Thank you for the question. It is a great one, but one that is incredibly difficult to find some meaning within due to a multitude of reasons.
Note: I’m only going to focus on football at the moment. I’ll tackle the basketball half of your question this spring.
The first thing that is hard to compare with college football is that the way we’ve crowned champions over the past one hundred plus years is a convoluted mismatch of bad ideas and strategies. The reason why the post season exists as it does today is because what controls college football isn’t the NCAA, it is the post season bowl process. What started decades ago as a way to generate travel money in the winter months now feeds a vast tourism empire.
This approach, along with the beginnings of the sport being a regional fracture of fiefdoms who followed their own football, as opposed to national match ups like today, caused the control of national championships to be crowned by whomever had a pulpit to use to do so. Ever wonder why Alabama claims fifteen championships or USC claims eleven or Princeton claims twenty eight? It is because numerous “systems” crowned champs to sell papers.
To make matters worse, a lot of these systems went back in time to provide retroactive championships. In 1869, Princeton and Rutgers share the first “claimed” national title, both with a 1-1 record (seriously) because Parke H. Davis, a college football historian, used research in 1933 to go back and award championships from 1869 until 1933, when he named Michigan and Princeton and co-champions.
Co-champions. That brings up another point. Many of the championships prior to the 70s were awarded by polls, like the AP or Coaches, prior to the bowl games. The post season used to be seen as exhibition, so you really could have a team win the national title and lose a bowl game. The AP continued this process until 1968 and the Coaches stopped in 1973.
Even with the polls starting to consolidate the power of naming champions in the 60s and 70s they didn’t always agree, causing there to be multiple champions in any given year. In 1991, for instance, the AP championship went to Miami (FL), while the Coaches went to Washington, both were undefeated at the time.
Due to this dreadfully unreliable and unmanaged system, in 145 years of football championships, there are 356 claimed national titles, or basically 2.5 awarded per year.
This practice didn’t really stop until the new playoff system began. As lately as 2012, Alabama was awarded the championship from about everyone when they beat Notre Dame in the last BCS championship. However, the Colley Matrix saw fit to still award Notre Dame their trophy that year. Technically the Irish could claim it if they wanted. Thankfully, they aren’t in the SEC, where that practice runs rampant.
Now, that being said, you’re still looking for an answer that dates back 50 years. To do it I’ve decided to focus on three main championship awarding bodies. First is the playoff system because it is so far and away superior to any process in the 143 years prior it isn’t even funny. The second is the BCS champion. While not perfect, it still tried to match up the top two teams to be decided on the field. And, lastly, I used the AP poll because I trust the writers more than I trust the process the Coaches used, but I hate them both. In my mind, football should be decided on the field. Period.
So, with those three systems identified, below are all of the champions we’ve had in that era, e.g. 1936 until today.
The first thing that jumps out is that Alabama, Notre Dame and Oklahoma are the greatest of the champions, by a large margin. Those three teams account for a third of all the championships since 1936. Those three teams also average a championship every 8.1 years over that time, with Alabama dropping their average to every six years with their current run.
Only a third of the teams have won a single championship. Of that group, the last to do so was Colorado; 25 years ago. Additionally, the only teams to average less than that 8.1 years between championships are Miami, Florida, and Florida State. While Miami came on in the 80s, Florida State and Florida didn’t win their first title until the 90s. The trio combined for an additional seven titles since. This is likely due to the perfect storm of talent, coaching, and interest lining up. Alabama, Oklahoma and Notre Dame have had success with multiple coaches, but Penn State, for instance, had their two titles over a four year stretch of the 80s with Paterno at the helm.
What we don’t see with this, however, is any sort of visible pattern of how long it takes someone to win their first. Most programs were playing long before the Polling Era began in 1936, so everyone looks like they needed at least 40 years to gain a title. The Florida schools are probably the only ones to give us a standard read and the Gators needed 90 years to win their first.
I mentioned earlier that the top three programs make up one third of all of the championships in this time, but programs who have won at least three have won three fourths of all of the championships since 1936.
Twelve schools dominate the championships and, if you look back at the last 20 teams to win a title, none of the schools have won only one. As the saying goes, it is always easier to make your second million, than your first.
But, again, there really isn’t anything in the numbers stating due to a team playing for X number of years they had a greater or lesser chance of competing for a title. However, with 12 teams dominating all of the football championships since 1936, something has to be a factor. If it isn’t time played, what could it be?
I looked at several factors to find a correlation between these teams from market to recruiting to system and nothing really stood out. If it was only market that mattered, USC would probably have a lot more titles than they do. Additionally, while recruiting does matter, many teams with heavily rated recruiting classes fail to win or even compete for championships. (Likely due to the fact that recruiting rankings, like the polls we discussed earlier, are less about being accurate and more about selling paper. However, that’s an article for another time.)
When looking at schools that have won titles in the last twenty years, the major connection they all have that stands out is money.
Not so much how much they’ve made within the sport, which is sizable. It is more how much they spend on the sport. The chart to the right details the amount of money spent by each school last year as they prepared for this year’s football schedule.
All of the teams who won championships in the last 20 years spent an average of $31.7 million on football alone within their athletic department. That’s more than the majority of the schools in the FBS make in total revenue for their entire athletic departments. Not surprisingly, the four teams that made it into the College Football Playoffs this year (Clemson and Michigan State, who have not won a title in the past 20 years are in blue) averaged $33.3 million of spend on their football programs.
Alabama, who has won three titles since 2009, spent $51 million on football last year. That is an amazing amount of investment in a sport, it is more than the Mountain West Conference schools average in total athletic department revenue, but obviously that investment is paying off for the Tide. The lowest spending champion of the past 20 years is Tennessee, who hasn’t sniffed a title in a long while, but they still spent $24.5 million in football in the past year.
To put some of this into perspective, the Power Five’s total expense for football last year was $1,587,253,156, give or take, which works out to be $24.8 million per team on average. This means the four teams that made the playoffs this year spent 34% more than the average team within the Power Five, let alone the FBS as a whole.
I included several other teams within the green on the chart to give you a comparison of other Power Five teams around the geographic footprint of the Big 12 to show how they spend as well. Texas A&M currently stands out as one of the most inefficient spenders, largely due to the giant investment they just made in Kyle Field, but this is an anomaly.
The teams within the Big 12 that have been competing on the national stage, e.g. Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor, are spending at a level that matches the teams who are winning the titles; averaging $30.8 million in spend last year between the three of them. However, the Big 12’s average spend on football is only $23.3 million. Four schools are under $20 million and, if you took out how much Kansas is still paying to fired coaches that would likely be five.
Winning in football today has a lot less to do about when you played or catching lightning in a bottle. Winning at the highest levels, consistently, has to do with how you invest in the sport. Spending a lot, over time, will provide a greater chance of winning titles than hunting for nickels in the athletic department’s sofa. And remember, this spend isn’t just tossing money into projects that don’t provide results. It is investing in facilities, training, recruitment, coaches, travel, marketing, etc. It is doing the things many fans bristle at because, for the bulk of the Power Five, most of these expenses are also line items for where state taxes are spent. Head Football Coaches are generally the highest paid employees in a state. Investing poorly gets everyone fired.
So, Mr. Flowers, if you’re going to ask me what it will take for West Virginia to go from good to great to national title contenders, my answer to you is forget about the past, and start investing in the future. When West Virginia starts spending within the top ten percent of the sport, e.g. doubling its current investment or at least spending the same as Baylor, it will start rivaling the current elite. And this doesn’t mean a one-time shot to the arm via a wealthy donor, this is consistent support at a high level over time. I’ve seen nothing to prove that any of the teams on this championship list just got lucky on a budget.
If you want that, play the lottery.
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