College Football: How Many Championships Does Alabama (or Anyone) Really Have?

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College Football: How Many Championships Does Alabama (or Anyone) Really Have?
Alabama's championship celebration in Bryant-Denny on January 16, 2010

That is a question with no easy answer. But let’s try to put this issue to bed once and for all—please.

How many football championships does Alabama have? If you ask an Alabama fan, most would give you an emphatic answer—13. Some fans would even say 17. If you ask fans of other schools, you’d get an answer of every number there is less than 13. 

So who is right? Well, the right answer is in the eye of the beholder, because in the history of the game there has never been a legitimate playoff to determine a champion like in other collegiate sports.

Historically, the championships most often cited and recognized are bestowed by various notable “selectors,” which include media organizations, coaches' federations or a combination of both. Additionally, though, championships are bestowed by non-notable independent analysts and some Johnny-come-latelys with their own skewed criteria. 

Given the ease in disseminating information these days, one can easily find a desired (or maximized) number of championships for many schools. So where can we turn for some sense of fairness in assessing championships? 

Even though the NCAA does not technically endorse an annual champion, it does document championships bestowed by many selectors in its Official NCAA Division I Football Records Book. One may quibble with the selectors listed in the publication, but these are the ones the NCAA deemed most reputable and worthy of inclusion.        

If you want to see the publication for yourself, here it is—just a click away. Pages 68-73 list the annual champions by selector.

At present the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) is the most coveted championship to attain. But it’s not the only one with prominence. 

The championship bestowed by the Associated Press (AP) arguably means just as much as the BCS. Just ask Southern California fans in 2003 or Michigan fans in 1997. The AP championship has a long and illustrious history, extending back to 1936.

Prior to the BCS, and with a similar stature to AP, the United Press International (UPI) championship was considered legitimate in every corner of the country and within the sport.

The controversy begins when you start incorporating additional selectors, many of which bestowed championships long after the fact.

But from an argument standpoint, my claim is if it was deemed worthy for inclusion in the Official NCAA Division I Football Records Book, then who am I to question it? Who out there reading this can say for certain that Team X, who was declared champion by Houlgate, is the undisputed titleholder over Team Y, who was declared champion by the AP, or vice versa?

Okay, I’m putting my Joe Friday hat back on. Here are the facts, ma’am. If you count up every listing for each school in the Official NCAA Division I Football Records Book, here are your top 30 championship schools:

How many championships do you think Alabama can legitimately claim?

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1. Princeton (28); 2. Yale (26); 3. Notre Dame (21); 4. Southern California (18); 5. Alabama, Oklahoma (17); 7. Michigan (16); 8. Ohio State (15); 9. Harvard (12); 10. Nebraska, Pittsburgh (11); 12. Miami, Texas (9); 14. Florida State, LSU, Minnesota, Penn State, Tennessee (7); 19. Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Penn (6); 22. Army, Auburn, California, Cornell, Florida, Georgia, Illinois (5); 29. Iowa, Washington (4). 

In all, 57 different schools are mentioned.  

Okay, so Alabama has 17 and claims 13. For the record, Alabama claims 1925, 1926, 1930, 1934, 1941, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1992 and 2009 but was also deemed champion by selectors in 1945, 1966, 1975 and 1977. 

Generally, Alabama detractors don’t recognize ANY of the pre-1961 championships because they are not AP, UPI, Bowl Coalition or BCS selectors. So how do other schools handle this issue of which championships to claim? Let’s look at those that can claim the most (not including the Ivy League schools).

First up is Notre Dame. Here is a quote from page 177 in the Notre Dame 2010 Football Media Guide:

“Notre Dame generally is considered to have earned 11 consensus national titles (1924-29-30-43-46-47-49-66-73-77-88). But there have been 21 seasons in which Notre Dame has qualified as a national champion from at least one legitimate poll...”

Okay, now let’s look at Southern California. Again, here is a quote from the USC 2010 Football Media Guide from page 116:

“Here is a list of USC’s college football championships as selected by every recognized authority. USC is considered to have won 11 national championships (1928-31-32-39-62-67-72-74-78-2003-04). There were seven other years (1929-33-76-79-2002-05-07) in which the Trojans were named a national champion by at least one legitimate poll.” 

What about Oklahoma? Oklahoma claims seven titles (1950, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1975, 1985 and 2000). Below is a quote from their football web page:

“Various organizations have named National Champions in college football since 1869. Utilizing the selectors as recognized by the NCAA, Oklahoma has been recognized for 16 different seasons: 2003, 2000, 1986, 1985, 1980, 1978, 1975, 1974, 1973, 1967, 1957, 1956, 1955, 1953, 1950 and 1949.”

Lastly, Michigan claims 11 titles: 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1918, 1923, 1932, 1933, 1947, 1948 and 1997. I could not find a football media guide on the athletics website, so I don’t know if they expand upon any potential additional championships.

Notice any overlap? Notre Dame and Michigan claim 1947. Oklahoma and Southern California claim 1974. Michigan and Southern California claim 1932.

The evidence from Notre Dame, Southern California and Oklahoma is clear and overwhelming. Did you spot the code words in those school’s write-ups? Oklahoma said “the selectors as RECOGNIZED by the NCAA,” while Notre Dame and Southern California both referred to a “LEGITIMATE POLL.”        

It seems that many schools, not just Alabama, lend credibility to ALL selectors listed in the Official NCAA Division I Football Records Book and claim titles from selectors that Alabama detractors nitpick about. If the Alabama haters had their methodological way, schools like Michigan and Notre Dame would see their list of titles reduced drastically.

Here is the bigger question than answering how many championships a school has—in the end, does it really matter if Alabama claims 17 versus 13, or if Michigan has 16 versus 11, or USC has 18 versus 11, or Notre Dame has 21 versus 11?

It was rumored that Southern California started claiming an additional championship after 2004 to bolster its tally. I am not sure if that happened, but even if it did, is that ethical, immoral or (again) does it really matter? 

I say, no, it doesn’t matter. As far as I’m concerned, if a championship is listed in the NCAA records book, it is the school’s prerogative to claim it or not claim it.

Alabama chooses to claim 13, not just the seven AP titles that most detractors say it has, or eight, which includes a UPI, or all 17. Kudos to Alabama for being selective among the selectors—so to speak. 

And for people who have a problem with Alabama claiming 13 championships—there are two ways you can approach it. 

First, the U.S. Postal Service has a slogan: “If it fits, it ships.” If a championship is listed in the NCAA records book for your school, count it. Second, if after counting all of those listings you’re still not happy, then how’s this for a novel concept—have your favorite team start winning more games.

Let me end with this tidbit of information for those that believe Alabama claims titles willy-nilly. Notre Dame won the national title in 1966, in part to the infamous “play for the tie” game against Michigan State, finishing 9-0-1. 1966 is known as the year of “The Missing Ring” among Alabama faithful. While two selectors have the Tide champs in the NCAA records book, Alabama does not claim it. 

Alabama finished the 1966 season undefeated at 11-0, trounced No. 6 Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl 34-7 and remarkably gave up only 44 points all season with six shutouts. Alabama finished third in the polls, arguably as a backlash for the team still being segregated and the civil rights strife in the state at that time.

Football legend Vince Lombardi was asked what it felt like to be the greatest football team in the world just after winning Super Bowl I in January 1967. He said, "I don't know, we haven't played Alabama yet." 

This, my friends, is put to bed.

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