The Auburn University Athletic Department recently modified the content on its website for the football program to include a reference to the fact that the 1913, 1983, and 1993 teams have each been named a national champion by NCAA-recognized national championship selectors. When the change was identified by someone, it apparently caused a stir with persons who were indignant that Auburn should have the gall to claim national championships based on the same standards used by other football programs nationally, including in the SEC. Of course, while Auburn may decide to claim additional national titles, it had not done so at that time, but had just more prominently featured information about those three teams that had long been noted in Auburn’s football media guides. The web site for the University of Georgia’s football program does much the same regarding several of its teams.
However, none of that prevented fans and sports media personalities from offering fast-paced put-downs in response via twitter commentary. I offer the following tweets from USA Today writer Dan Wolken, a Vanderbilt graduate, who sought to especially debunk any Auburn claim to a national championship for the 1993 season. His tweets were not anything remarkable, but because they are representative of the types of comments made by hand-wringing media persons, they are worth discussing.
While it is true that the NCAA doesn’t award national championships in what was once called Division I college football, that is the problem. Since 1926 there have been many entities, often called “selectors” that name national champions (both contemporaneously and retroactively), and in many years, if not most, more than one team has been awarded that title. The Official Record Book of the NCAA lists a large number of selectors that it has found credible and provides the teams those selectors have named as national champions. Thus, while the NCAA has not itself awarded any team the title of national champion, it has recognized Auburn as a national champion for 1993, 1983, and 1913, in addition to the national championships claimed by Auburn for 1957 and 2010.
The standard of an NCAA-recognized national championship is the standard used by most universities to claim national championships, whether it be the 15 claimed by the University of Alabama or the 3 claimed by Texas A&M University. If other universities used the same overly strict standard of counting just A.P. Poll/Coaches Poll/BCS currently used by Auburn’s Athletic Department then Alabama would claim 10 instead of 15, the University of Michigan could claim just 2 instead of 11, the University of Pittsburgh could claim just 2 instead of 9, Ohio State University could claim just 5 instead of 7, the University of Tennessee could claim just 2 instead of 6, and the University of Mississippi could claim none, but claims 3 national championships. So when Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs has talked about Auburn possibly beginning to count national championships in the same manner as peer institutions, he is correct that to this time Auburn has used a different standard. A stricter standard. And that is the point of my book.
Mr. Wolken apparently took great umbrage in particular at the possibility of Auburn claiming a national championship for the 1993 season. He stated in colorful terms that he didn’t believe the National Championship Foundation — the selector that named Auburn a national champion for the 1993 season — had any credibility.
For those unfamiliar with the “Human Fund,” it is a make-believe charity invented by the character George Costanza in the popular television comedy series “Seinfeld.” Instead of giving gifts, George would give persons a card stating that a donation had been made in their name to the Human Fund. George would then spend the money on himself. In Seinfeld, hilarity ensued following George’s creation of the Human Fund, and through his attempting-to-be-clever tweet, Mr. Wolken sought by comparison to ridicule any claim to a national championship based on an award of the National Championship Foundation.
However, perhaps it is Dan Wolken and others who would attack the NCF that actually lack credibility. After all, a fictitious or shoddy organization is not going to pass muster and become an NCAA-recognized national championship selector listed in the Official NCAA Records Book. Moreover, if Mr. Wolken had actually contacted the NCAA or undertaken a bit of the research he described in his tweet he would have discovered that the NCF was actually a substantial organization that contemporaneously named Auburn a national champion for the 1993 football season and that Auburn has been recognized as such by the NCAA since that time.
The National Championship Foundation was created in 1980 for the sole purpose of addressing the historical controversy of college football’s national champions. During its existence the NCF established a 13 member panel that investigated past seasons and retroactively named national champions for the years 1869 through 1979. It then contemporaneously named college football national champions from 1980 through the year 2001. In his 2007 book, “Who’s # 1,” Christopher Walsh describes the NCF as having “more than 120 chapters in 47 states, with a membership base of more than 12,000.”
I don’t know about Mr. Wolken or other sportswriters and media personalities, but to me that sounds like the NCF was a substantial organization worthy of some respect. It certainly has been shown respect by the NCAA by its inclusion on the list of national championship selectors. Perhaps he is simply upset at the idea of the sports media not being able to control who is named a national champion or what selectors a university football program may deem credible. Perhaps he feels particularly qualified to judge which teams are and which teams are not able to wear the title of national champion for seasons in the past. Perhaps he simply wants Auburn to continue undervaluing its championship heritage. You can decide Mr. Wolken’s motivation for yourself.
It’s notable that Mr. Wolken additionally advances the specious argument that Auburn was ineligible to be awarded a national championship in 1993.
Of course, it is true that Auburn was on NCAA probation in 1993 and received a bowl ban based on violations deemed to have been committed by the prior coaching staff. But it simply not true that Auburn was “ineligible” for a national championship. Auburn was eligible and was indeed voted number one by several voters in the Associated Press’s final poll for the 1993 season. In fact, of all the national championship selectors recognized by the NCAA, only the “Coaches Poll” has ever excluded consideration of teams on NCAA probation. Moreover, teams on NCAA probation have been awarded a national championship as recently as the University of Alabama in 2009. Even during the pre-BCS “bowl era,” a bowl ban did not disqualify a team from being awarded a national championship, as evidenced, for example, by the University Oklahoma’s consensus national championship in 1974.
If Mr. Wolken still believes it inappropriate that Auburn should recognize that its undefeated 11-0 football team was named a national champion by a single selector in 1993, perhaps he should express similar indignance and toward the national championships claimed by the University of Alabama for its 9-2 team in 1941 (Houlgate System), which Alabama formally claimed in 1986, and by the University of Tennesee for its 9-2 team in 1967 (Litkenhous Ratings), and others as well. However, I’m not going to bother to hold my breath waiting for that USA Today news expose.
In the meantime, I’m proud to say that Auburn’s undefeated football team, which beat two top 10-rated teams (including the defending 1992 national champion) was named a national champion for 1993 by the NCF. Perhaps Mr. Wolken, who appears to have still been in grade school that year, fails to remember the 1993 season. But the resume of the 1993 Auburn team exceeds that of several past teams well accepted as national champions, such as Brigham Young University in 1984, the University of Pittsburgh in 1976, the University of Oklahoma in 1974, Ohio State University in 1961, and Louisiana State University in 1958. Moreover, the 1993 Auburn team did not go undefeated as a fluke. The team was filled with star players who would go on to very lengthy NFL careers, such as offensive linemen Wayne Gandy, Willie Anderson, and Anthony Redmon; running backs Tony Richardson and Stephen Davis, receiver Frank Sanders, and defensive linemen Willie Whitehead and Gary Walker, as well as other key players who were drafted by NFL teams.
There is simply nothing inappropriate about Auburn University recognizing that its football team was a named a national champion by the NCF in 1993, and it’s the right thing to do. I believe Auburn’s Athletic Department should claim that championship and the other national championship seasons described in the “Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championships” book. Mr. Wolken, like everyone else, is welcome to have a different opinion. But let’s make sure that differing opinions are based upon the facts and that the manner in which other universities treat NCAA-recognized national championships is acknowledged. Expressing instantaneous opinions on twitter or talk radio without sufficient investigation just to attract attention or gain internet page hits at the expense of Auburn University and fans of its football program doesn’t speak well of the professionalism of sports journalism.
In the end, the facts of this “controversy” are this: credible, independent national championship selectors have named Auburn’s 1913, 1983, and 1993 football teams as a national champion for those seasons and those championships are recognized by the NCAA, college football’s governing body. Auburn University has acknowledged such on its website for the football program and may take the position of asserting that those are indeed national championship teams. Faux outrage from fans of other schools and certain sports media persons that will last mere weeks at most — such as that briefly expressed two weeks ago — shouldn’t prevent the Auburn Athletic Department from also recognizing and fully celebrating such accomplishments, as have other college football programs, both nationally and in the SEC. The coaches and players of those Auburn teams who worked so hard and reached such great success on the gridiron deserve as much.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of Michael Skotnicki, individually, and do not necessarily represent or reflect those of Auburn University or its Athletic Department.