The Truth Behind Alabama’s 12 Claimed National Championships
(Editor’s note: This column was published last year, late into Iron Bowl week, but is coming back for it’s sophmore year because it has a FULL three years of eligibility remaining!)
As Auburn fans, you’ve had an Alabama fan throw in your face the claim of them having 12 national championships more times than you care to count. You’re bound to have that happen a few times this week. After all. it’s the biggest thing we covet from Bammers, right, other than their SEC crowns, winning percentage, bowl games attended, Bryant legacy, way of life, yada, yada, yada? But have you really ever thought about if what they’re telling you is true? Even better, do you think they’veever thought about the validity of a such a claim? Or do you just assume they’ve drunk from the big keg of crimson Kool-aid so often that they’re a bit woozy and delusional? It’s so automatic, and so parroted by so many of their fans, it has to be true, right? Well, today we’re going to answer that very question, and what you read here may surprise you.
First thing’s first. We’re going to have to start with a little background information before we start analyzing each of Alabama’s claimed mythical national championships (MNCs). This background will take you to virtually the beginning of college football. Bear with me! (pun intended)
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IN DIVISION 1-A COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Yes, that is true. The NCAA does not officially sanction a national championship in football’s highest classification, like it does for every other team sport and all other classes of football. You should know this. That’s why we’re always arguing for a playoff to decide the NC rather than letting the polls decide it. But wait, you argue, someone is crowned the MNC each year and every year since. True enough, but it is done by the individual poll or sanctioning body (BCS) AND NOT THE NCAA. The two current big polls, the AP and the Coach’s poll sanction their own champion, sometimes independently. Their polls are so widely acclaimed and accepted, everyone just assumes that they are official, but their authority is only apparent.
SO HOW DID THESE POLLS COME TO BE AND WHY ARE THERE SO MANY NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP SELECTORS OUT THERE?
Here’s your brief history of the polls and the national championship: College football dates back until 1869, and it took root in the south in the 1890s. For many decades following it’s inception, there was no such thing as a national college football champion. With the birth of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the first athletic conference in the nation, the highest honor for a team to strive for was a conference championship, and wins over their biggest rivals. It was more or less a regional thing. By the early 1930s, sufficient interest in college football was beginning to build so that people started openly asking who the best team in the nation might be. Thus, the modern news polls were born. The AP poll debuted in 1934, took 1935 off, then ran again in 1936 and every year since. The UP poll debuted in 1935, then didn’t poll again until 1950. In 1958, it became the UPI poll, which most of us remember, and it ran until 1996. By 1997, it had been supplanted by the new USA Today/ESPN poll, otherwise known as the coach’s poll, which still runs today.
So, to repeat, prior to the AP and UPI poll debuts, there was no such thing as a recognized national championship. (NOTE: The Dickinson System was created in 1926 and was actually the first selector of football national champions, but they fizzled out by 1940, so I do not recognize their limited results as being credible.) . Once these polls had been out for a while and started to gain a little credibility, some folks started to theorize about who might have been the best teams in the seasons prior–going all the way back to the 1860s. Gee, we played 60 years before and never had a national champion, it might be fun to look back and see who might have been. So that the news polls wouldn’t have all the fun, a multitude of other selectors’ slowly arose, some using mathematical models in an attempt to statistically calculate who the strongest team of a given year might be. These many selectors then made their respective picks, not always agreeing, since there were upwards of 30 or more selectors in the business after a few years, just as there are over 30 different selectors TODAY. Did any of these selectors have any more credibility than the news polls? No, but it was sure evident that there was now more than one game in town.
With the influx of so many national championships coming from this mix of independent selectors, it’s only natural that teams who were being awarded MNCs years after the fact might actually decide to accept these newfound accolades. But not so fast, my friend! These titles were never decided on the field. The teams playing in that season were not aware that there was any national title on the line. There was no national polling system at that time ranking each team week by week, using the dynamics of that particular season. They were all chosen years or decades AFTER THE FACT! Therefore, since a significant national polling system wasn’t created until 1934, any claims of a national championship prior to that is absolutely NOT CREDIBLE by any standard used today or since the dawn of the news polls. These MNCs are known as BACK-DATED titles, a term you’ll need to remember because you’ll see a few of them on Alabama’s title resume.
These back-dated titles are claimed by some self-serving schools because some minor selector awarded the team an insignificant championship using non-uniform and statistically un-credible crieria well after the fact. Some of these selectors even bypassed using statistics at all and simply voted popularly for teams years later. Suffice it to say that since these selectors chose sometimes decades after the fact, the results are simply not worthy of any merit. Any team that claims a back-dated title is just trying to pad the old resume. But who’s going to question it 50 or 80 years after the fact, other than the most ardent student of CFB history?
Most of these early selectors have faded into history, although some still survive, and new ones are born every year. As long as there is so much ambiguity in Division 1-A’s football champion, these selectors will attempt to carve out their little piece of significance. Today we basically only recognize the AP and Coach’s Poll/BCS as being legitimate. All the others run by the wayside. But remember this: just because you’ve never heard of a particular MNC selector, it doesn’t mean that some team somewhere isn’t claiming the results as part of their football lore.
The problem with all these selectors is that in years past, it wasn’t always clear who the most credible selectors were as it is now. It seems very defined today, but back then the AP and UPI hadn’t yet attained the stature that they did in later years, and sometimes teams were declared NCs as a result of the preponderance of minor selectors choosing them. It’s extremely hard to gauge the strength of claims decades ago without knowing the public opinion of the day. Nowadays, it’s clear-cut and defined. We have the AP and the Coach’s Poll/BCS, period! It doesn’t matter how many other selectors you’ve never heard of chose your team as NC, no one is going to respect/recognize it.
And that’s good enough for the present day, but we still have the lingering question of how to judge teams’ historical performances when they claim a bunch of bogus titles? How glorious was a NC in 1964 when 5 teams claimed it? The only thing I see to do is to draw the line between the AP and Coach’s poll all the way back to the beginning, and then nothing before. To my satisfaction, 1934 is when NCs began.
SO AT WHAT POINT IN THE SEASON DID THE POLLS PROCLAIM THEIR NATIONAL CHAMPION?
You’re not going to believe this, but the standard practice for decades was to declare the national champion PRIOR TO THE BOWL GAMES. The AP poll took it’s final vote prior to the bowl game every year until 1968; however, in 1965, they picked after the bowls, and then continued this practice in 1969 and every year thereafter. The UP/UPI poll choose before the bowls all the way up until 1974, in the wake of the controversy of Alabama being awarded a MNC after they lost to AP champion Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl the year before.
Why award a championship prior to the bowl games? Well it sounds strange today, but the reason they did this initially was that bowl games didn’t have the same importance that they do today. Initially it was more or less a meaningless ‘reward’ game for a team with a good season, a chance to perhaps play a non-regional team in an ‘exhibition’-style game. Only later did bowl games become a de-facto one game playoff to see if anyone could be left standing to claim the mythical ‘national championship’. Before that, bowls were just gravy–a bonus. The regular season, however, was what mattered. If you had a good record, defeated your rivals, and won your conference, it was a successful season.
OKAY, WE GOT THE HISTORY LESSON. NOW TELL US WHY SOME OF ALABAMA’S TITLES ARE FRAUDS!
Glad you asked. Alabama claims national titles for the following years: 1925, 1926, 1930, 1934, 1941, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1992. Other than the first three, we’ll go over each season individually.
1925, 1926, 1930. All back-dated titles. These titles were awarded years after the fact. Four teams could claim a back-dated title in 1925, eight teams in 1926, and two in 1930. See how inconsistent back-dated titles were? Doesn’t matter. They don’t really exist. Pure and simple resume embellishment. Some Bama fans try to justify these years by pointing out that they were awarded following Alabama wins in the Rose Bowl. Sorry. Even had there been an established MNC poll system during that time, the polls would continue to declare national champions BEFORE the bowls for the next 40 years. Nice revisionist try, but strike 3 titles from Bama’s record.
1934–The first year for the AP poll, given to Minnesota. Alabama received 11 selectors choosing them, but I’m sure most of them were back-dated–impossible to know for sure. Minnesota had 29 selectors, most of them probably back-dated, but they got the only one that counted–the AP. Strike another title from Bama’s record.
1941–The most egregious of Alabama’s bogus titles. Alabama finished the season with 2 losses and ranked #20 in the final AP poll. But one of the minor selectors out of over 30 chose Alabama, and evidently, that’s the only excuse they needed. Five other teams that year would have a superior claim over Alabama’s if you counted minor selectors, but we don’t. I’m not really sure how many years after the fact Bama raised this banner, but you can bet it was many–so that not many people might notice. Strike another title from their record–we’re on a roll–up to five gone now!
1961–Ahh, the beginning of the Bear era, and the golden age of Tide football. Alabama was pretty much a consensus champion, with both of the major polls, the AP and UPI went their way. Some minor selectors chose Texas and Ohio State, but this title is solid. Score one legitimate title!
1964— A 10-1 Alabama team claims a national title in 1964 in spite of an 11-0 Arkansas team having a better claim. Here, an instance of both the AP and UPI, which voted Alabama # 1 that year, still voting prior to the bowl game. Had the polls been conducted after the bowls, then I’m sure it would have been a consensus Arkansas pick because Alabama lost to Texas in the Orange bowl, but Arkansas beat Texas during the regular season. I recognize Alabama’s title because that was the rules that were in place at the time. Chalk up another legitimate title for the Tide, although a modern-day jury would probably confer it on Arkansas.
1965–The first of Alabama’s supposed two back-to-back titles. It was a split decision between the 9-1-1 Tide, who dropped the first game to Georgia and tied Tennessee, winning the AP title, and Michigan State, 10-1, dropping the Rose Bowl, winning the UPI crown–again, bestowed BEFORE the bowl games, while the AP that year was done afterwards. Two other teams, Arkansas and Dartmouth, also got a few minor selectors to choose them, but an AP title is gold, so score another legitimate title for the Tide, now up to three.
1966–Okay, Alabama does not claim this year as a national title, but here’s the really strange part: Curiously, Alabama got shafted in 1966 by both the AP and UPI despite going 11-0 but finishing behind in both polls to Notre Dame and Michigan State, both who were 9-0-1 (yes, they tied each other) What’s even stranger is that Alabama didn’t claim a title anyway, considering that some minor selectors did choose them as national champs and that’s seemingly all you need if you’re Alabama. Yea, I think they may claim this one on a T-Shirt or ball cap, but the university doesn’t officially recognize it. A book, The Missing Ring, commemorates that year. The team can probably blame George Wallace and the state of the civil rights struggle in Alabama at that time for being shunned.
1973–Alabama goes 11-1 and is chosen by the UPI. Notre Dame goes 11-0 and is crowned by the AP as NC. Who did the Irish beat in the Sugar Bowl? Why, Alabama–for their only loss. Why in the hell did Alabama get a national championship after losing their bowl game to the real national champion? Because the UPI was still choosing their champion BEFORE the bowl games. How crazy is that? Pretty crazy, by today’s standards. If Alabama had any sense of decency, they would refuse to claim 1973 as a title year since they lost the de facto national championship game to the real champions, but since those were the rules at the time, I begrudgingly recognize this MNC. One good thing did come out of this fiasco though: the UPI quit choosing their champ before the bowl games after this one. Score four.
1978–Split title year, AP going to Alabama, and the UPI going to USC. A funny thing happened on the way to Legion Field, however. Alabama LOST to USC at home during the regular season. But alas, USC lost a regular season game too, and the two teams did not meet in a bowl game. So be it. Chalk up title number five to Bama, even if they did share it with a team they lost to at home.
1979–The goal-line stand title, against Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. Most of us remember watching that game. Alabama was 12-0 and took all the marbles and most of the selectors. No argument here. Score number six in legitimate titles!
1992–Alabama’s only ‘modern’ day title, complete with all the 24 hour media attention afforded ‘national championship’ bowl match-ups, in this case a beat-down of Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Absolutely no doubt. Final tally to date, seven legitimate MNCs.
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT?
Yes, in this man’s opinion. Any of the facts I give can be readily checked. Know this though: If you try to throw all of this in some Bammer’s face, you’re not going to accomplish anything. Denial is too strong a sentiment and this is way too much evidence to the contrary of their status quo. It has to sink-in on them. Just like you can’t give starving people a steak dinner suddenly, you have to work on your favorite Bammer gradually. But chances are, most of them have little idea of the history of their team and the true facts of their self-appointed accolades.
We’ll never straighten this mess out. The NCAA will never touch it. They may sanction a playoff one day, but they will never go back and declare retroactively what titles can be claimed by what teams. Some years in the past, 5-7 teams claim a national championship for a given year. There’s just too much ambiguity in all this.
WELL WHAT ABOUT AUBURN? YOU’VE ONLY WON ONE TITLE, WHICH IS WAY LESS THAN OUR 12 OR 7 OR HOW THE HELL EVER MANY YOU THINK WE HAVE!
True, we only claim one, but know this: If we used the University of Alabama method of determining MNCs, which is claiming back-dated titles and claiming titles awarded by minor, inferior selectors, we could claim six–1913, 1914, 1957, 1983, 1993, 2004. Thankfully, we take the high road and do not! The university officially recognizes only ONE–1957.
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