Sunday, December 03, 2006

There Is No Spoon

Florida won the SEC Championship last night, surprising not a few people, including me. I'd figured that Arkansas would trample the Gators flat, but since I've been completely wrong in predicting virtually every major game this year, I guess I should have expected the actual outcome. But good for Florida, they earned it the hard way. They deserved to have a championship this year.

Unfortunately for the Lizard Legions, it'll be the only one they get. Regardless of how the ongoing insanity of the BCS plays out tonight and early next month, Florida will not win a national championship this year. But that's not their fault. You can't "win" something that doesn't actually exist.

I have a very vivid memory of my first encounter with “national championships” in college football. It was early January, in the 1970’s, and my dad and I were watching the evening news. I was probably eight or nine years old.

The sportscaster announced the results of the final Associated Press football poll, and my dad said, “I can’t believe so-and-so won the national championship over such-and-such.” I don’t recall the exact year, or even the teams in question.

“What do you mean, ‘won the national championship?’” I asked. “All they are is number one in the AP poll.”

“That’s the national championship,” Dad replied.

“No it’s not,” I insisted. “It’s just a poll of people who write for newspapers. That doesn’t mean anything.”

Dad never managed to convince me otherwise, and I’ve never had any reason to change my mind since then. To this day, I have to shake my head at Auburn fans in particular who give so much credence to “championships” that are based on nothing more than a popularity contest conducted among a few sportswriters.

I’m well aware that my opinions on this subject are in the minority among football fans, and that includes my fellow Auburn fans. People have been sold for so long on the myth of the poll “championships” that like Frankenstein’s monster, they’ve taken on a life of their own. Some schools I could name place the value of their entire existence on how many times one publication or another has ranked their team at the top of a final season’s poll.

And hey—being ranked number one is a good thing. I’ll be as happy as anybody the next time Auburn ends a season with a number one ranking. It’s good for a program, it impresses impressionable eighteen-year-olds who’re finishing high school, and it gives the t-shirt and bumper-sticker makers lots of new designs to sell.

But that doesn’t turn a number one ranking in a poll into a championship.

Don’t believe me? Go look it up yourself. The NCAA keeps a complete list of all the national championships won by every member school, at every level. Click here, and look up the number of championships won by, say, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Everybody back now? Good.

Now, were you surprised by what you saw there? Were you just a bit nonplussed when you read the following summation of the complete history of Alabama’s actual NCAA championships? For those who were too lazy to click through, here’s the result, from the NCAA’s own official records:

Total NCAA Team Championships: 4
men's championships: 0
women's championships: 4
coed championships: 0

That’s right, kids. UAT can boast four national championships. Not six, or twelve, or fourteen, or any of the other numbers stitched on red polyester between here and Pascagoula. Four. And they’re all in women’s gymnastics. (For those who insist on keeping score, Auburn has won eleven national championships, six of them in men’s swimming, four in women’s swimming and one in women’s track.)

There aren’t any football championships listed for either school for a very good reason: neither team has ever won one. But the Tigers and Tide shouldn’t feel too bad about it, ‘cause neither has anybody else. You can search the official record books until Doomsday if you like, but you won’t turn up a national championship for any team in Division 1-A football.

There are lots for the other divisions, of course, because they all have season-ending playoffs. No wonder you don’t see the actual numbers quoted very often—it’s quite a comedown to realize that Troy State (2) and North Alabama (3) both have more legitimate national championships than either Auburn or Alabama.

“But Will,” you’re spluttering, “of course there’s a national championship. What else do we talk about all the time?”

I’m glad you asked.

What you’re talking about are not championships. They’re awards, and there’s a big difference. Championships are decided by the outcomes of competitive sports. Awards are given out based on subjective criteria, and are inevitably subject to human opinion. Wins and losses—and championships—are not.

Now, awards are wonderful things in and of themselves. There’s nothing wrong with getting an award. We’re mighty proud of all those Heisman Trophies and Lombardi Awards and Outland Trophies down in the Lovelace Museum, and why shouldn’t we be?

In the same vein, they’re mighty proud (to say the least) of all their poll “championship” awards up in Tuscaloosa, and again, why shouldn’t they be? It’s a very nice thing to get an award that says you have the best team in the country, even if it is no more than a representation of a few sportswriters’ and/or coaches’ opinions.

But that’s all the poll “championships” are. That’s all they’ve ever been, and that’s all they ever will be. They have exactly as much credibility as a poll of you and your best football-fan buddies would have--maybe less, since sportswriters, being human beings, are as subject to human frailties like bias and laziness as anybody else, and a coach voting in a secret “championship” poll that includes his own rivals is pretty darn close to the definition of “conflict of interest.”

How much value you should place in a poll “championship” is directly related to how much you value the opinions of sportswriters, or of coaches who’re in competition with your own favorite team. Again, they’re nice things, but all they’ll really tell you is what a small group of people felt like one morning in January. Are you really so willing to rate the success or failure of your team on that criteria? Heck, if we placed all our trust in media polls, we wouldn’t have had an actual election in 2004, and John Kerry would be living in the White House.

Let’s cut to the chase: Florida will not be the national champion this year.

Neither will Michigan, or Boise State (next time you complain about AU or UF getting rooked, just imagine how the Utah and Boise and Tulane fans must feel), or even Ohio State.

There won’t be a national champion in Division 1-A. There never has been a national champion in Division 1-A. There have just been a lot of awards. Nice things to get—but they’re not championships. You can't "win" something that doesn't exist.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Oooppss...wrong again Will