Is it 17, 12, 7 or none?
The question of how many national championships the University of Alabama football team has won over its 117-year history, as cut-and-dry as it may seem, has baffled fans and experts alike for generations. The debate has undoubtedly sparked innumerable bar fights and other domestic disturbances over the past several decades.
Before I attempt an answer – and I must say that now I’m sailing into dangerous waters with this column – we must examine why such a simple query is turning up so many different results.
First, realize that the NCAA is a voluntary organization that oversees and regulates collegiate athletics at nearly every college and university in the nation. For all the minutiae that the organization handles day-to-day, one thing the NCAA does not do is crown its own Division 1-A football champions – in other words, there’s no NCAA-sponsored postseason tournament or playoff. Instead, they allow independent bodies to carry out that task.
Second, those independent bodies – recognized by the NCAA as “major selectors” – choose their champion at the end of a season based either on poll data, mathematical formulas or other research results. Currently, there are 17 such selectors:
Anderson & Hester, Associated Press, Berryman, Billingsley Report, Congrove Computer Rankings, Colley Matrix, Dunkel System, Football Writers Association of America, Massey College Football Ratings, Matthews Grid Ratings, National Football Foundation, Rothman, Sagarin Ratings, Sporting News, USA Today, Wolfe and, of course, the Bowl Championship Series.
In the past, 22 additional selectors have chosen champions dating back to 1869 but, for some reason or another, are not currently in operation:
Alderson System, Boand System, Casper Whitney, College Football Researchers Association, DeVold System, Dickinson System, Eck Ratings System, Football News, Helms Athletic Foundation, Houlgate System, International News Service, Litkenhous, National Championship Foundation, New York Times, Parke Davis, Poling System, United Press International, UPI/National Football Foundation, USA Today/CNN, USA Today/ESPN, USA Today/National Football Foundation and Williamson System.
This means that at any given time, anywhere from 10 to 15 or more entities were crowning champions each year. As a consequence, it was rare for all of the selectors to unanimously choose a champion in a particular year. How rare? From 1900 through 2006, only 14 teams won unanimous titles.
To make matters even more confusing, some of the selectors awarded their national championship to teams prior to the postseason bowl games. Others, such as Parke Davis, awarded national championships retroactively in 1933 to teams that played between 1869 and 1932, based on historical research.
So, with that in mind, let’s comb the NCAA archives to determine how many times selectors have chosen Alabama as a national champion (Note: some of the selectors listed by the official NCAA records (below) are not “major selectors”. We’ll sort that out later):
1992: AP, Berryman, Billingsley, DeVold, Dunkel, Eck, FACT, FB News, Football Research, FW, Matthews, National Championship Foundation, NY Times, Sporting News, UPI/NFF, USA/CNN (Note: Florida St. was crowned by one selector)
1979: AP, Berryman, Billingsley, DeVold, Dunkel, FACT, FB News, FW, Helms, Matthews, National Championship Foundation, NFF, NY Times, Poling, Sagarin, Sporting News, UPI (Note: USC was crowned by one selector)
1978: AP, FACT, Football Research, FW, Helms, National Championship Foundation, NFF (Note: Oklahoma was crowned by nine selectors, USC by seven)
1977: Football Research (Note: Arkansas was crowned by one selector, Notre Dame by 16 and Texas by two)
1975: Matthews (Note: Arizona State was crowned by two selectors, Ohio State by five and Oklahoma by 13)
1973: Berryman, UPI (Note: Michigan was chosen by two selectors, Notre Dame by six, Ohio State by three and Oklahoma by five)
1966: Berryman (Note: Michigan State was chosen by four selectors, Notre Dame by 14)
1965: AP, Billingsley, Football Research, FW, National Championship Foundation (Note: Michigan State was crowned by 11 selectors)
1964: AP, Berryman, Litkenhous, UPI (Note: Arkansas was chosen by six selectors, Michigan by one)
1962: Billingsley (Note: LSU and Mississippi were chosen by one selector each, USC by 14)
1961: AP, Berryman, Billingsley, DeVold, Dunkel, FB News, Football Research, Helms, Litkenhous, National Championship Foundation, NFF, Sagarin, UPI, Williamson (Note: Ohio State was chosen by two selectors)
1945: National Championship Foundation (Note: Army was crowned by 14 selectors)
1941: Houlgate (Note: Minnesota was chosen by 10 selectors, Texas by two)
1934: Dunkel, Houlgate, Poling, Williamson (Note: Minnesota was chosen by seven selectors)
1930: Football Research, Parke Davis (Note: Notre Dame was chosen by nine selectors)
1926: Billingsley, Football Research, Helms, National Championship Foundation, Poling (Note: Lafayette was chosen by one selector, Navy by two and Stanford by three)
1925: Billingsley, Boand, Football Research, Helms, Houlgate, National Championship Foundation, Poling (Note: Dartmouth was chosen by two selectors)
That makes 17 national championships officially credited to Alabama by NCAA-approved selectors. Most hardcore Alabama fans will stop reading right here.
Should you wish to begin eliminating titles, start with the 1977 crown awarded by Football Research, which is not recognized as a “major selector.” The 1977 Tide finished the season 11-1 with an SEC title, but Notre Dame (who also finished 11-1) beat the No. 1 ranked team in the nation (Texas) in the Cotton Bowl.
So now, Alabama has 16 factually legitimate national championships from major selectors. But we can still whittle the total down.
Be it known that the University of Alabama itself only recognizes 12 official national championships: 1925, 1926, 1930, 1934, 1941, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979 and 1992.
That leaves out the 1966 team (which finished 11-0 and was selected by Berryman), the 1945 team (10-0 and co-selected with Army by National Championship Foundation), the 1962 team (10-1 and selected by Billingsley), the 1975 team (11-1 and co-selected with Ohio State by Matthews) and the aforementioned 1977 team.
Of the “Other Five”, as the University refers to them, only the 1966 team is seriously considered a top contender to be the Tide’s 13th national champion.
Of course, the 12 official championships are not without controversy, either. The 1978 team finished in a three-way tie at 11-1 with USC and Oklahoma. Somehow, all three teams won their bowl games, but none of the bowls pitted any of the three teams against each other.
The 1973 Tide lost to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, yet somehow ended up splitting the title with the Irish anyway.
The 1965 team finished the season with a 9-1-1 record, capturing many selectors by default after No. 1 Michigan State, No. 2 Arkansas and No. 3 Nebraska all lost in postseason action. Alabama, ranked No. 4 at the time, upset Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
The 1964 team claimed four selectors after posting a 10-1-0 record. However, Arkansas was also crowned by four major selectors and finished the year undefeated. The Tide lost to Texas in their bowl game that season after many of the selectors had awarded their trophies prior to postseason play.
And in 1941 Alabama finished 9-2 under Frank Thomas, but somehow claimed a major selector’s title despite Minnesota’s 8-0 final record.
If those five iffy national championships are taken away from the bottom line, that leaves Alabama with seven titles. Seven is the number recognized by many major national media outlets, including ESPN.
Of course, there are a few radicals out there who claim that the NCAA system is so fraught with inaccuracy and inconsistency that none of the championships, especially those awarded prior to the BCS era in 1998, can be considered legitimate. That would leave Alabama, one of the most historically significant sports programs in our nation’s history, without a national championship to its credit.
Now, I won’t go so far as to stand behind that theory. But this idea of the NCAA acting as a failed state is intriguing when answering a question as loaded as “How many titles does Alabama legitimately hold?”
Fans scoff at the idea of Bama’s 17 national championships, arguing that many of them were awarded arbitrarily. Modern-day fans laugh aloud when told that lowly Princeton, not Alabama or Notre Dame, actually holds the record for most football national championships (28 from major selectors). But if we hold the old way of doing things in such low regard – non-NCAA entities arbitrarily awarding championships to teams based on factors that have little to do with what happens on the field of play – what are we to make of the current BCS system?
In 50 years, will we look back and wonder why that Boise State team in 2006 wasn’t awarded a national championship? What about Utah in 2008? What about Auburn in 2004? Are we not still using archaic and arbitrary means to decide our major college football champions?
So to answer the question: Alabama has 17 national championships. Princeton has 28. Auburn has four. As long this sport is governed by a subjective championship system, its fans have a right to be equally subjective.