadena for another twenty-six years.

In January of 1923 a dispute led to Cal shunning the first Rose Bowl played in the new stadium. The game now represented a true regional test. That year the West won the test, courtesy of USC’s 14-3 triumph over Penn State. Pasadena’s response to Stanford’s bid to move the Rose Bowl to Palo Alto resulted in their successfully completing the stadium in 1922. The crowd of 43,000 for the USC-Penn State match-up was considered a success, portending full houses in subsequent years.

It was a major boon for the Pacific Coast Conference and USC; a turning point resulting in that program’s success, and in the PCC developing into the best conference in America. Cal’s champions were built on the strength of Southern California recruits, as they were the first team to actively go after players from outside their region who did not simply “walk on” by showing up for “try-outs.” They also successfully “ recruited” transfer players, including All-American tackle Dan McMillan (originally from USC).

Stanford Stadium (1921), the Rose Bowl (1922), Memorial Stadium in Berkeley (1923) and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1923) represented not only the popularity and economic impact of collegiate football, but the profound growth on the West Coast. UCLA opened for business in 1919. Between 1920 and 1926, Stanford and Cal were the dominant national powerhouses. Pop Warner was induced to take over at Stanford. Their January 1925 Rose Bowl loss to Notre Dame was considered a major test between the Midwest and the West, with the winning Irish earning the national title (with Penn gaining minor consideration).

In 1926 the 10-0 Indians played another “Game of the Century,” a Rose Bowl showdown with 10-0 Alabama, the defending 1925 champions (on the strength of a 20-19 Rose Bowl win over Washington which helped them nudge out unbeaten Dartmouth). The 7-7 tie did not settle much, resulting in a co-national championship. It was considered a victory of sorts for the South, however. Most pundits felt they were not as strong as other regions, but Alabama was proving them wrong.

After Notre Dame’s 1925 Rose Bowl victory, Knute Rockne intimated to the Los Angeles sportswriters that he might be taking over at Southern California. Notre Dame put the kabosh on that, but Rockne recommended to USC Howard Jones, who as the coach at Iowa had defeated his Irish a few years earlier.

Jones sent an emissary to secure an arrangement of games with Rockne, but Rock turned it down because of travel restrictions. According to legend, his wife insisted that he accept the Southern Cal offer so she could come to warm weather Los Angeles and shop the Rodeo Drive boutiques.

Many sources insist that Rockne wanted a rivalry with a Western team. After the Rose Bowl victory over Stanford, Notre Dame instituted a “no bowl” policy, so he knew he would need to expose his team via regular season games. The fact that this rivalry started with Southern Cal, not Cal or Stanford, instantly and irrevocably changed Pacific Coast football fortunes, instituting the Trojans as undisputed kings.

Both Cal and Stanford had large stadiums, but the L.A. Coliseum held 90,000. Rockne realized that Los Angeles was growing faster than San Francisco; that political and social power in California was shifting; and that there were more Catholics in the Southland. A home-and-home arrangement was begun. It was part of Rockne’s master plan.

In the 1920s, an evangelical Christian revival movement dominated the South and the Midwest, resulting in much anti-Catholic sentiment filtering into football fandoms. Rockne decided to build a base in major metropolitan areas. He scheduled enormous showdowns with Army at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in New York. The USC game attracted huge throngs in Los Angeles, and crowds exceeding 100,000 at Soldier Field in Catholic-heavy Chicago. Thus was their “subway alumni” developed and nurtured.  

Under Jones, USC became the national champions of 1928. Cal (1937) and Stanford (1940) would win national championships, but fEll by the wayside in comparison with USC. This resulted in much angst, consternation and jealousy, with the northern California schools falsely accusing the Trojans of “professionalism” and “academic irregularities,” their “rivalry” eventually morphing into a form of class envy. UCLA, sharing the bountiful harvest of Southland prep sports talent, became USC’S most important conference foe. USC’s “Thundering Herd” was so awesome that sporting pundits ceded national superiority to the state of California, using attendant theories that gained widespread, albeit unusual, support.

Doctors, researchers and nutritionists propounded the notion that the warm weather, the fresh fruit and vegetables, and generally vigorous lifestyles, made for better athletes whose blood pumped “faster,” and so forth. Then there was the “rugged Western individualist” theory, with some dark aspects.

Many people figured that those who survived the trips west in covered wagons or perilous ocean voyages created a sturdier gene pool. Hollywood entered the equation, too. It was felt that more physically fit men and beautiful women ventured west in search of movie fame, found each other, and produced more physically impressive off-spring. But the concept of “gene pools” and “physical superiority” manifested itself not simply in innocent American sports circles but with a rising German political figure named Adolph Hitler.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hitler foresaw that someday he would mount an effort at worldwide military conquest. If he were to succeed he ultimately would have to defeat America. In his view, France was weak and England had lost the “flower of its manhood” in the Great War. But Hitler was concerned that a huge migration of Germans had come to populate much of the American Midwest in the nineteenth century. In his view, these were the “best Germans”: the most physically powerful and strong of mind, unfortunately “lost” by the Fatherland.

But Hitler was assuaged by another notion, which was that while the most strong-willed and impressive Germans were now Americans (many starring in sports like college football in the 1920s), it was their very nature - “rugged individualism” - which had led them away from Germany (and won the West). In his quest for ultimate power, Hitler did not wish to contend with this kind of German. He needed sheep, not Republicans.

World War I had broken Europe. Germany faced a decade-long depression of epic proportions. America was rich, flush with victory, a car-culture sporting a leisure class of college graduates seeking new forms of entertainment. The building of modern stadiums and the invention of radio broadcasts created a sports marriage made in Heaven.

A “Lost Generation” of American novelists – Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein – were searching for new meaning in a post-modernist age. Just as efforts to find political answers in the wake of the Peloponnesian War created a new Platonic society in Greece, sports gave many in America reason for enthusiasm, a revival of the human spirit after the horrors of modern warfare. While Communism and the expendability of individual man in sacrifice of a system dominated Leninist-Stalinist Russia, the unique individualism of sports heroics permeated the American consciousness.

The Southern California-Notre Dame rivalry marked the height of sports popularity in this post-war era. It was the “Roaring ‘20s,” a period of celebrity and accomplishment. Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, silent films captured worldwide imaginations, the Yankees’ Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs, the National Football League was born, and Illinois’ Red Grange (who filled Big 10 stadiums) immediately began to fill professional arenas.


The poets


Graham McNamee and Ted Husing became the “voices” of Notre Dame, USC, Alabama and other teams on the radio, covering their biggest games in coast-to-cost radio broadcasts of the 1920s and 1930s. The 1931 USC-Notre Dame game was the radio version of a “ blockbuster” ratings event. Chris Schenkel’s signature line was “And here come the Buckeyes” or “Here come the Irish” when teams departed the tunnel before games. Brent Musburger was on the scene for countless huge contests. Red Barber and Vin Scully are known for baseball, but Barber gave Scully his first opportunity on his “Saturday college football broadcasts.” Keith Jackson has announced so many USC football games that he might have been considered the Trojans’ announcer. Whereby Grantland Rice made his reputation writing about the “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame,” Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times (considered by many to be the finest sports scribe who ever lived) made his name by covering USC and college football – often criticizing Southern segregation - with a touch of social pathos in the 1960s and 1970s.   


But the USC-Notre Dame match-up was as indicative of the times as any other event. First, in an age prior to commercial jets, the college schedule allowed for travel to Los Angeles. It opened the California sports marketplace to the world, leading to the 1932 Olympics, the Giant-Dodger franchise shifts, and the emergence of the Golden State as the undisputed “sports capital of the world.”

It glamorized the collegiate game. Notre Dame, already a hugely popular entity by virtue of their success and Catholic-city fan base, was able to rise past California, Stanford and Alabama as the dominant program of the 1920s and beyond. USC, battling with Cal and Stanford for Western supremacy, was able to do just that on the strength of their rivalry with the game’s greatest team and coach. In so doing, they established themselves with Notre Dame as the two great traditions. While it was Notre Dame that helped the rise of USC, it was USC’s equal success that allowed Notre Dame to maintain their level of greatness. It was and continues to be the greatest of all rivalries, one marked by a very rare sense of mutual respect. As great as the other programs – Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, TCU, Texas A&M – would become over the next years and beyond, none had a national rival who gave them imprimatur like these two schools. Only a handful of professional teams – Dodgers-Giants, Celtics-Lakers, Yankees-Red Sox – would create lasting national rivalries to match it.

The 1928 Trojans won the national championship on the strength of the Dickinson rating system, although Georgia Tech captured their share of the title with a 10-0 record. In 1929 Notre Dame won, but USC’s 47-14 blowout of Pitt in the Rose Bowl propelled the Houlgate and Football Thesaurus systems to rank them number one. In 1930 it was a split decision between unbeaten Notre Dame and Alabama (a 24-0 winner over Washington State in the Rose Bowl). The Parker H. Davis ratings split between the Irish and Crimson Tide. The Rose Bowl was increasingly seen as the game that could raise a team above the rest of the crowd.

USC was the consensus national champions of 1931-1932. Michigan pulled in a few “other” considerations in 1932 but the Trojans were undisputed on the strength of their unbeaten record and 35-0 annihilation of Pittsburgh (again) in the Rose Bowl.

In 1933, ex-President Gerald Ford’s Michigan Wolverines were the national champions (USC was the choice of the Williamson System). Alabama and Minnesota split the honor in 1934.


Anger boiled within Gerald Ford Before This Football Game

 By Jeff Prugh, Marin (California) Independent Journal

August 12, 1999


Jeff Prugh covered the seminal racial event in college football history, the 1970 USC-Alabama game at Legion Field in Birmingham, for the L.A. Times. This article is re-printed with his permission


The story is as old as a scuffed-up, leather football helmet - the kind that Gerald Ford, as his political foe President Lyndon Johnson would one day wisecrack, didn't wear when he played for the University of Michigan.

A racial controversy that scarred a 1934 game in which Ford and his Michigan teammates defeated Georgia Tech took on a life of its own four decades later, when Ford became our thirty-eighth president and pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace.

The furor over Georgia Tech's threat not to play the game, if one of Ford's teammates – a black named Willis Ward - played for Michigan, tell us about an ugly side of America that Ford writes about in the accompanying reminiscence.

What Ford doesn't tell us about that reveals a side to him that would belie his easy-going, sometimes bumbling persona as a caretaker of the Oval Office between 1974 and 1977.

Here, at the risk of coming across like radio's Paul Harvey, is the "rest of the story," which I researched in another life, back when I reported on the 1976 presidential campaign.

Gerald Ford would, according to a Ford biography and a Republican Party campaign film, take credit with a teammate for so severely injuring a Georgia Tech lineman in retaliation for an alleged racial slur that the Tech player had to be carried from the field.

In the film, which was nationally televised moments before Ford accepted the GOP nomination to run against Democrat Jimmy Carter, Willis Ward talks about having to sit out the game because of Georgia Tech's insistence upon clinging to the Southern tradition of segregation. Ward, also on the film, recalls that Ford and a fellow Michigan lineman "ended his <the Tech lineman's> participation in the game."

Today, there are conflicting versions of who did - and said - what to whom during that game, won by Michigan, 9-2, on a cold, rainy October afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ford said the injury was inflicted because the Tech player had jeered "n-----r" during the game.

Not so, said the Tech player, Charlie Preston, who was hurt on the game's third play and, when I caught up with him by telephone, had retired in Florida. He said no Tech player uttered racial taunts and that his injury, diagnosed as bruised ribs, was not caused by Ford. "I was hurt in a pileup," he said. "You can't tell who hurt you when you're underneath at least a half a dozen players. Mr. Ford is not exactly telling the truth."

Ford's biographer and former presidential press secretary, Jerald F. terHorst, said Ford had told him he couldn't recall the injured player's name or number.           

In Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency, terHorst wrote that Ford had threatened not to play, as a sympathy protest on behalf of Ward, his roommate on road trips. On the eve of the game, terHorst wrote, Ford telephoned his stepfather in Grand Rapids, Michigan, seeking advice. His stepfather left the decision to Ford, who chose to play instead of protest.

"So Ford led the team out on the field even as the anger boiled within him over the absence of Ward," the biographer continues. "One of the Georgia Tech linemen made the mistake of taunting the Michigan squad over its missing 'n----r.’ "

Willis Ward had become a Wayne County (Michigan) probate judge when I reached him by phone in Detroit. He recalled that he sat in his fraternity house, listening to the game on the radio. He said Ford and a guard named Bill Borgman confirmed to him at practice the following Monday that they had injured the Tech player. Ward quoted Ford as saying, "We got one for ya, Willie."

Actually, Ward said he was not upset about having been withheld from the game. His coach, Harry Kipke, had recruited him to Michigan over the objections of white alumni, Ward said, adding, "Kipke was on the spot. I could see he had a problem, and this transcended any personal hurt I had."

Asked why he did not protest sitting out the game, Ward said, "It was not a way of life for kids to do that back in the 1930s. You have to put everything that happened in the context of the time."

However, published reports said Michigan's decision to withhold Ward drew protests against Tech from "some radical organizations" on the Michigan campus. Bobby Dodd, then a young Tech backfield coach who would become the school's head coach and athletic director, recalled that Tech players complained to him the night before the game that "people were screamin' and fussin' at us."

For its part, Georgia Tech had acceded to eleventh-hour counter-demands by Michigan to withhold Ward's Tech counterpart at right end, E. H. "Hoot" Gibson, as a compensatory gesture.

"The Michigan officials applied the old Mosaic law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth to this game," wrote the late Ralph McGill, who reported on the game for the Atlanta Constitution and would go on to write Pulitzer Prize-winning columns opposing segregation across the South. "They demanded an end for an end."

When I informed Willis Ward that Tech's Charlie Preston believed Ford had not told "exactly the truth" about the incident, Ward laughed.           

"Oh, he must be a Democrat," Ward said.

Ward guessed correctly. Preston said he had registered as a Democrat for the 1976 presidential election, in which Jimmy Carter defeated Ford.

But Ward was pleasantly surprised to learn that Charlie Preston, the injured Georgia Tech player whose name and number Gerald Ford could not recall, said he would be voting for Gerald Ford. 


Again, the Tide was able to buck the trend away from the South with an impressive 29-13 victory over Stanford’s “Vow Boys” in the Rose Bowl.

The “Vow Boys” were a group of Stanford freshman who, seeing the varsity dominated by USC, vowed never to lose to Southern California again. They did not. USC entered a down period. Minnesota was the consensus champions of 1935-1936 (the first AP champion in 1936), thus making them the last team to win three consecutive national titles.


Yale’s teammate Heismans


Larry Kelley (1936), Clint Frank (1937)


In 1937, Alabama figured to win again, but their 13-0 loss to California in the Rose Bowl ended a string of successes in Pasadena, all of which had propelled the Tide into national prominence. Pitt won the pre-bowl AP title. The systems, making note of Pittsburgh’s failures against USC in previous years, placed greater prestige on West Coast football, thus giving the Golden Bears their fourth (co) national championship.

Duke was the favorite to win the 1938 national championship until the unbeaten, untied, unscored-on Blue Devils were beaten by USC in the last minute by the Doyle Nave-to-Al Kreuger touchdown pass, but after the vote Tennessee earned a fair share of the system’s respect. For the first time, the deciders were not swayed solely by one team winning a bowl game. TCU beat Carnegie Tech in the Sugar but the Vols knocked off Oklahoma in the Orange.

It was obvious by 1939 that the AP poll would not end the controversy over national championships. Tennessee was miffed that the 1938 title had gone instead to Texas Christian. They came to the Rose Bowl, as Duke did, unbeaten, untied and unscored-upon. Coach Bob Neyland’s greatest team would have won it except that USC – again – sent a Southern team home with their tail between their legs, 14-0.

“We were outclassed by Southern Cal in every way,” Coach Neyland announced. The Trojans awarded Howard Jones with his fourth and last national championship with the Knute Rockne Trophy, based upon their overwhelming win over the Volunteers. USC’s schedule was the “the toughest of any team in the country,” according to Professor Dickinson. Texas A&M took the AP title, voted on prior to the bowls. They avoided the embarrassment of illegitimacy by beating Tulane, 14-13 in the Sugar Bowl.