Back in the days when college football players wore one-piece leather suits, did not throw passes and ran with the dazzling speed of tree trunks, it was fairly easy to recognize a No. 1 team every season. Somebody like Casper Whitney in Harper's Weekly or J. Parmly Paret in Outing looked at the records of Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Penn, quickly deciphered which one had out-groped Columbia Law School by the biggest margin, and boldly proclaimed them the mythical national champion. Nobody argued about it, preoccupied as most people were with striking for an eight-hour work day and wondering where Khartoum was. Nobody even cared. You told a man that your school was No. 1 some 80 years ago and all he said was, "That's swell but, excuse me, I got to go invent the airplane."
Things have changed a lot since then, of course. Players can now run faster than a coach going to pick up a new set of tires from a friendly booster. Uniforms are sleek and handsome when the socks stay up. A vast number of teams have discovered the forward pass. And absolutely nothing can get the college enthusiast as outrageously excited as a debate over who should be No. 1.
Last season, for example, there was blood spilled all over South Bend, Ind., East Lansing, Mich. and Tuscaloosa, Ala., as the decisions were about to be made by all the people who currently chose national champions—everyone, it seems, from the AP to Sara Lee. Notre Dame and Michigan State played a 10-10 tie before millions on television, knocking each other out of perfect records. Then millions more watched as Alabama whomped Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl and finished with the only spotless record in the country. But when the final selections were made it was Notre Dame by the length of Ara Parseghian's name. Five of the seven best-known award-givers—AP, UPI, the Football Writers, Dick Dunkel and Frank Litkenhous—liked the Irish despite their cozy tie with Michigan State. The other two, the Hall of Fame and the Helms Athletic Foundation, settled on a tie of their own between Notre Dame and the Spartans. And the loyal friends of Alabama had to be content to put license plates on their cars that said, TO HELL WITH AP AND UPI, ALABAMA IS STILL NO. 1.
Precisely because of all this commotion about the magic of being No. 1—it suggests to fans that their boys are tougher, psychologists say—a season has never come along packed with as much collegiate interest as this one of 1967.
What last year's tie between the Irish and the Spartans did was finally bring it out in the open—winning a national title is a goal that ranks with world peace. For years before last November almost all coaches had a way of dancing around the subject. They would say such things as 1) "We've got our conference race to worry about," 2) "We've got our traditional rivals to think about," 3) "We haven't had a punt blocked since I've been here," 4) "We may not win many games, but we'll hit people," and 5) "Aw, those polls are just a little something for the fans."
It was not so much the fact that Notre Dame and Michigan State tied that did it, but the way the game ended. Notre Dame refused to gamble with passes—as Michigan State had—on its last series of downs, ending the "game of the decade" awkwardly and emptily. Ara Parseghian hasn't yet recovered fully from the criticism he received for his strategy, but at least he now admits that Notre Dame's immense popularity in the polls partly affected his decision.
The teams were hardly off the field before the hundreds of journalists in the press box at East Lansing thought of the same joke: tie one for the Gipper. A day later both Ara and Duffy Daugherty were publicly trying to shove their teams into No. 1—and so was Alabama's Bear Bryant.
Ara said that when you're No. 1 and you only get tied, you can't lose it. Duffy said that when you're No. 2 and you tie No. 1, then you become No. 1 and the other guy becomes No. la. Bryant said he just hoped that if his Alabama seniors got drafted and had to go to Vietnam they wouldn't play for a tie. Later, however, Bryant made the truest observation of all. "Ara had the last laugh, because he wound up with most of the awards," said Bear. "Playing that old tie must have been smart."
One thing the big controversy of last year has done is make coaches speak openly for the first time about the rating systems they used to pretend to ignore and about the mythical national championship they would slug a chancellor to win.
Parseghian says frankly, "Polls are vitally necessary to college football. I like the interest and excitement they create on our squad, on the campus and in the cities. We always look forward to the weekly ratings on Tuesdays. And the polls aren't that bad. Regardless of which system it is, they usually vary only slightly, because there is a natural exchange of opinion between coaches and writers."
Bear Bryant is wholly honest about it now. He once told a friend that one reason he left Texas A&M for Alabama was that it would be easier to win a national championship at Alabama, "where a man can have the whole state going for him, all those doctors and lawyers helpin' out with recruiting."
"Any year Alabama's not up there righting for first," says Bryant, thereby revealing exactly what the ratings mean to him, "I have done a poor job."
A few coaches have minor complaints about the stampede for No. 1, even though they admit that's the real objective now in college football.
"I would like to believe the polls are very accurate, because we finished first in all of them in 1963," says Texas' Darrell Royal. "But another impression I have is that no one in the Southwest stands a chance at the national championship unless Notre Dame and everyone in the Big Ten have been beaten."
Royal adds, "I think the polls suffer from human failings. People have a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to a team from their own section, or a coach they like. A major weakness is that many so-called pollsters fail to take into consideration the quality of a team's opposition. But we've all become affected by the ratings. I know we might not have gone for two points against Arkansas in 1964 if we hadn't been the national champions. I felt that we ought to defend the title or go down swinging, which we did."
Nebraska Coach Bob Devaney feels much the same as Royal, that the Corn-huskers suffer in the polls against a Notre Dame or Michigan State. "We were rated No. 1 in the preseason polls of 1965, won 10 straight games and wound up third," he says. "It makes you wonder what you have to do."
The best summing-up of the fever that the polls have created comes from USC's John McKay. "All I know is that John McKay reads them, my kids read them and everyone I know reads them, so they must increase the interest in college football," he says.
Polls and systems to determine the No. 1 team are not nearly so ancient as the mere naming of the "intercollegiate champion" by a Casper Whitney or a J. Parmly Paret. Ironically enough, they can be traced back only 40 years, to none other than good old Knute Rockne at good old Notre Dame.
It happened like this. In 1926 a teacher of economics named Frank G. Dickinson at the University of Illinois was a football buff who privately enjoyed rating teams by his own mathematical formula. He happened to mention this in class one day, and a student in the back row who was sports editor of The Daily Mini wrote a story about it. The story came to the attention of a Chicago clothing manufacturer named Jack Rissman, another football buff, who decided he would like to use Dickinson's ratings to select the top team in the Big Ten each year so that he could present a trophy to the winner. When Knute Rockne heard about this, he invited both the professor and the clothing manufacturer to lunch at South Bend and said, "Why don't you make it a national trophy that Notre Dame will have a chance to win?" Never one to miss out on a good thing, Rockne also persuaded Dickinson and Rissman to predate the whole thing a couple of years so that the 1924 Irish—the Four Horsemen team—could be the first official, system-rated national champion. Notre Dame has always had a lot of ways to beat you.
For better or for worse, Dickinson's system was relatively simple. At the end of a season he divided all teams into two categories—those that won more games than they lost, and those that did not. He then awarded points for victories over teams in the first division and fewer points for victories over teams in the second division. Quality of schedule was not a factor but, just as inequitably, the number of games played was, except for bowls. Still, the Dickinson system was accepted by football fans as the law until well into the 1930s. By then a lot of other systems had been originated.
The first followed Dickinson by one year. It was perfected by a man in Los Angeles named Deke Houlgate who would later write a ponderous 9-x-13 work titled The Football Thesaurus. Houlgate bluntly admitted that his rating system, begun in 1927, was designed to counter the "Midwest sectionalism" of Dickinson's.
Next came William F. Boand with a system called "Azzi Ratem" in 1928. His selections were published annually in The Illustrated Football Annual, and, like Dickinson, he predated his choices back to 1924. Curiously, for the 1937 edition of the magazine Boand went back 13 years and "rerated" the top teams, taking bowl results into consideration.
The syndicated experts came on the scene in 1929 with the emergence of Dick Dunkel's "power index." Paul Williamson, a geologist by profession and a member of the Sugar Bowl committee, began his widely accepted "power ratings" in 1932. And Frank Litkenhous and his brother Edward started his "difference-by-score" formula in 1934. Aside from their not overly revealing names, the details of how these systems work have been kept a close secret by the various inventors.
Perhaps a bit irritated by the flood of experts on the scene, the most noted historian football has ever known, Parke H. Davis, decided to set all the records straight in the 1933 edition of Spalding's Football Guide. A member of Princeton's tug-of-war team in 1889, a former coach at Wisconsin, Amherst and Lafayette and then a lawyer, Davis went all the way back to the first inflated pig bladder to pick the national champions for every season. He used no special formula. He simply looked at the schedules and the results and chose his teams.
And now it was time for the popularity polls to begin. The first of these was that of the Associated Press, which started in midseason of 1936. Under the present AP system, 59 sportswriters and sports-casters from around the nation whose organizations subscribe to AP are asked to vote on their top 10 teams each week. Through skillful promotion the AP has managed to have its poll generally regarded as the most reliable of all. Of course, it is no more reliable than the insular tendencies of the writers and announcers involved.
The United Press International poll of 35 college coaches began in 1950, and it is becoming more respected with the years. However, a lot of coaches admit that they vote for forthcoming opponents and for teams from their own area.
In between the two wire-service polls, in 1948, the Helms Athletic Foundation decided to name a national champion. It also chose to pore back through the years, as Parke H. Davis had done, and name past champions. The director of Helms since its beginning, Bill Schroeder, did the work, and he now heads the committee that selects No. 1 after the bowl games. "A committee of one—me," he says.
Because of their discontent with all polls, especially those of the wire services, the Football Writers Association of America set about naming the national champion in 1954, also after the bowl games. Feeling that a mere vote by the 1,200 members would not be fair because one section might be overloaded, a committee of five supposedly unprejudiced writers from different areas is appointed each season, and they decide by secret ballot. With two possible exceptions, Iowa in 1958 and Ohio State in 1961, the Football Writers appear to be doing the best job.
The most recent award-giver is the National Hall of Fame, which pitched its MacArthur Bowl into the pot in 1959. It also picks the national champion by committee. Although the results so far do not reflect it, the committee is Eastern oriented, and it has the extra pressure of having to stage a formal dinner in New York City each year at which the coach of its No. 1 team is a feature attraction. Who is free for dinner might have a bearing on the voting someday.
Of all the No. 1 awards currently in existence, the three that are most eagerly sought—and all about equally—are those of the Football Writers, the UPI and the AP. But no coach or school would turn down any of the others. As Bear Bryant has said, "We'll take what they'll give us, and our folks will act like we got 'em all."
Few teams have ever taken them all. In the 41 seasons that have passed since Frank Dickinson's hobby started the epidemic of ratings, an absurd total of 104 teams have been acclaimed as national champions by one authority or another. That, of course, is a lot more than the world has needed, or could have had if the sport had ever grown serious about a national playoff, something that almost everyone seems to want except the chemistry professors.
Only seven teams have been unanimous choices over the years. They range from Notre Dame's wartime powerhouse of 1943, which lost only on the last play of its last game to Great Lakes, to the 1963 Texas Longhorns, an unbeaten jewel of a defensive team.
Often the national champions have piled up like a goal-line stand, a recent occasion being 1964 when Arkansas, Notre Dame, Alabama and Michigan all wound up with awards. No less than six times, in fact, four teams have been judged as No. 1 at the end of a season. And in 14 different years there have been three teams celebrated as the best.
The season of 1967 has a good chance of being just such a year. All across the southern part of the country there appears to be talent as never before. For example, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Miami all have a chance to be as good, or perhaps even better, than Alabama, which means that they have a serious shot at No. 1.
The same is true in the Big Eight, where Colorado and perhaps even Oklahoma may have finally caught up with Nebraska. And also in the Far West, where Washington is coming back to challenge USC and UCLA, which still has Gary Beban, the country's best quarterback of the last two years. And again in the Big Ten, where Michigan State will have all it can handle against Purdue, Ohio State and maybe Minnesota.
But no team has as much expected of it as Notre Dame. Look at the Irish this way. They are so loaded again that Defensive Coach John Ray refused two offers of jobs as head coach at other big schools in order to stay with Parseghian, which makes you wonder how many championship wristwatches a man thinks he needs.
The Irish are the favorite to be No. 1 again, and that brings the whole rating game right back to where it was on that day in 1926 when Knute Rockne sat down to lunch and won Notre Dame its first national championship award.